Speaker: Gary Younge
Venue: Dalston C.L.R. James Library
Review by Joy Francis
The Guardian’s respected columnist and writer Gary Younge, now based in Chicago, always attracts a packed audience when in England. His inaugural lecture in Hackney, London, to commemorate the politically incisive writing and intellectual deftness of C.L.R. James is no exception.
Fittingly held in the new Dalston-based library named in James’s honour, it is packed with students, journalists, activists, academics, writers, the odd comedian, local councillors and trade unionists.
This eclectic mix of people not only says a great deal about Younge’s broad demographic, but also about the influential legacy of Trinidadian-born James, a Trotskyist, essayist, historian and journalist who died in 1989.
Younge, a fan of James since his teens, reminds the audience that “the names of activists don’t get on libraries by accident”. He has a point. Over 3000 people signed an online petition by the Black & Ethnic Minority Arts network, backed by Hackney Unites, for the council to rethink its decision not carry James’s name from the old library to the new one. The decision was reversed.
When Younge heard about last year’s online campaign, he offered his support as an admirer of James, the intellectual who “lives his ideas” and puts them “into the service of the people”. Younge, who is also attracting a similar reputation, cautiously admits to a room also filled with C.L.R. James devotees that he is a “fan” and not a “scholar” of James’s writing.
This modest admission is soon forgotten as he intersperses his musings and insights with extracts from a selection of James’s writings, such as The Black Jacobins and Notes on American Civilisation (Younge’s favourite).
In a political climate when race equality’s relevance is being openly questioned, Younge pinpoints how James saw race and class as complementary. Younge also admires how James drew clear links between race and class on the one hand, and colonialism and imperialism on the other.
According to Younge, imperialism cannot work without terror, not just against the country in question, but also on home soil. Stop and search in the UK and the Patriot Act in the US are cited as two live examples.
Though it is easy to get caught up in James the political animal, Younge warmly celebrates James the “brilliant, witty, clever” writer. The writer who “made you feel smarter for reading his books and who took you with him”.
During the Q&A session, chaired by our own Andrea Enisuoh, the Leeds-based historian Christian Hogsbjerg surprises Younge and most of the audience with a hidden gem. He reads from a paperback chronicling how the old C.L.R. James Library was named after a campaign in the 1980s by teachers to not only get James on the curriculum, but to have a library named after him. To illustrate their commitment they disrupted a council meeting in protest. As with last year’s online campaign, they got their wish, though James is still not taught in schools.
With 2013 marking the 75th anniversary of The Black Jacobins and the 50th anniversary of his cricket classic Beyond a Boundary, if you are unfamiliar with C.L.R. James the writer, you soon won’t be.