“A Very Unusual People”

An Interview with Erica James and Henry James, Niece and Nephew of C. L. R. James

• July 2014

In a 1976 interview for the BBC, C. L. R. James describes for Stuart Hall his mother’s personal library, which, along with Thackeray, included Shakespeare, Brontë, and Dickens, among others. “That’s ah—that’s very remarkable,” a noticeably stunned Hall replies, “for that time.” For a black Caribbean family at the turn of the century, it was extraordinary. “I don’t think there are many people in those days who—except the middle classes in England,” James continued, “who had the opportunity that I had, and it wasn’t only one book.”1 James’s account, as Hall’s reaction suggests, reveals in status if not money one of Trinidad’s black elite families, a family for whom, as James puts it in Beyond a Boundary, “respectability was not an ideal, it was an armour.”2

The following interview with James’s niece and nephew, Erica and Henry James, took place on 11 June 2012 in the Brooklyn daycare center run by Erica. At turns humorous and sobering, their reflections provide a window onto the world that C. L. R. James—whom they affectionately call by his nickname “Nello”—came from, the political climate he returned to in Trinidad on the eve of independence, and a sense of Eric Williams that betrays both fear and respect.

 

Minkah Makalani: I have been researching C. L. R. James’s return to Trinidad, to try to better understand his conflict with Eric Williams. But in our conversations, Erica, I get an impression of your family unfamiliar to most. People generally assume it is a middle-class family, but you have described something much different.

Erica James: Oh no, they were upper-middle class. Like simple things. Grandma James, Nello’s mother—I didn’t know her, I just knew of her—she came straight out of Elizabethan times. They had tea in the afternoon and she dressed for dinner every night. And what was so unusual, his mother arranged the marriage between my father and mother. That was an arranged marriage.

MM: C. L. R. knew your mother, correct?

EJ: Yes, he taught her at Queens Royal College. But the families, they said, “Look at Eric’s age, running all over the place, and here we have Alice. Marry them off to each other.” My mother’s people, my grandmother was the headmistress at one school and my grandfather was the headmaster at the other school, and they both spoke Hindi. So they were in charge of the Indians, helping them to register, to write, and to read. So in the village they lived in they were like the mayor and the assistant. And then my mother, when my grandmother retired, took her place. But it was very unusual that she would work.

MM: Your grandmother?

EJ: Yes, she was a teacher. They were originally from Montserrat.

MM: So they just reconstituted their social hierarchies.

EJ: Yes. And Nello’s sister, Olive, she didn’t work.

Henry James: No, never worked, never worked.

EJ: She was a lady of leisure. She, too, never got married. She stayed at home to take care of her mother, and then her father. But she had to have one day a week to go to the library. When you used to go to their house, the books! Then she had her garden, her gardener. She had a big hat, a basket for cutting flowers. And they had servants. You know how people from the island say, “Oh yes, we had servants.” Those are lies. They had servants. Dressed in white clothes. So he did not come out of a house of the masses.

HJ: They were very unusual people.

EJ: They played the piano, and I tell you—Auntie Olive, she didn’t work.

HJ: And she played the piano.

EJ: I told him about Auntie Olive and Marion Anderson. Carlton Comma, who was head of the [Port-of-Spain Public] library, brought Marion Anderson to Trinidad. He brought all these famous people to Trinidad. And Marion Anderson stopped in Trinidad, and her accompanist got some kind of problem with his stomach. And hence, they wanted to know what could happen. So Carlton went to Olive and said, “Well, Olive, do you think you can help?” And she said “Yes.” She accompanied Marion Anderson. And then when the show was over, Marion Anderson offered her a job, and she was appalled. She thought the world was coming to an end. [Erica and Henry in unison] “Who is Marion Anderson, to offer her a job?” Robert [James], Nello’s father, that was the talking point of their circle. That this woman comes from America, and she has this performance, and Olive volunteered—volunteered—to sit in, and she offered her a job! Oh, they were appalled.

MM: So, class was central to the family, but not in the same way we might think about it with African Americans, who in 1900, if you had servants or were a person of leisure, you were probably separated from black people. But in Trinidad . . .

EJ: You know how somebody goes away, say, a poor person, and becomes a doctor. They come back, most people who we moved around with would say, “Oh, that guy, that poor guy, or that barefoot guy, went away, and oh look, he’s a doctor.” They bring him down. They don’t say, like now, especially here, “Look at Maya Angelou—came from wherever, now look at her.” Or even [Barack] Obama. But people there, at that time, if you didn’t come from a particular family, that was it.

MM: It made no difference what happened?

