CLR James: Writing from Ellis Island

This May marked the 25th anniversary of the passing of author and political activist C.L.R. James. Well known for his novels as well as his writing on politics and cricket, one aspect of James’s life that has been less remarked upon were the years he spent as an undocumented—and eventually detained—immigrant in the United States.

By the time he entered the United States, the Trinidadian revolutionary, with an extraordinary memory, had published his most famous work, Black Jacobins, a history of the early 19th-century Haitian Revolution. He was also the first person of color to have been appointed cricket columnist for the Manchester Guardian; his British publisher, Frederic Warburg, said of him, “If politics was his religion and Marx was his god, if literature was his passion and Shakespeare his prince among writers, cricket was his beloved activity.”

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, James became involved in politics while writing for the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association. He emigrated to the UK in 1932, where he engaged in radical left politics, increasingly positioning himself as scholar of the pan-Caribbean and pan-African experience.

It’s a little hazy exactly when and how James became an undocumented immigrant. In 1938, James was invited to lecture in the U.S. by American Trotskyist James Cannon. He arrived here on a six-month tourist visa, and secured at least one six-month extension. After that,  he fell ill, suffering from a duodenal ulcer, a chronic, serious illness that would feature prominently later on in his experience as a detainee in Ellis Island.

Grace Lee Boggs, a close colleague and also a celebrated activist, says in her autobiography, Living for Change, that the INS allowed James to stay in the country during World War II and that he registered with the government each year, as required under the wartime anti-radical Smith Act 1940. The law targeted those looking to overthrow the government, and required, more broadly, all non-citizens to be fingerprinted. In recent years, it was used as the legal basis of the INS’s 2003 Special Registration of primarily Muslim visa holders.

As anti-Communist fervor further ramped up, the INS was “hounding” James, in the words of Boggs. He was exposed to scrutiny for his years of left-wing work, despite being a “very private Bolshevik,” according to his authorized biography, C.L.R. James: The Revolutionary Artist, written by Paul Buhle.

In the U.S., he was intellectually and politically active with a group of leftists within an organization called the Workers’ Party that included a woman named Raya Dunayevskaya and later on Boggs. James recounted on more than one occasion that on one visit to an immigration office, he caught a passing glance of a “two to three inch thick” file on his activities in the U.K. prior to coming to the U.S. According to James, one decision against him noted his authorship of works like World Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, A History of Negro Revolt, and The Black Jacobins, as well as a translation of a biography of Stalin. In his defense, James said, “This is my chief offense, that I have written books of the kind I have written” and as a result considered the immigration case against him “a violation of the rights of every citizen of the United States.”

In 1952, James was transported to Ellis Island. While imprisoned there, James began to write Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, a literary and political analysis of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—and strangely enough was meant to serve as his plea for release. The bulk of the book describes his view of Melville as an acute observer of the conditions of U.S. industrialization. He concluded with a chapter that invokes his right to stay in the country, and critiqued the government’s anti-immigrant activities, including the conditions at the Ellis Island prison, as an, ironically, un-American activity.

James wrote that the inhumane conditions and political dynamics of the prison were a microcosm of global politics in the 1950s, and felt that they perpetuated the danger of “world communism.” According to James, the callousness and policies of the prison administrators left detainees—including James himself—with no effective recourse for better treatment. For example, James’s chronic ulcer condition worsened because of the prison food and the refusal of prison administrators to make sufficient dietary considerations. “The local INS director told me that I could leave any time I wanted and go and ‘drink my papaya juice [in Trinidad],” James is quoted as saying in Buhle’s biography. He was eventually hospitalized as a result of this and similar callousness towards him. “I was an alien. I had no human rights. If I didn’t like it, I could leave. How to characterize this otherwise than as inhuman and barbarous?”

The only effective intervention that secured results for James and other imprisoned immigrants were at the behest of a highly effective Communist organizer that James shared a cell with:

“This is the Department of Justice which is leading the struggle against Communism. With all its officers and armed guards, its bolts and its bars, its thick walls and its power, it was morally defeated by one single Communist repeatedly…”

As a result, the Communists gained popularity among the Ellis Island immigrant prisoner population:

“This then is the crowning irony of the whole world that is Ellis Island. That while the United States Department of Justice is grimly pursuing a venomous anti-alien policy, and in the course of doing so, disrupting and demoralizing its own employees desperately trying to live up to their principles, the despised aliens, however fiercely nationalistic, are profoundly conscious of themselves as citizens of the world.”

James believed, though, that he, unlike the other prisoners, understood the true nature of the Communists:

 “I did not learn in Melville that Communists were men of purpose. But Melville made me understand how all-embracing was this purpose, its depth, its range, its flexibility, its deep historical roots, the feebleness of all opposition to it which is not animated by feelings as sure and as strong.”

If the shoe were on the other foot and the Communists were in charge of the prison facility, he wrote, they would tyrannize the prisoners with the same fervor with which they helped him and others. As a result, while he attributed responsibility for the conditions in the prison to U.S. government officials, the focus of his analysis was the danger their policies and behavior posed to the struggle against Communism.

By most accounts, James’s last chapter of Mariners was a bizarre overture: His profuse statements of opposition to Communism and his certainty of the rightfulness of his own inclusion in the American tradition smack today of the “good immigrant/bad immigrant” dichotomy that can sometimes pervade the rhetoric of even the most well-intentioned supporters of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. It is possible to read James’s last chapter of Mariner as a misguided and naïve analysis from a Trotskyite revolutionary desperately seeking a political space for his worldview within the United States. However, it is also possible to read it as what a system of dehumanization and deportation can do to a person, even a person as bright and analytical as James.

The last chapter has many of the hallmarks of many pleas to the public from immigrant detainees: an assertion of innocence of any wrongdoing; an observation that even the government acknowledges the hardship that his citizen wife and son would endure if he were deported; an argument that his deportation would fly in the face of what “America” really is about; and a request for financial assistance from the public.

As with so many other undocumented immigrants, James “loved this country” and “desperately wanted to become an American citizen,” in the words of Boggs. James himself says in Mariners that he worked hard to understand U.S. history, literature, and politics. Moreover, his American years had led him to plan book-length works not just on Melville, but also on Walt Whitman and “American Civilization” as a whole. In the years prior to his detention, James had “lectured across the country to all types of audiences … workers, intellectuals, church members, whites and Negroes … students, hundreds at a time.” James had also fallen in love with Constance Webb, a political ally. Because the U.S. authorities would not recognize the divorce from his Trinidadian wife, he moved briefly to Reno, Nevada, a “divorce mill,” according to Buhle. Prior to being detained, James had a son with Webb, whom they nicknamed Nob; Mariners is dedicated to him.

Copies of the book were sent to every member of Congress, says Boggs, but to no avail. The ideological vice of Cold War politics had closed in around James and no amount of love for America or social and professional ties in the country were going to keep him on its soil.  Joining the parade of other expelled radical immigrant luminaries like Emma Goldman, Marcus Garvey, and many others before and after him, James was effectively forced out of the country in 1952. Moreover, as James put it, “the starting point is, on the surface, the drive against Communism. In reality, it embraces all aliens,” he wrote. Two years after James’s expulsion, the INS’ “Operation Wetback” drove hundreds of thousands of mostly Mexican immigrants out of the United States in similarly tactic of “self-deportation.”

While he attempted to continue to be involved in his American political work from abroad, over the course of the next decade, he broke with Boggs and Dunayevskaya. It would be two decades before James returned to the United States to teach and lecture. For all intents and purposes, the American life of the radical artist and revolutionary immigrant was ruined, and what was gained by doing so is unclear at best.