Sport History Rewind: Review of Beyond a Boundary

This post is a part of the series, “Sport History Rewind.” In this series, contributors revisit and reevaluate important texts to determine the degree to which their analyses, arguments, research, and influence resonate in the field today. Of particular concern is how well the works fit into historiographical debates and compare with more recent sport-related scholarship. We hope that these posts will help highlight texts that are sometimes forgotten or overlooked, and help us better understand the field of sport history.

James, C.L.R. Beyond a Boundary (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition). Durham: Duke University Press, 2013 (originally published in 1963). Pp. Xxvi+267. $24.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Paul C. Hébert

In 1966, C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian historian, political philosopher, and cricket writer, spoke at the Conference on Caribbean Affairs, one of a series of meetings held in Montreal in the 1960s that brought together West Indians from across the Caribbean and its diaspora to discuss the past, present, and future of the Caribbean as the region moved from colonial rule to political sovereignty. As James concluded his talk, he reminded his listeners of the vital role that the Caribbean people had played in the development of Western culture, arguing that it was “impossible to write the history and literature of Western Civilization,” without names such as Toussaint Louverture, Alexander Hamilton, Alexandre Dumas, Marcus Garvey, and Frantz Fanon. James ended his list of West Indians who had played crucial roles in the development of modernity with “a name acknowledged by critics all over the world as an unprecedented, unimaginable practitioner of his particular art,” referring, “of course,” to the Barbadian cricketer Garfield Sobers.[1]

Beyond a Boundary Cover.jpg

Duke University Press, 2013

James’s reference to Garry Sobers in a city better known for its adulation of hockey players than of batsmen speaks to the cultural vibrancy of the West Indian diaspora in Canada. Moreover, by including a cricketer in a list of critical cultural and political figures, James echoes the key theme of Beyond a Boundary, a book he published four years earlier. Beyond a Boundary, which appears regularly on lists of the world’s greatest sports writing, is part autobiography and part social, cultural, and political analysis of cricket. The autobiographical portions focus on cricket’s role in shaping James’s political consciousness. Turning his lens outward, James, anticipating the emergence of cultural studies as an academic discipline later in the decade, examines how cricket, more than any other sport, produces athletes whose style of play expresses the social, political, and cultural dynamics of the times and places in which it is played.

The theme is pithily summed up by the line that is the most-quoted from the book, if not from James’s oeuvre: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” It is impossible to grasp the full meaning of cricket if one only pays attention to the field of play; in order to understand what happens within the confines of the cricket field, one must understand the larger social, political, and cultural contexts in which the match unfolds. Furthermore, James asserts, the particulars of cricket—the possibilities and limitations imposed by the rules, the importance of individual performance within a team dynamic, and the democratic nature of cricket’s spectatorship—make it a sport that is able, like great art, to express something about the people who play and watch it.

The first part of the book focuses on James’s youth and his coming into political maturity, and reveals how cricket reflected the racial and class dynamics of colonial Trinidad and Tobago. James recalls his childhood in Tunapuna, introducing Matthew Bondman, a man widely seen as a “ne’er-do-well,” a “viscous character” whose rough appearance and demeanour scandalized James’s middle-class family. But when Bondman had a cricket bat in his hands, he was transformed into an example of the“genus Britannicus” of the “fine batsman” whose “grace and style” makes an “impact … on all around him, non-cricketers and cricketers alike.”  Bondman may have had a “pitiable existence,” but when he came to bat, James’s “own little soul thrilled with recognition and delight” (p. 2-5). As the book unfolds, we see that what the young James recognized in Bondman’s stroke was akin to what we recognize in a work of dance, a painting or a jazz solo: an expression of shared ideals, values, and outlooks. From the first pages, we see how cricket has a transcendent quality, one that allows a marginalized figure to express something larger than himself. Yet while cricket gave Bondman a chance to, if only momentarily, rise above his standing and become a vehicle of cultural expression, we also see how cricket reified colonial Trinidad’s class and race divisions.

For James, choosing a team to play for required navigating a complex system of overlapping social structures in which people sought to maintain whatever advantage their skin colour or class position gave them. White teams like Queen’s Park and Shamrock would not accept James because of his race, playing for Stingo, the team of “the plebeians, the butcher, the tailor, the candlestick maker, the casual labourer, with a sprinkling of the unemployed” was not an option because it represented a step down for a middle-class man like James. Of the remaining possibilities–Maple, a team made up of “the brown-skinned middle class,” where members tried to safeguard the social advantages of a lighter complexion, and Shannon, “the team of the black lower-middle class”–James chose Maple, a decision, that “delayed [his] political development for years” by further isolating him from the popular masses (p. 50-53).

