A Sticky Wicket

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book quite like Beyond a Boundary, a genre-bender by C.L.R. James that mixes sports writing with historical analysis, literary critique, aesthetic theory, and political philosophy — all curated through James’ own autobiography and some sketches of several players from a game he adored playing, watching, and reporting on: cricket.

My own lack of cricket knowledge and odd terminology made the book’s occasional play-by-play hard to follow, but not so much as to prevent enjoyment of its other dimensions — including James’ unique poetic style. Cricket serves as the hub of a wheel around which its series of stories and reflections revolve, and a gear which turns to drive the book forward. Beyond a Boundary is in part a documentary display of James’ mind at work: he recalls scores and plays from decades prior, down to the level of the precise number of steps and wind-milling motion of a bowler, their grip on and spin of the ball, the condition of a wicket on a particular day, the awaiting batter’s kinetics — legs, torso, arms, wrists — as he swings to meet the contingency hurtling rapidly towards him.

James offers rich descriptions of his beloved cricketers, even comparing them to statues of Greek gods. He also deliberately keeps them grounded as human beings. Relating the pre-game rituals of Jamaican cricketer George Headley, James describes his inability to sleep the night before a match because he is “busy playing his innings the next day… [going] through every conceivable ball and [making] a stroke to correspond.” This is normal stuff for any elite athlete, but then we learn that “morning sees him in the grip of processes he does not control. He rises early and immediately has a bowel motion. At ten o’clock he has another. And then he is ready.” (145)

Such scatalogies notwithstanding, James is careful to counter the tendency in reporting on Black athletes that overemphasizes their physicality and “instincts.” Where many writers of his day (and our own) would focus on Learie Constantine’s command of his body, James pushes back in a description of one of the Trinidadian cricketer’s batting techniques and its origins:

Constantine’s leg-glance from outside the off-stump to long-leg was a classical stroke. It was not due to his marvellous West Indian eyes and marvellous West Indian wrists. It was due, if you must have it, to his marvellous West Indian brains. (132)

James knew Constantine’s mind directly: they emigrated from Trinidad to England in the same era, and when James ran out of money Constantine took him in as a lodger, in exchange for assistance in writing his own memoir. Their many discussions contributed to their mutual political development — Constantine would later go on to be a lawyer and politician — and James notes that when he finished writing The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933), Constantine paid for the treatise’s printing.

James was born in 1901, and Beyond a Boundary appears in 1963. It’s an effort to assemble his own life’s puzzle pieces, even if the edge pieces aren’t all yet in place, and to make sense of the various worlds he straddled. It is not all beauty and motion. In the chapter “The Light and the Dark,” James reflects on the discomfort of painful memories — which many of us revisit for “catharsis”, to get “the poison out of your system” in order to free yourself from the memory. In contrast, he reflects:

That is exactly what I do not think about these memories. They do not liberate me in any sense except that once you have written down something your mind is ready to go further. I do not want to be liberated from them. I would consider liberation from them to be a grievous loss, irreperable. I am not recording tragedy. I do not wish to be liberated from that past and, above all, I do not wish to be liberated from its future. (59)

Despite cricket’s association with colonial oppression, and the long history of West Indian cricket teams being captained by white players, James does not abandon the sport — and in fact he views these problems as key features in its, his, and the world’s development. James observes that the dramatic interplay of the game itself is becoming intertwined with liberation struggles taking place across the world, and he elaborates on this in one of the book’s final chapters (“What is Art?”). Here he demands that theorists pay attention to sports and their role in society:

The aridity and confusion of which they so mournfully complain will continue until they include organized games and the people who watch them as an integral part of their data. … Two men boxing or running a race can exhibit skill, courage, endurance, and sharp changes of fortune, can evoke hope and fear. They can even harrow the soul with laughter and tears, pity and terror. The state of the city, the nation, or the world can invest a sporting even with dramatic intensity such as is reached in few theaters. When democrat Joe Louis fought the Nazi Schmelling the bout became the focus of approaching world conflict. (195-196)

For James, sports is not just about the atheletes themselves, but the drama of their confrontation through the eyes of the people in the stands; their eyewitness is as important as the game itself, or more so. Anyone who has ever carried a memory of such an experience with them — whether it be from sports or another kind of performance — can identify with the significance of such attachment. Even if the event was “recorded” and we can go back and watch it again, doing so does not reproduce the same feeling we got being there when it happened. The experience can not be replicated, and yet recalling it remains evocative, emotional, and meaningful to us on a variety of levels.

