Sunday, December 9, 2012

C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary: Chapter 4, "The Light and the Dark"

 After presenting his cricketing resume without false modesty or bravado, the opening paragraphs lay out a predicament: the young James had to decide which club he would play first-class cricket for.  What follows is a sharp sketch of how colonial Trinidad's divisions of class and color mapped onto its cricket establishment.  Each club had its place and significance in the island's social divisions.  James' choice came down to the two middle-class black clubs -- Shannon, whose status was tied to the professional achievement and aspiration of its members, and Maple, whose status was wrapped up in lighter skin-color and established position.  The decision was particularly pointed because, though Maple's captain sought him, James personally was dark.  He recognized his choice had political significance, but ultimately decided on narrowly personal grounds -- a number of his friends were with Maple, and so he joined them, too.

Despite the quasi-political tension and the fierce competitiveness it produced, the atmosphere in club matches was collegial and even chatty.  James reprises a number of  in-match conversations.  Among these, an exchange with Constantine, the eminence grise of Shannon cricket, captures the friendly tone recollected by James pretty well.

Constantine, a privileged person, especially with me, between overs would discuss my play freely.  'You played back to that one?'  'What should I have done?'  'Jumped at it, of course.  That's the second time Ben has been on since you were in.'  'Suits you.' (62)

Its place as the representative of the the rising black middle-class inspired Shannon.  They played with singular intensity and self-discipline. They had by far the best line-up of bowlers, and were relentless in the field. 

Constantine told me one day, in the only reference he ever made to it: 'If you had joined us we would have made you play cricket.'  He meant as an international player. The remark was a tribute to Shannon, not to me.  Years afterwards, in a quite insignificant friendly match in Lancashire, I was standing at short leg when some batsman played an uppish stroke in my direction.  Not one county cricketer in three could possibly have got to it, and in any case friendly is friendly.  So I thought, until I heard a savage shout from Constantine who had bowled the ball.  'Get to it!'  I recognized the note.  It was one Shannon player calling to another.  (63)
Constantine and those in his camp saw Shannon as a model for West Indian cricket. They wanted West Indies to have a black captain who could make use of the striving spirit of Shannon to create a winning side.  To this, young James had countered with the view that the captain should be the best man, whether back or white, as if, in the context of the West Indies, the captain's race would have had no effect on the style and cohesion of the squad.

At this point, James calls out critics who think that race has no place in cricket.  He divides these into (1) those who have benefited from the privileges of being light-skinned, but now want the book closed on that chapter as if had never been written, and (2) those who sympathize with discussing race and cricket, but merely as an exorcism of personal traumas so that they can then be forgotten.

James insists that his experience of cricket was no trauma, and meanders into a series of wistful memories about the cricketing scene in Trinidad.  The hunger for play that produced so many spontaneous matches.  The accessibility of  international players, both to play against and to talk cricket with.  The way that cricket bound together people who were otherwise strangers.

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