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The Funeral of C.L.R. James

C. L. R. James, the pioneering Trinidadian socialist historian and writer, died on this day 30 years ago in London with his funeral held a few weeks later at Tunapuna Cemetery, Trinidad. On the arrival back in Trinidad of his body, his long-time comrade John La Rose read passages of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal - the great Caribbean poem of exile and return. In this article, Jackqueline Frost investigates the continental connections of James and Césaire, and the politics of return.

Jackqueline Frost31 May 2019

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After a long continental displacement and a minor governmental controversy, the body of Cyril Lionel Robert James—or  Nello, as friends called him—was buried in Tunapuna Cemetery, Trinidad, on the afternoon of Monday, June 12th, 1989.[i] The funeral itself was divided between a “Ceremony of Return” held at the national airport, and a “Celebration of a Life” at the Trinidad Oilfield Worker’s Trade Union’s club, and included tributes by famous novelists and calypso singers. Among other details, biographers note that steel drum versions of the Rite of Spring and the International were played for the over one thousand people who attended.[ii] Photographs of the event show the hearse in slow procession, the casket flocked with bromeliads and bird-of-paradise, and the umbrellas of the funeral attendees on their way to the graveyard. One photo shows James’ body being brought out by a file of O.W.T.U. members under a plane’s wing.[iii] This moment, in which James’ body arrives from London at Piarco Airport, the literal moment of arrival back into his country, seemed to James’ long-time friend and political comrade John La Rose to be the most symbolic. On the tarmac at Piarco, La Rose and the actor Errol Jones enshrined this moment of return by reading long passages from Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to the Native Land] in English translation. Neither biographical accounts nor the extensive photos of the funeral recall this moment. It is a moment that we would perhaps not know of, or not remember, had La Rose not scribbled his passage selections in the back cover of his copy of the Cahier.[iv]

            [image of document, Courtesy of the George Padmore Institute]

            [Courtesy of the George Padmore Institute]

Using La Rose’s notes, we are able to reconstruct the passages that were read at James’ Ceremony of Return, selections which gloss several of the most famous moments in the Cahier.[v] But what is the significance, if any, of this minute document that connects Césaire and James in this manner? The theoretical and politico-historical relationship of Césaire and James is itself a subject that has little serious consideration in scholarship. While they are often mentioned in tandem as two giants of anti-colonial thought or two members of the mutable list we call the Black Radical Tradition, no systematic analysis of their convergences and departures exists.[vi] As two Caribbean writers and political militants who lived predominantly in Europe, who both wrote histories and stage plays of the Haitian Revolution, who both participated in Caribbean politics from a radical universalist standpoint, who both ferociously attacked colonialism without rejecting European cultural traditions, and who both foregrounded the historical interdependence of Atlantic World civilizations, their trajectories seem uncannily interconnected. Indeed, in the eyes of close friends the affinity between James and Césaire was completely self-evident.  The choice of passages read at James’ Ceremony of Return indexes a number of rarely considered connections between the two men, the most robust of which is the consistent attention James’ writing pays to Césaire after 1960 and the political notion of the return that Césaire’s Cahier inaugurated for several generations of Caribbean militants, James included.

Working on Césaire’s relationship to the Cuban Revolution with my collaborator, Jorge Lefevre Tavárez, brought me into contact with the archive of poet, publisher and militant, John La Rose. The archive contains the small personal library La Rose always travelled with, as well as a large collection of papers from the Havana Cultural Congress of 1968, which he, along with Césaire and James, attended. Our goal, in following Césaire in his congress activity, was to reconstruct the network of exchanges between the Martinican poet and the Revolutionary Cuban cultural institutions at the forefront of his 1960s reception in Latin America, about which nothing substantial has so far been written.[vii] The connection between Césaire and revolutionary Cuba is so little explored that we located, with only slight effort, Césaire’s lost conference paper in the Cuban archives, a text that scholars believed to longer no exist. What we found alongside this evidence was a mass of materials on Césaire’s relation to non-Cuban Third-world intellectuals present at the congress, a story for which the London-based Caribbean Artists Movement members became increasingly central.