In the context of global anti-colonial struggles, James elevates the cricket match to a higher plane than other sports. My sense is that this privileging takes place because cricket is his favorite sport, but his analysis is worth quoting at length in any event:

[Cricket] is so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterizes all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group. One individual batsman faces one individual bowler. But each represents his side. …

The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side. This fundamental relation of the One and the Many, Individual and Social, Individual and Universal, leader and followers, representative and ranks, the part and the whole, is structurally imposed on the players of cricket. (197)

The players enact a drama, for James, but its value realized through the spectators and how they interpret what they see in conversation with what they do and how they live. Even though he might object, we could borrow his thinking for many team sports and the role of individuals within the team, and certainly as he intended them for thinking about deeper philosophical questions in society.

Despite his eventual approach to understanding history “from below”, James was raised to believe in the manners and gentlemanly propriety of traditional colonial cricket — or as he frames it in the book, debates over what is or isn’t cricket (which I surmise to be controversies in mid-20th century cricket akin to the modern “bat-flipping” discourse in Major League Baseball, similarly replete with racist coding by those with starched collars and microphones.) In James’ cricket upbringing, umpires were beyond reproach, their authority or judgement was not questioned, players and fans accepted the outcome of their governance of the match.

But in 1960, in the context of many other indignities (including the continued refusal of West Indian colonial cricket authorities to appoint a Black player as captain) when a match against England in Trinidad produced a losing result for the West Indian team, the fans began throwing bottles onto the field. The cricket commentariat were flabbergasted. James was less so.

“We did not throw bottles,” he writes, “but we would have understood the feelings of those who had.” James offers an explanation of this unrest in cricketdom as an analogy of what is to come across the larger colonized world. He composes an open letter to the West Indian cricket authorities that year — which he reprints in full in the book — listing the many grievances of players and fans, asserting that the common people are determined to be heard. About the authorities themselves he writes:

Among you is the head of a West Indian family that for three generations has distinguished itself in religion, education, commerce, sport, politics, and social work. Two world-famous cricketers are now active in your councils and were yesterday active on the field. They know a great deal more about cricket than I do. I want to assure them…that I know much more about crowds than they do. (248)

Indeed. Trinidad and Tobago would gain its independence two years after the bottle-throwing incident.

A week ago today — as I neared the end of Beyond a Boundary — a police officer in Kenosha, WI fired seven shots into Jacob Blake’s back. In protest, players across many sports leagues refused to play, with WNBA players leading the way in literal dramatic fashion with t-shirts depicting bullet holes in the back. But the development that grabbed headlines was in the NBA, where the Milwaukee Bucks — and soon afterwards many other teams in “the bubble” — accounced they were going to engage in a boycott of the playoffs.

Three days later, the NBA strike was over almost before it began — inspiring takes whose relevance expired between the time they were written and published (unlike this one, hopefully!). What are we to make of this turn? Perhaps the blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick in the NFL still looms large, creating fears that hang over professional athletes’ desire to express themselves politically. Yet the fact that this was a poweful collective action being undertaken not only across the NBA but throughout other leagues, rather than one high-profile player’s courageous but all-too-lonely act, could have inspired more confidence to press forward.

Reports have emerged that LeBron James, Chris Paul, and a small group of other players consulted with former President Obama, who encouraged them to go back to work in order to achieve their demands. Minimizing one’s leverage is certainly an odd negotiation tactic, particularly at a moment when it appeared that momentum and support was still building, but YGWYPF. From the outside, it felt like the wider negotiation the players’ action was precipitating had barely begun. The players announced a series of concessions from the league itself, but there are obviously much larger demands that the players care about that remain unrealized.

The political nature of the strike certainly excited many imaginations, but expecting the players to carry all our hopes on their shoulders was perhaps too much. Their decision to strike is indicative of the times we live in, an outgrowth of the gathering strength and potential of popular social movements over the last decade, made possible by all the struggle that preceded it. But strikes are hard, and from the outside it is difficult to know what internal disagreements existed between players, or any other factors that may have contributed to their decision to return to work. Perhaps the truce — like most union contracts — is only temporary.

We may never learn who else the players consulted during the strike — Michael Jordan reportedly got one more dance — but the absence of movement leaders and the visible presence of Jordan and Obama signifies something notable: we could call it a vacuum, or an as-yet unforged connection. The players are inspired by and supportive of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but in the crucible they appear to have turned elswhere for guidance. This tells us something about the players’ perspectives on the world, but it also is indicative of the relative position of the movement itself within that world, on muscles that still need to be developed.

Sports can offer us heroes and villains, dramatis personae that stand in for the conflicts of our day in their actions both in and out of the arena — elevating our imaginations and emotions with their achievements, and inspiring us to further action and thought. Whatever its shortcomings, the unpredented nature of the sports strike stands as such an achievement; it will overshadow the rest of the playoffs and our memories of it will continue to resonate with relevance in the coming years.

But as the two Jameses — C.L.R. and LeBron — each remind us in different ways, it will require still more to push beyond our current boundaries.