EJ: Even if you got a scholarship to Oxford, it didn’t make a difference. And he came out of that. So a lot of people looked at Nello kind of strange. When you were in a small place, people knew his people. They were like, “How all of a sudden, you had this and you had that,” and it was not so much money as it was privilege, because they had no money. It was privilege. “And how come now you are all of a sudden for the masses.” I tell you, people went away and became lawyers or doctors, but they never could come back into that society. They were on the outskirts of the society. And those people on the outskirts, they joined the PNM [People’s National Movement].

MM: Oh—the people who were “barefoot.”

EJ: So people could not understand. Not even his own brother. My father was always saying, “He has no job!” [Everyone laughs] He [Eric James] was the one of these kind of people, because he had two jobs.

HJ: And then my father was a consul for Haiti in Trinidad.

MM: Oh, he was?

EJ: For a short period, yes, he was a consul for Haiti. Those were the days of Duvalier. Duvalier gave my father the highest medal of honor for Haiti.3

MM: Really?

HJ: Yes, I have the medal. I told somebody from Haiti that my uncle wrote a book that is basically the history of Haiti, and my father was the consul for Haiti in Trinidad.

MM: What kind of conversations did C. L. R. and your father have about Haiti? Or politics in Trinidad?

EJ: Uncle Nello used to call my father, when he was the general manager of the railways, he used to say, “Oooo, ooo, I don’t interrupt when Eric is talking because he is the manager of general affairs, so we all have to stay very quiet.” My father used to get so angry, because he knew he was making fun of him.4

HJ: He used to call him “the manager of things in general.”

EJ: He used to just continually make fun of him. But my father would say, “Yeah, but then when you want twenty bucks and fifty bucks, this is the person you’re coming to, because I am the person that has a job.” It was really funny because they were so different. You would say, How did this man come from this household?

MM: How far apart in age were they?

EJ: My father was the youngest. Nello was the first, then Auntie Olive.

MM: Did they argue over C. L. R.’s criticisms of Eric Williams?

EJ: The conflict between Eric Williams and CLR James was hard for many people to understand. No one could pinpoint their trouble with one another. I think the error came when Williams and the PNM invited Nello. Nello should have spent some time and gone his way. He should not have remained in Trinidad, because it was too small a place for him, because he was a world figure. Our father could not even understand and accept how he acted toward Williams and PNM. His sister could, Olive had more of an open mind. But our father could not accept what he was saying, and a lot of people backed away from Nello. People became afraid.

MM: Afraid of Williams?

EJ: Yes, people were afraid of Eric Williams. Also, people whom Nello grew up with couldn’t understand why he was going after Williams. Even his own brother couldn’t understand.

HJ: I don’t think that [Erica] knows that my father told me, “You are too close to your uncle, and this is not the environment for you to be too close to your uncle.”

EJ: Yes, I know about that. Yes, yes. He was afraid.

MM: It was unclear to me how much of what C. L. R. said about Williams and Trinidad under PNM accurately reflected the climate, but I got the sense that there was a mounting fear, or a sense that you don’t want to cross the PNM and Eric Williams.

EJ: Fear! Fear! People were afraid. You must remember. In ’58 our dad would have been in his fifties. And it was through the government that he became the manager of the Trinidad Railways. There has always been a white person in that position, and our father took that position. So all these men who knew Nello realized that they were at a certain level in the PNM. And Eric Williams was the type of person that, if you crossed him, he would get rid of you.

MM: In his pamphlet Party Politics in the West Indies, C. L. R. said, “The West Indies has produced the most barbarous, unlicensed regimes in modern time. Gomez, Machado, Batista, Trujillo, Duvalier.” He mentions Hitler and Stalin, and then he says, “This has nothing to do with the supposed dictatorial plans of Dr. Williams,” which I took as him saying it had everything to do with Dr. Williams.5

EJ: Yes, in that small community, people were afraid. Even if you were not PNM, you pretended to be PNM because your livelihood was at stake. And remember, this little man came into power, and, I mean, it was unbelievable. He sent all these white people back and gave our black people, our black professionals, the jobs. Like the government railway had always been run by whites, by Englishmen, and when Eric Williams took power, it was over. The board was black. My father was in charge. Imagine all the ministers that were now black. Everything was just turning.

MM: Quite radically.

EJ: This is why people loved Eric Williams so much. He started to change all that. I mean, before, I never had that privilege. He hired a black principal at Bishop’s High School, where I went to school, and started to hire black teachers. I mean, that in itself was fabulous. Could you imagine all the [black] store clerks in the big stores? All those things he changed. So you see, when Nello came with his other ideas, people were seeing change.

MM: The response to C. L. R.’s criticisms of Eric Williams’s leadership of Trinidad and the PNM, his handling of Federation and the US military base at Chaguaramas . . .