Many readers of James, especially outside of the UK, know little about his involvement in the Caribbean Artists Movement which, between 1966 and 1972, operated as a public forum and meeting space for Black and/or Caribbean writers and artists in the London area. Initiated by Kamau Braithwaite, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey, CAM included many illustrious members such as the sociologist Orlando Patterson, the novelists Wilson Harris and George Lamming and the visual artists Aubrey Williams and Althea McNish. Stuart Hall gave the keynote at their 1968 conference and Sylvia Wynter published an early essay in their journal, Savacou. While CAM’s membership was overwhelmingly connected to Commonwealth islands, it elaborated a pan-Caribbean cultural politics that sought to consider the specific character of the whole of the West Indies and its role in Third World and Black Power movements of the late 60s and early 70s. The influence of the tri-lingual La Rose, who was known for his radical trade-union activism in Trinidad in the 40s and 50s, established a strong connection between anglophone, francophone and hispanophone Caribbean culture within CAM’s projects. Interest in Cuban writers Nicolás Guillén, Alejo Carpentier, and the Negrismo movement of the 20s and 30s was one clear expression of this approach which was to be found to an even greater degree in collective discussions on and engagement with the Negritude of Césaire.[viii] As a ubiquitous reference in CAM meetings, Césaire and especially the Cahier’s English translation, served as an essential foundation upon which CAM members constructed their encounter between Black Power and Caribbean art. The centrality of the Cahier in the late 60s and early 70s must be understood as having a renewed political dimension in light of the independence of formerly-federated states in the Caribbean commonwealth and the socialist revolution in Cuba, which gave new meaning to the idea of a return to the native land.

Andrew Salkey, a novelist and leading member of CAM, in 1976 wrote Come Home, Malcolm Heartland, a roman noir that takes returning as its essential theme.  In the novel (now long out-of-print) Malcolm, a Jamaican Black Power militant living in London, is set to return to Kingston after fifteen years away.[ix] The attempts of close friends and new comrades to have him stay in England and continue his militancy in the metropole triggers the book’s plot. These efforts launch Malcolm into a long series of reflections on the existential dimensions and political value of returning to the Caribbean in order to organize within the new nationalist frameworks made available by independence, and imbricated with the prospect of radical change incarnated in the Cuban Revolution. After the ephemeral Federation of the West Indies disbanded in 1962, independence from the UK leading to social revolution in the anglophone Caribbean still gleamed with political potential throughout the 1970s despite the cautionary tales—such as Haiti’s Duvalier dictatorship-- both inside and outside of the Caribbean. The notion of the return of the political intellectual who left under the auspices of class-based expectation or political flight takes on new force for those militant writers and artists whose countries’ left-nationalist movements seem to open up possibilities for forms of “on-the-ground” material engagement beyond mere intellectual radicalism.

In the Cuban case, the existential question of displacement brought on by social transformation hinged, such as in Edmundo Desnoes’ novel Memories of Underdevelopment [Memorias Del Subdesarollo], on the notion of resting rather than returning. But revolutionary Cuba of the late 60s would be one important meeting point for those negotiating the question of return, producing a series of encounters between politicized Caribbean artists that are now little known. Along with Desnoes, the Cuban poet, Pablo Armando Fernández attended a CAM meeting at Patterson’s house in London in May of 1967, and subsequently invited the majority of active members to be delegates to the January 1968 Havana Cultural Congress. This congress of over 400 delegates representing over 70 countries was the third event in a series of mass anti-imperialist meetings in Havana, following the Tricontinental, in 1966, and the Organization for Latin American Solidary, or OLAS, in 1967. The CAM delegation was condensed, after many members were unable to make the trip, to the triptych of James, La Rose and Salkey. Their activities, both at the congress and outside of it, are captivatingly recorded in Salkey’s Havana Journal.[x] James and La Rose, as French speakers, fraternized often with francophone delegates, at times old friends and more often reciprocal influences, such as Césaire, René Depestre, Michel Leiris, Pierre Naville and Daniel Guérin. Havana in 1968 was where Césaire and James first spent time together, a fact that the latter recounts in a short transcribed speech from 1978 titled, “Fanon and the Caribbean.”[xi]

