When we begin to explore cultures outside our own, we tend to focus on things like language, foods, and music. But looking at sports can often be another way to gain insight into the politics of nations.
Here in the United States, soccer (aka fútbol or football) has finally gained a following, despite the proliferation of countries where football is the number one sport. Yet when we look at the most popular sports in the world, the second in global popularity is cricket.
Cricket and the Caribbean have a long, and checkered political history—a history that was the subject of an absorbing metaphorical analysis by the brilliant Trinidadian historian, journalist, and leftist activist Cyril Lionel Robert James, whose 1963 book “Beyond A Boundary” (full text) is considered by many critics to be the greatest book on cricket ever written.
James was born in January 1901, and so we celebrate him today as we explore the history and politics of cricket in the Caribbean.
Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.
As Paul Prescod wrote for Jacobin in 2022:
How C. L. R. James Helped End the Racial Hierarchy of West Indies Cricket
Brought to the Caribbean by way of British colonialism, cricket was originally reserved for the leisure of white planters and colonial officials. But slaves were increasingly used to do the hard work of bowling at the sons of slave owners in the hot sun, and the sport soon established deep roots with black West Indians.
The planters and white middle classes formed cricket clubs that lasted after slavery was abolished on the islands. The first intercolonial tournament was held in 1891, between Barbados, Trinidad, and British Guiana. Black West Indians watched with envy from the sidelines. Eventually, black West Indians went on to form cricket clubs of their own that competed every Saturday in club competitions. Participation was initially restricted to the black middle class, but before long, the black working class threw itself into the sport too.
Local club cricket became an arena where various class and racial tensions were played out. As C. L. R. James, himself a participant in club cricket in Trinidad, explained, “Cricket was a field where the social passions of the colonials, suppressed politically, found vigorous if diluted expression. On the cricket field all men, whatever their color or status, were theoretically equal.”
How Beyond a Boundary broke down the barriers of race, class and empire
Fifty years ago my husband’s book on cricket inspired our anti-discrimination struggles – and continues to do so to this day
It was a book CLR had to write. He understood the game, he believed, in ways most experts did not and could not. He considered himself more scrupulous about the game’s technique and how it grappled with team dynamics, skills, players’ concentration and the psychological war between batsman and bowler, batsman and fielders. And he saw the game not only as it was played but as it was lived – and for West Indians that meant first of all a colonial society stratified by race and class. His unblinking description of the shades of status among cricket clubs cuts like glass.
Because he was clever and literary, CLR could join the club of either the lighter or the darker skinned cricketers; he confesses having chosen the former. “So it was that I became one of those dark men whose ‘surest sign of … having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself’. My decision cost me a great deal … by cutting myself off from the popular side, [I] delayed my political development for years.”
Establishing early the interconnection between cricket and race and class divisions opens the way for Beyond a Boundary to fulfil its author’s full purpose: to draw out other startling connections – cricket and art, life in ancient Greece, even rewriting English social history with cricket’s great WG Grace as a crucial figure. As startling as his connections is the light he sheds on each – not only cricket but every subject benefits from shattering boundaries. We are invited to reject the fragmenting of reality, and to see its diverse interconnections without which we are prevented from ever knowing anything fully – including our own reality. What do they know of cricket, or anything, if it is walled off from every other aspect of life and struggle?
Documentary filmmaker Mike Dibb, directed the one-hour “Beyond A Boundary” episode for the BBC’s “Omnibus” program in 1976.
From the Institute for the Public Square channel’s YouTube video note:
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The Trinidadian author, C. L. R. James looks beyond the boundaries within which the game of cricket is conventionally seen. He traces the influence of cricket on Caribbean society and reflects on the connections between organized sport, aesthetics, and politics in both 19th-century Britain and Greece in the fifth century BC. “We may some day be able to answer Tolstoy’s exasperated and exasperating question ‘What is art?'” But only when we learn to integrate our vision of Walcott on the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arm of the Olympic Apollo.”
Worldwrite produced a two-hour documentary on James called “Every Cook Can Govern: The life, impact & works of C.L.R. James,” in 2016.
Every Cook Can Govern: The life, impact & works of C.L.R. James is the first feature length documentary to explore the life, writings and politics of the great Trinidadian born revolutionary C.L.R. James, who died in Brixton in London in 1989. The film interweaves exclusive, never-before-seen footage of C.L.R. James with unique testimony from those he knew and the world’s most eminent scholars of James’ life, works and politics. From colonialism to cricket, from slavery to Shakespeare and from Marxism to the movies this unique production lifts the lid on the life of a tireless, fearless and uncompromising revolutionary.
