C.L.R. JAMES - E. ETHELBERT MILLER - THE ALDON NIELSEN PROJECT 05
Q. Describe your first meeting with C.L.R. James at FCC. How did his work help you develop as a critic?
I’ve told this story briefly in my book C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction, but at the time I first met James I could have had no idea that I would ever write such a book. I had returned to college after my somewhat odd years in upstate New York, where I had been sent by my draft board to perform “alternative service.” My service consisted of what might be termed community organizing, or at least community service. I had been doing things like helping to set up day care programs, getting local doctors to provide free physical exams for the children, working with public housing tenants’ groups, even working in one of the local High Schools to report on the racial frictions of the early 1970s. I had always intended to go back to school once Selective Service was done with me, but had not yet known how or where I would do that. Following my return to D.C., a friend from High School who was attending Federal City College told me that FCC had now attained its accreditation, and one look at the nearly nonexistent tuition was enough to decide me. I was working full time, but figured I could handle a full time course load simultaneously, so signed on.
One of the courses in the catalogue that attracted my interest was Caribbean Literature. That course was my introduction to Gregory Rigsby, since retired, who remains in my memory as one of the most effective and encouraging professors I was to study with. I took a second Caribbean Literature course with him, and did an independent study on African American women poets under his direction. Rigsby had gotten his PhD at Howard University. In fact, I believe he was the first PhD in English from Howard. At the time I knew him, Rigsby was publishing work that ranged from the Caribbean novel to the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. His book on Alexander Crummell remains a vital source to this day.
It was in Rigsby’s course that I first read a number of authors I continue to read and teach: Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Alejo Carpentier, Aimé Césaire and Wilson Harris. Rigsby and I shared an interest in Thomas Pynchon, and I remember giving him a copy of a recent collection of essays on Pynchon. When I stumbled across an LP of Brathwaite reading from The Arrivants, I got copies for both of us. It was in Rigsby’s course that I learned of A.R. Orage and his emphasis on the noumenal and what this all had to do with modernism. So it was in that first FCC class that we were assigned to read The Black Jacobins by one C.L.R. James. (Among the many strange unfoldings of personal history; I knew of Jimmy Boggs, former member of James’s American political group, before I knew of James himself, because Boggs had an essay in Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal’s anthology Black Fire, which I had read well before returning to college.) One day as the class was discussing one of the crucial early passages in James’s book, I happened to comment on the writing itself, which seemed to me exceptional. Rigsby replied, “he’s here, you know.” Not quite catching on, I asked, “where?” Rigsby said, “downstairs.” Eventually I realized Professor Rigsby was pointing through the floor to the department of History, directly below our classroom. Turned out this wasn’t at all a figure of speech. James not only taught in the history department, but between classes could be found sitting in a large chair in the front of the department’s office.
Next semester, I was enrolled in his course. I was officially registered for two of James’s courses before graduating, one in African Intellectual History and one in the Revolutionary Tradition in Latin America. Probably to the annoyance of my fellow students, I was always getting James involved in literary discussions. When the first time came for us to declare our research paper topics, I tentatively asked if I could write about Wole Soyinka’s plays, not sure a paper on drama would be accepted in a history class. James lit up, said he’d be delighted to read a paper on Soyinka, and I was never tentative in that class again. For the Latin American course I wrote a paper on South American poets. James and I did not always agree about writers. I always felt he let politics color his judgments. He may very well have felt the same about my views. I remember loaning him my copy of the first volume of Neruda’s memoirs, which he read and responded to negatively, probably because of Neruda’s Stalinist commitments. On the other hand, James loaned me his personal copies (heavily annotated) of Wilson Harris’s novels, which much impressed me as they were personally inscribed to him by the author. Palace of the Peacock, which I’d read with Professor Rigsby, was the only Harris volume readily obtained in the U.S. in those days, so this was a real opportunity for me.
He also loaned me his copy of George Lamming’s Natives of My Person. I didn’t at the time recognize that one of the characters in that novel was loosely based on James, though I later wrote a poem dedicated to James borrowing Lamming’s title. That poem appeared in the first issue of Essex Hemphill’s journal, Nethula, where I found myself in the company of poets such as Alvin Aubert, Yusef Komunyakaa and K. Curtis Lyle. Can’t recall if I gave a copy to James. I was shy about such things in those days (as can be seen from the fact that the poem appears with just my initials rather than my full name.) James ended each class session with what he called “free for all,” during which we could bring up any topic we wished. There were always people sitting in who weren’t registered for the course, so the free-ranging discussions could really take flight some times. Caribbean writers passing through town would often stop in to say hello, which is how I came to meet Michael Anthony, the author of The Year in San Fernando. I had entered James’s class room knowing nothing more of him than his authorship of Black Jacobins, but it seemed that each week I learned something more of this amazing man’s achievements.