While nominally a text on Fanon, James devotes the longest section to narrating how he met Césaire in Cuba. In this connection, he discusses the education of Caribbean intellectuals such as Césaire and himself, who studied Latin, Greek and French literature in colonial schools, and who returned to those same schools as teachers after a long sojourn in Europe. James observes that while Césaire’s academic trajectory from Fort-de-France and back via the École Normale Superieure and the Sorbonne may seem completely banal, it is in fact one way of understanding the political trajectory of Fanon. Claiming (erroneously) that Fanon was Césaire’s former pupil, James’ general point is that being educated in the colonial manner paradoxically prepared thinkers like Césaire and Fanon, after long years of studying the society of their oppressors, to know and understand much more about those societies than the people that constitute them. This double, though unhappy, consciousness made available to the Caribbean intellectual at the painful expense of being both “cut away from the mass” and educated in the institutions and languages of those that dominate them, gives rise to the clarity of Fanon and Césaire’s critiques of Europe. According to James, Césaire had “made the most savage attack upon bourgeois society that I can think of in verse. He did it because he could attack it, because he knew it inside out.”

This analysis of the colonial writer’s situation, as caught between being a critic of and a contributor to European civilization, is to be found in much of the literature of the period immediately preceding formal decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean. In Portrait du colonisé, Albert Memmi notes the “Curious fate to write for a people that aren’t one’s own! More curious still is to write for the vanquishers of one’s people!…to this audience precisely, having since dared to speak, what will they speak of if not their misery and their revolt?”[xii] Similarly, Césaire’s great poem of misery and revolt, while being, according to James, the “finest and most famous poem ever written about Africa,” was also inextricably part of—in both its influences and its reception—the canon of French Literature, a notion central to the conference paper he gave at the Cultural Congress in Havana.[xiii] What Memmi calls a “curious fate” touches upon James’ notion of the peculiar form of consciousness imposed on the Caribbean intellectual of his generation, a fate that James will recursively, almost obsessively, thematize in his writings from the 60s and 70s.

This ascension of the political notion of return coincides with a leitmotif in James’ texts and speeches between 1963 and 1981. Present in no less than eight separate texts from this period is a list of Caribbean intellectuals and political thinkers of the twentieth century whose work and thought was instrumental in the context of African decolonization. This list shifts slightly between different texts, though it generally names Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and occasionally James himself. This same list is repeated more or less identically in the Appendix to Black Jacobins (1963), “National purpose for Caribbean Peoples” (1964), “Black Power” (1967), “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” Conference Text (1968), “The Old World and the New” (1971), “Presence of Blacks in the Caribbean and its Impact on Culture” (1975), “Fanon and the Caribbean” (1978), and in “Walter Rodney and the Question of Power” (1981).[xiv]  In each of these eight texts, James proposes that the community of Third World intellectuals, and especially those from the West Indies, take stock of a wild historical anomaly, namely, that a certain significant quantity of Caribbean political intellectuals were leading figures in the decolonization of an area that is not their own. In “From Toussiant L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro,” James contends:

The story is one of the strangest stories in any period of history. The individual facts are known. But no one has ever put them together and drawn to them the attention they deserve. Today the emancipation of Africa is one of the outstanding events of contemporary history. Between the wars when this emancipation was being prepared, the unquestioned leaders of the movement in every public sphere, in Africa itself, in Europe and in the United States, were not Africans but West Indians.[xv]