Is C.L.R. James a household name in the United Kingdom? This 6-minute video from worldwrite asks that question.
From the worldwrite YouTube video notes:
Hackney council in East London honoured CLR James by naming a Library after him. We headed to Dalston, outside the CLR James Library to find out if local people in fact knew anything about him. “Have you heard of CLR James?”, we asked. Was he a local councillor, a South African cricketer or a Trinidad born revolutionary and writer who loved cricket? The responses are salutary and if ever there was evidence that our planned documentary is much needed this is it. This short video is sure to make you smile
The fact that James isn’t well-known by the British public should not come as a surprise. Black history and Black historical figures there get erased the same way they are here—especially when linked to Marxist or Trotskyist perspectives.
And so I’m grateful that I was introduced one of James’ books—“The Black Jacobins”—early on in my political education.
In 2021, writing for Jacobin, Rachel Douglas noted that “C. L. R. James Wrote the Definitive History of the Haitian Revolution.”
The socialist historian C. L. R. James was born 120 years ago today. His landmark text, The Black Jacobins, is a majestic account of the Haitian Revolution and is still the authoritative history of a heroic struggle for freedom and dignity.
Shifting back to cricket, the “Arts and Culture of the Caribbean Diaspora in NYC” website explores cricket history “In the Caribbean.”
Two Caribbean presidents, Wesley Hall of Barbados and Roy Fredericks of Guyana, were former players themselves. It was not only the faces of cricket that became political but real social issues aroused from cricket. Learie Constantine, pictured in Figure 2 who played for the West Indian team from 1928 to 1939, noticed many racial issues while he was playing professionally in England. His white peers respected his talent but they did not consider him equal socially. Just as in Trinidad, his home country, where blacks were second class citizens, the same was true in England. Constantine’s observation led him to campaign for change in the West Indies. He was joined by a well-known writer and cricket player C.L.R. James who wrote a lot about the connection between sports and politics. James and Constantine started a trend that led to many other organized political movements and reforms in the West Indies in the 1930’s (Stoddart). The racial division in the West Indies was shown clearly by the captainship of the team; the captain was always white. Being captain symbolized control which is why it was left to the whites. Frank Worrell was the first black captain of the West Indies team in 1960. He represented the people of the West Indies, symbolizing a new era of equality.
During the 1980’s, the West Indies team became dominant on the international stage, gaining respect from many other countries where cricket is popular. This dominance gave the West Indies power on the international stage, especially in solving racial issues. During the time of apartheid in South Africa, the West Indies used their influence to prevent a split of white and black countries, including South Africa. Many West Indian players went to South Africa to play and prevent losing the game of cricket there. Another victory the West Indies team was able to accomplish in the racial field was in England. In 1984, a completely black West Indies team swept England in 5 games, winning not only in cricket but also gaining a social victory. They represented the whole West Indian population and the black population of the world, showing how strong and capable blacks are, proving their equality
In closing, I must admit that I know zero about cricket, and I have never attended a match, though I have Caribbean friends who are big fans of the sport. Since I often run across references to cricket in my reading, I’ve searched the web for explainers. Since I’m familiar with baseball, this one in particular helped me:
From the Sports Explained YouTube video notes:
Cricket is a sport that is a lot like baseball, except it’s nothing like baseball. It’s a unique game, but if you are a baseball fan, you’re in a unique position to understand it more quickly than someone who is just flying blindly. There are enough similarities between Cricket and Baseball that it shouldn’t be too hard for you to understand how Cricket is played if you already understand how Baseball is played. Give this video a watch and you’ll be a Cricket master in no time.
And much to my surprise, I just saw that cricket is coming to Nassau County, New York!
New York venue to host T20 World Cup matches unveiled
34,000-seat Nassau County International Cricket Stadium, set to host India-Pakistan clash among eight T20 World Cup matches, announced
The construction of a new modular stadium, Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York, a first of its kind for cricket, is underway and is expected to be completed within a mere three months.
I think I’ll make a trip down from upstate to attend a game, after rereading some James.
Please join me in the comments section below for more on cricket and James, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup. And I’m curious: Have you ever read anything by James? Have you ever attended a cricket match?