EJ: Oh no, they didn’t like him. They got very angry at C. L. R. But then, when Williams foolishly put him under house arrest, Nello became a martyr to people all over the world. You see, Eric Williams did not figure out what a world figure he was. He probably forgot.

MM: This was in 1964, when C. L. R. returned to cover the British cricket team’s tour of the West Indies?

EJ: Yes, he came back and they put him under house arrest. My father was terrified. Terrified of him. My aunt Olive took Nello in, and my father was very disturbed to think that [Nello] brought her into his troubles. She didn’t think it was a problem because she was very well read, and she really had nothing to lose. She didn’t work. So she just scoffed Eric Williams. Few people were able to do that because everybody had a job. She didn’t care. So when Nello wanted to come to stay at our house, well, that was completely out of the question. Our father said, “This man has no job. People giving him shoes and all this. What is this? You’re under house arrest, you go somewhere else.” They were going to put him at the Queens Park Hotel, and [Auntie Olive] said, No. That was the worst thing Eric Williams could ever have done. Because he created this fabulous person. You came to see [Uncle Nello], he was always laying on the lounge chair, talking all day, people taking his picture. He loved it. Loved it. Loved it! People came from all over the world to find out why they are doing this to this man. Meanwhile, my father was hiding.

MM: Your father?

EJ: Oh yes. I’m telling you, Eric Williams was not the person that you could go against. And why would you lose all that you’ve worked for? I mean, you’re fifty-five, sixty. Why would you do that?

But I’ll tell you something. . . . I can say, when you looked at Uncle Nello, he was not overly swift. He had all this brainpower and all that, but he was a drifter. Look at Nello, he was not 100 percent mentally.

MM: In their divorce papers, Selma [James] says that after his car accident in Jamaica, he went into decline.6 Back in London, she had to keep him from destroying his papers and manuscripts when he would get frustrated.

HJ: It’s funny you mention the accident in Jamaica because I remember when that happened. They told him in Jamaica that he had a brain tumor, and that they were going to operate on him. These are his exact words: “Those foolish people over there told me that I had a brain tumor.” He said, “I knew I didn’t have a brain tumor. So I got myself out of that hospital and got on an airplane and went to London. And they found out that I had just had some trauma from the accident.” He believes, he told me, that they were trying to kill him.

MM: In Jamaica?

HJ: Yes, in Jamaica.7

EJ: The other part of that story is that he called my father and said what they wanted to do to him. And I remember my father said, “I’m going to send money for you, [but] not for you to come to Trinidad. Go to London.” And he sent a ticket for him, Jamaica to London, for him to go there and to see what had happened to him. Because [Nello] said that they were trying to kill him.

MM: So your father said to go to London because they were trying to kill him?

EJ: Yes. He called and then Selma called, and my father sent him the ticket. [Nello] left and went to London. There was nothing wrong with him. And everybody said that was Eric Williams’s way of trying to get rid of him. So my father secretly sent that money and told him, “I will send it for you, but do not come here.”

MM: So, he didn’t come back?

EJ: No, he was smart enough to go to London.

 

Minkah Makalani teaches African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas. The author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London (2012) and the coeditor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York! The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (2013), he is currently writing a history of C. L. R. James’s return to Trinidad titled “Calypso Conquered the World: C. L. R. James and the Politically Unimaginable in the Trinidadian Postcolony.”

 


1 Stuart Hall interview with C. L. R. James (1976), 2–4, box 10, folder 251, C. L. R. James Collection, Alma Jordan Library, University of the West Indies, St. Agustin, Trinidad and Tobago.

2 C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (1963; repr., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 8.

3 Eric James served as Secretary of the Trinidad Football Association and Secretary of the Caribbean Football Association and received the Haitian government’s order of the Commander of Merit in 1966. See the Gleaner, 28 November 1961, 14, and 27 June 1966, 16.

4 Eric James was appointed General Manager of the Trinidad Government Railway in 1961. Gleaner, 28 November 1961, 14.

5 C. L. R. James, Party Politics in the West Indies (San Juan, Trinidad: Vedic Enterprises LTD, 1962), 121–22.

6 In 1961, while in Jamaica delivering a series of lectures, James suffered a severe car accident that left him hospitalized for several months. See Selma James Divorce Affidavit, ca. 1983, box 2, folder 2, C. L. R. James Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.

7 A letter from Selma James indicates that a doctor in Barbados, where James convalesced following his accident, noticed either a possible blood clot or brain damage. Whether this refers to the cancer diagnosis is unclear. James left the Caribbean for London in 1962. Selma James to A. L. Stuart, 11 December 1961, box 6, folder 149, C. L. R. James Collection.

 

Related Articles