The answer, according to James, for the inordinate centrality of West Indians in African decolonization, is that Caribbean intellectuals have access to precious discursive tools—European languages and civilizational codes—by being part of a society whose structure is based on the colonial model. For James, there are no tools besides those that come inside from the master’s house, and the weight of these tools, which have been loaned or stolen, necessitates they be put to use politically. Yet the high value James ascribed to European culture was perceived as a theoretical weakness by fellow writers such as George Lamming who remarked in an interview that “James never really abandoned…the idea that the supreme good fortune of the Caribbean was its link to European civilization—that was the thing—and its link to what he would regard as the major languages.”[xvi] This matter is also the content of a digression between James and the Jamaican poet, Mikey Smith, captured in the 1982 documentary “Upon Westminster Bridge.” Herein, Smith informs a frail but lively James that, despite the latter’s enthusiasm for English verse, Dub poetry and the social struggle it articulates have no need for Shakespeare or Wordsworth.[xvii]

But this conservative shard in James’ thought is part of a catch-22 of his own dialectics. For example, according to James, Césaire’s Cahier “made a union of the African sphere of existence with existence in the Western world” which demonstrates that “the past of mankind and the future of mankind are historically and logically linked.”[xviii] For both James and Césaire, the West Indies were a space ineluctably shaped by European culture, which accounted for the movement of colonially-educated Caribbeans toward its metropoles and in turn toward the African struggles they largely learned of and organized around in European contexts. In the event of the Cuban Revolution, James saw a historical rupture concerning this movement. Real-existing Caribbean socialism generated a breach in the triangulation of West Indians between Europe and Africa, allowing for a new generation of Caribbean militants to find in their own “heartlands” the source of political futures. At the Havana Congress, James makes this observation prescriptive in number seven of his short, ten theses presentation:

The Cuban Revolution tells us that the tremendous contributions that the West Indian type of intellectual had made to the emancipation of Africa and the development of Western Civilization must now come to an end. This unprecedented capacity for creative contributions to civilizations must now be applied primarily not abroad as formerly in regard to Africa or to the development of French and British Literature. It is in the application of this capacity to the life of the Americas that the West Indian intellectual will find the necessary elements for the development of his own enormous potential…”[xix]

[Party at the Havana Congress for CLR James's 67th Birthday, (l to r) Aime Cesaire, interpreter, CLR James, Edmundo Desnoes]

In James’ systematic determinism, the return to the Caribbean for political intellectuals takes on the dimensions of a prophecy. This is the logic at work in the final paragraph of “Fanon and the Caribbean,” where James considers what the Algerian revolutionary would be doing in 1978 were he still alive. Though at the end of his life Fanon no longer considered himself Caribbean, James’ goal in this short text is to show that Fanon’s upbringing in Martiniquan society inescapably made him the political actor and thinker he was. In abandoning the West Indies for Africa, as part of a generation of Caribbean militants whose major political engagement took similar forms, Fanon affirms rather than negates his Caribbean identity. James claims here that “the moment Fanon heard that in the Caribbean Cuba was free and the other countries were gaining independence, he said then he would go back to struggle there with them.” Whether Fanon’s promise to return to the Caribbean can be considered authentic or apocryphal, the tendency of return permitted these sorts of thought-experiments. The ugly outcomes of James’ own return to Trinidad and Tobago and 1958 and his mid-60s venture into electoral politics, did not dissuade him from singing the accolades of West Indians and their society in advancing world civilization through their specific “creative contributions.” As James writes in Beyond a Boundary, he had discovered that what mattered was “movement: Not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.”[xx] These are some of the words carved into his gravestone in Tunapuna, Trinidad. While returning to the place one comes from has a specific meaning for West Indians in the second half of the 20th century, James reminds us that no cultural object is ever disconnected from the society which produced its author. On the 30th anniversary of James’ death, his epitaph and the passages read at his Ceremony of Return caution us against ignoring the social worlds that we often hold in isolation from the political and poetic acts they generate.