Yet if James’s choice of team delayed his political development, cricket was also at the centre of his political awakening. James recounts how his understanding of politics was closely tied to his understanding of cricket, a process that was shaped in part through his relationship with the great Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine. Constantine was James’s patron for a while, supporting James as he established himself in England, but it was Constantine’s remark in a conversation about West Indian and English cricketers that James frames as a key moment in the development of his political consciousness: “They are no better than we.” This simple assertion made James see clearly the inherent injustice of colonial rule. His political self-education was informed by a deep reading of politics and history, but also by his experience of “Stingo and Shannon, Maple and Queen’s Park.” James’s conclusion from this study, which he would later articulate in a 1933 pamphlet titled “The Case for West Indian Self-Government”: “We should be free to govern ourselves” (p. 112-115).

Self-government was a long time coming. Beyond a Boundary was published a year after the West Indies Federation collapsed and Jamaica and Trinidad became independent; in the last section of the book, James thinks through West Indian identity as colonial rule fades, and how cricket expresses that identity at a pivotal moment in Caribbean history. Central to the relationship between cricket and West Indian nationalism was James’s own campaign in 1959-60 to overturn the tradition of a white man being captain of the West Indies cricket team; as a result, in 1960 Frank Worrell became the first Black captain of the West Indian side. In a larger sense, James sees West Indian cricket embodying the restlessness of a people on the verge of freedom. When James embarked on his political self-education, he was guided by the principle that what mattered to a people was “movement: not where you are . . . but where you have come from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there” (p. 113). Decades later, looking at his fellow West Indians approaching political independence, James sees an inventive and dynamic people, and it’s cricket that provided a vehicle for that inventiveness and dynamism:

We West Indians are a people on our way who have not yet reached a point of rest and consolidation. Critics of a sociological turn of mind had proved that we are a nation which naturally produced fast bowlers, when in 1950 Ram and Val, both under twenty-one, produced the greatest slow-bowling sensation since the South African team of 1907. We are moving too fast for any label to stick.” [p. 148: “Ram and Val” refers to Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, two bowlers who led the West Indies to their first Test victory in England in 1950.]

The West Indian people were, as James was writing Beyond a Boundary, “moving too fast for any label to stick,” experiencing a “social rebirth” that  was reflected in the play of the “Three W’s,” Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, cricket greats who ‘”grew to maturity” as the West Indian people “called a new world into existence” and went on to dominate West Indian cricket in the years after the Second World War (p. 219).

This social rebirth was not uncontested, and cricket was a venue for the expression of tensions that emerged as the West Indies moved towards independence. An outbreak of violence following a disputed call at a 1960 match between the West Indies and England in Trinidad revealed a popular suspicion that elites were setting out to undermine the people’s national vision. As an official had sided with the English on the field, the West Indian people saw elites as siding with British and American neo-colonialism and putting their own interests before those of the nation. This analysis presages ideas that would later become central to the West Indian New Left movements that emerged in the early years of West Indian independence and which found expression at such moments as the 1968 uprising in Jamaica following the expulsion of the radical historian Walter Rodney, the 1970 Black Power revolution in Trinidad, and the New Jewel movement in Grenada.

Beyond a Boundary is tough going in places for readers unfamiliar with cricket (a foreword briefly outlines the main features of the sport, but James assumes a thorough knowledge of the game). Nonetheless, the book is indispensable, both as a study of the cultural and political import of sport, and as a document of an early expression of concepts that would become central to Caribbean intellectual history in the independence era. In the 1960s, James assumed the mantle of elder statesman of West Indian radical political thought, and he played an active role in shaping emerging critiques of the post-colonial situation in the Caribbean. Many of the ideas about West Indian identity that are central to James’s analysis, especially concerning the innovative and restless nature of West Indian culture, would inform the political thought and activism in the Caribbean in the 1960s and 70s and beyond.

Paul Hébert is an independent scholar based in Vancouver, Canada. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan. His research interests focus on West Indian and Black Canadian intellectual history; his 2015 dissertation “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960-1969” looks at the links between Black Canadian, West Indian, African and African-American radicalisms that emerged in Montreal, Canada in the 1960s.

Notes:


[1]      C.L.R. James, “The Making of the Caribbean People,” in You Don’t Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009), 29–49.

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