Black Scholar
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Richard W. Thomas
Summer 1981

I first became aware of the significance of C. L. R. James's works in the history education of Black students in predominantly white "universities during a European History Survey class in the mid-1960's. Luckily for me and the few Black students in the course, I had already read with great interest and pride James's book, The Black Jacobins, which vividly described the story of Black revolt in French San Domingo (known today as Haiti). The historical evidence of the connection between this Black revolt and the French Revolution enabled me and the other Black students to do battle with an arrogant white professor who was determined to relegate the significance of this Black revolt to little more than a localized slave riot. Under my constant questioning, the professor was forced to acknowledge the international significance of this Black revolt (the only successful slave revolt in modern history), as well as its impact upon the course of European and American history. It was not easy for a white American professor teaching a European survey course to acknowledge the contribution of a Black slave, Toussaint L'Ouverture, to the success of the French Revolution.

This white professor was not atypical in his assumptions about Black history. Most white history professors in predominantly white universities considered Black history as outside of the purview of mainstream American and European history. Most certainly, Black history could not shed any light upon such monumental "white" historical events as the French Revolution! In short, James's Black Jacobins helped us to challenge this view of white history. We were able to show the historical connections between European economic and political developments and the slave trade, and more importantly for us as Black students, the intimate connection between the French Revolution and the Black revolt in San Domingo. For Black students in a lily-white "European" survey course, such historical connections helped to foster an understanding of the role and nature of Black events in modern history.

Another book by James, A History of Pan-African Revolt, contributed even more to our historical education as Black students. Even if predominantly white universities managed to come up with a few token courses in Black history (usually taught by someone trained in another field and "drafted" to teach a Black course as a sop to radical Black students), these courses were very seldom devoted to a systematic "comparative" perspective. Realizing that Black experiences in the Caribbean, United States, and Africa were all linked by survival and struggle, we were drawn toward James's A History of Pan-African Revolt. This "Pan-African" perspective was particularly helpful for those of us involved in Black radical student organizations composed of West Indian, African and Afro-American students; it provided us with a common historical legacy bound up in capitalism, racism and imperialism, and made ever clearer to us our common and interrelated historic struggles against these forces. The book proved indispensable for those of us who were en route to careers as professional historians. A History of Pan-African Revolt greatly aided us in comprehending the interconnections among Black struggles in San Domingo, Africa and the United States. This Pan-African perspective laid the foundation for many of us who years later would become interested in working in the field of the African Diaspora.

By far the most dramatic impression made on me by C. L. R. James was his appearance on the campus of Michigan State University in the late 1960's. He had been invited by the late James Hooker, a specialist in African history, who had just completed a book on George Padmore entitled Black Revolutionary. James's physical appearance made an immediate imprint on my mind. He was dark during a time when the Black revolution in America was still wrestling with color prejudice within the Black community; dark-skinned Afro-Americans on white college campuses were waging a struggle against white racism and fighting against the overt and covert "color-struck" syndrome of fellow Afro-Americans. As trite as it might seem today, I was doubly proud of that grand old man: he was not only a Black man but also a "dark" Black man. (By this time I was still recovering from having read DuBois' references to Garvey as "Black and ugly.") During the latter part of his lecture, James would confirm my "need" for a "dark" model. James had just finished a splendid discussion about his experience with Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore when he asked those of us with tape recorders to turn them off. He then mentioned one of the reasons why Padmore and he had left the West Indies: "dark" Blacks could not succeed very well at home. This struck me deeply. Other dark Afro-Americans and I were not alone in this double battle; even the great C. L. R. James had felt his own people's color bias!

James discussed other things that evening, among them DuBois' Black Reconstruction. After the talk, I had a brief chat with him. Perhaps to him I was just another faceless Black undergraduate history student in search of some meaning in the Black struggle, but to me James was one of my first "dark" intellectual models in a white world which emphasized pride of white skin and in a "Black" world which was still struggling with the question of whether Black was really beautiful.

Richard Thomas is a labor historian specializing in Black labor history and labor and race relations. He is an Associate Professor in the College of Urban Development at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

Back to Urgent Tasks Number 12

Back to Main