Connections like that of Césaire and James, whose work was received not by each other as atomized individuals but within the context of anticolonial political milieux, reveals the limits of studying West Indian thinkers in a manner radically disconnected from the political ecologies that formed and irrigated their thought. James occupies a special position as having ascended from the status of a “regional” intellectual, cresting a boundary into the “universal” that few Caribbean political intellectuals have. But what does it mean to study James’ thought as part of the general canon while regarding his comrades’ lives and work as the minor histories of an outlying region? In listing the achievements of Caribbean people in the global transformation that was formal decolonization, James invites us, precisely, to not make this mistake. In honor of his method, the following list of West Indian intellectuals have—according to the present writer—made contributions to political culture that are widely overlooked in leftist scholarship. Through them, perhaps we may see more of the world whose singularity and world-historical significance James committed his life to rendering: Claudia Jones, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Elsa Goveia, Gérald Bloncourt, John La Rose, Sara Gomez, Jacques Roumain, Nancy Morejón, René Depestre, Andrew Salkey, Suzanne Césaire, Mikey Smith, Walterio Carbonell.

Jackqueline Frost is a poet and intellectual historian from Lafayette, Louisiana who lives in Paris. She is completing doctoral work in French Studies at Cornell University on the temporality of social transformation during the era of decolonization, constellating the socio-poetic projects of Aimé Césaire, René Char, René Depestre, Jean Genet, Frantz Fanon and Michel Leiris. Jackqueline was a 2017-2018 Luigi Einaudi Research Fellow in European Studies and a 2018-2019 Visiting Researcher in Philosophy at Université Paris 8. With Jorge Lefevre Tavárez, she is currently working the reception of francophone and anglophone anti-colonial theory in revolutionary Cuba through archives related to the 1968 Havana Cultural Congress. She can be reached at

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[i] A scandal arose concerning the possibility of a state funeral, which James’ comrades vigorously rejected in light of the house arrest visited upon James in 1965 by Williams’ PNM government. The state-cooptation of James as national hero was decried by friends, like Walter Annamunthodo—who accused politicians of “jumping on a hearse, not a band wagon, to declare C.L.R. a hero” Annamunthodo observes in disgust that there were more police keeping him under house arrest in 1965, than there were to escort his corpse from Piarco Airport to his funeral ceremonies. See Annamunthodo’s text in the O.W.T.U. photograph collection,

[ii] .See Kent Worcester. C.L.R. James: A Political Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. P. 211.

[iii] Funeral of C.L.R. James Photo Collection.

[iv] La Rose’s notes read: Ceremony of Return / for the body of / CLR James / at Piarco International Airport / Trinidad / on Thursday 8 June 1989 / Selections chosen by John La Rose / and Read by Errol Jones / pgs 60, 61, 62 “I should arrive.... / ....dancing bear” / pgs 64, 65, 66 “Mine these few.... / .... a wide swathe” / pgs 138, 138, 140 “And we are standing.... / .... rendez vous of victory”

[v] Citations in full from Cahier d’un retour au pays natal / Return to my Native Land. Trans. Émile Synder, 2nd edition, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1968.  La Rose’s copy is 1971.

“I should arrive lithe and young in this country of mine and I should say to this land whose mud is flesh of my flesh: “I wandered for a long time and I am returning to the deserted foulness of your wounds.”

I should come back to this land of mine and say to it, “embrace me without fear... If all I can do is speak, at least I shall speak for you.”

And I should say further:

“My tongue shall serve those miseries which have no tongue, my voice the liberty of those who founder in the dungeons of despair.”

And I should say to myself:

“And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear...”