One day he gave me a copy of the American reprint of his Modern Politics, a clear precursor to what came to be known as cultural studies. I was there again when he got a box containing the republished version of Mariners, Renegades and Castaways and he signed a copy of that one for me too. By then I was reading around in whatever I could find about him, and learned of his role in developing the State Capitalism theory within Marxist philosophy. One day L learned from one of the other professors that a small book store near Howard had stocked copies of James’s only novel, Minty Alley, so I spent an afternoon hiking over there to get the book, a book I dearly love. I am proud to say that I later played a small role in getting the novel reprinted in the U.S. James in those days lived in the Chastleton Apartments, an address I knew well because of the quite good Ethiopian restaurant that you entered from the rear of the building. (Was that called The Blue Nile? There’s always a Blue Nile. There’s one on Florida Avenue today.) Across the street was the Trio restaurant where James liked to get a grilled cheese sandwich and a Heineken. James’s apartment was a maze of books and papers, with the television always on in the background. Over one door there was a sketchy shelf holding the complete works of Lenin. I always worried that one day we’d find James pinned underneath the collapsed Lenin.
C.L.R. James was the only person I knew in those days who had a copying machine in his apartment, and they were big in those days. That machine was crucial to his working methods then. Already well into his seventies, James was in perpetual bad health and his hands shook badly. He would make a copy of something on his machine at home, and then get the office staff at FCC to make copies for the rest of us. This is how I got copies of many out of print James items early on. On a typical class day, James would enter the room carrying a stack of books with bits of paper bristling from the pages he had marked for quoting. The man spoke extempore in full paragraphs as if he had memorized a major work. But he also always made room for – demanded – responses and contributions from us. He could be quite put out when we didn’t have a ready answer or insight. During the years I was in his classes I had a one act play produced. Hearing of this, James allowed as he had a play too. He then brought me a copy of the sixties version of the Black Jacobins play that had been produced in Nigeria. Only recently has the original thirties version of the play, which starred Robeson in London, been recovered and published. My colleagues at Penn State alerted me to the presence in our collections of an interim version, with James’s own edits and comments on the typescript. After those first two classes, I continued to sit in on James’s sessions, even after I had graduated and moved on to doctoral study across town at George Washington University. And that is how it came to pass that I engineered a visit by James to the class taught by Amiri Baraka during his period as resident writer at GWU.
As we ate lunch that day, I couldn’t help wondering if the nearby FBI had sent anyone to keep an eye on these two Marxist professors to see what they were up to. (I already knew the FBI had been sending agents to Baraka’s readings for years, dutifully buying copies of his books for the files. And of course, two decades earlier the agency had had a keen interest in finding and deporting James.) C.L.R. James had more to do with my becoming a professor than with the direction of my critical works. He struck me at the time as the very model of a committed intellectual, someone who had spent a life working in revolutionary movements and writing some of the most profound and influential works of the twentieth century. Keep in mind that C.L.R. James did not begin his career as a college professor till he was in his late sixties. I had already spent a lot of Movement time before coming back to school, had been in the streets and had organized against the war, against racism, against oppression. I knew I would never leave those commitments behind, but I also knew enough about my own personality to recognize that I was not the sort to take leadership positions in any organization, not even literary organizations. I was not made to be a revolutionary activist, but I harbored a hope that there would be something of the revolutionary about my art and criticism. And that was something about me that James recognized and encouraged. I’m not sure I had given any thought to being a professor before I met him. It was C.L.R. James who made that seem a possible way for me in the world. There are those in “James Studies” today who complain that critics like me have reduced James to a “mere writer.” This complaint betrays a sad misunderstanding of both James and writing. When James was before the court in the early 1950s, the U.S. prosecutors brought his books in evidence against him, reminding the court that the great revolutionaries had all been writers. What I took from James, along with a world of information he opened to me, was a commitment to the integrity of my work as a writer and critic. I had been a close reader all along, but I got better at it with his guidance. Among my most prized possessions is a copy of his book Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution presented to me with this inscription: “Happy in that I know it is in good hands.”