Mine, these few thousand death-bearers who circle in the gourd of an isle, and mine, too, the archipelago bent like the anxious desire for self-negation as if the maternal concern for the most frail slenderness separating two Americas; and the womb which spills toward Europe the good liquor of the Gulf Streams, and one of the two incandescent slopes between which the Equator funambulates towards Africa. And my unfences island, its bold flesh upright at the stern of this Polynesia; and right before it, Guadeloupe slit in two at the dorsal line, and quite as miserable as ourselves; Haiti, where Negritude stood up for the first time and swore by its humanity; and the droll little tail of Florida where a Negro is being lynched, and Africa caterpillaring gigantically up to the Spanish foot of Europe, its nakedness where dead cuts a wide swath.


And we are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my little hand

now in its enormous fist, and force is not in us, but above us, in a voice which pierces the night and the audience like the sting of an apocalyptic hornet.

And the voice declares that for centuries Europe has stuffed us with lies and bloated us with pestilence,

for it is not true that the work of man in finished

that we have nothing to do in the world

that we are parasites in the world

that we have only to accept the way of the world

but the work of man has only begun

and it remains for man to conquer all prohibitions immobilized in the corners of his fervour

and no race has a monopoly of beauty, intelligence, strength

and there is room for all at the rendez-vous of victory...

[vi] Philip Kaisary compares James and Césaire’s writings on the Haitian Revolution in light of contemporary debates on rights discourse in “Human Rights and Radical Universalism: Aimé Césaire's and CLR James's Representations of the Haitian Revolution” Law and Humanities. Vol. 6, 2012 - Issue 2 Pgs. 197-216.

[vii] Jackqueline Frost and Jorge Lefevre Tavárez. “Tragedy of the Possible: Césaire in Cuba, 1968.” Article unpublished.  Both Alex Gil and Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann reconstruct links between Césaire and the Cuban intelligentsia before the 1959 revolution. See Gil’s Aimé Césaire and the Broken Record. and Seligmann’s  “Governing Readability, or How to Read Césaire’s Cabrera.” INTI, 75/76: 210-222, 2012. Seligmann’s forthcoming article, “Caliban Why? Caribbean Intellectual Visibility and the 1968 Cultural Congress of Havana” will discuss James’ congress activity and conference text.

[viii] See Anne Walmsley. The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966-1972: A Literary and Cultural History. London: New Beacon Books, 1992.

[ix] Andrew Salkey. Come Home, Malcolm Heartland. London: Hutchinson, 1976.

[x] Andrew Salkey. Havana Journal. London: Penguin, 1971.

[xi] C.L.R. James. “Fanon and the Caribbean.” 1978.

[xii]  Albert Memmi, Portrait du colonisé / Portrait du colonisateur. Paris: Gallimard, 1985. P. 127 [translation, mine].

[xiii] C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins, pg. 399.

[xiv] C.L.R. James, “From Toussiant L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro” Black Jacobins. London: Penguin, 1963; “National purpose for Caribbean Peoples”, “The Old World and the New”, “Presence of Blacks in the Caribbean and its Impact on Culture” At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings. London: Allison & Busby, 1984; “Black Power” (1967), “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1968), archival document. George Padmore Institute. “Walter Rodney and the Question of Power” (1981)

[xv] C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins, pg. 396.

[xvi] George Lamming and Paul Buhle. “C.L.R. James: West Indian. George Lamming interviewed by Paul Buhle (November 25, 1987). C.L.R. James’ Caribbean. Ed. Henry Paget and Paul Buhle. Durham : Duke University Press, 1992. Pg. 32.

[xvii] Upon Westminster Bridge. Anthony Wall, film, 1982.

[xviii] C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins, pg. 402.

[xix] C.L.R. James. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” Conference Text (1968). Archival Document. Havana Cultural Congress Papers. Archive of John La Rose. George Padmore Institute.

[xx] Image of the Tomb of C.L.R. James. National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago.

C.L.R. James

C.L.R. James

C.L.R. James was a protean 20th century Marxist intellectual, widely recognized as a pioneering scholar of slave revolt; a leading voice of Pan-Africanism; a peripatetic revolutionary and scholar w...