Research at the RBML | Max Lewontin on CLR James and Darcus Howe

PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University, Max Lewontin recently visited the RBML as part of his project titled, “Poor people all over the world are clamouring for a change”: Migration, Race, and Transnational Circuits of Black Power. Below Max talks about his research in the CLR James and Darcus Howe papers, unearthing documents related to the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s, James’ role in organizing popular resistance, and some surprising correspondence related to Selma James.


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library? 

I wanted to examine a variety of Black Power publications, in addition to personal correspondence, in the papers of Trinidadian historian and activist C.L.R. James and his nephew, activist and writer Darcus Howe. My dissertation focuses on Black Power as a transnational social and political movement in the 1960s and 1970s spanning across North America, the Caribbean, and the UK, and I hoped the James and Howe papers would help me make further connections between Black Power groups active in very different political environments. A particular emphasis of my research is the 1970s “Black Power revolution” in Trinidad and Tobago, which nearly toppled the longstanding government of Eric Williams, the nation’s first prime minister of African descent, who had promised a decisive break with the legacy of British colonialism when Trinidad achieved independence in 1962. Williams, a historian before turning to politics, had once been James’ student. With this in mind, I hoped to further understand James’ role in a widespread popular uprising that united a multiracial group of students, unemployed and underemployed urban people, and oil and sugar workers against Williams’ People’s National Movement.

How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

This is my first visit to the RBML. I hope to further utilize digitized copies of taped oral history interviews from the Howe Papers which include materials from his return visits to Trinidad and other Caribbean islands from England, where he settled in the early 1960s and remained for much of his life.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

I’ve found a wealth of intriguing materials, including extensive issues of Freedom News and the National and International News Bulletin, two publications by the British Black Panthers, of which Howe became a member in 1970 and James served as an informal mentor. More surprisingly, I also found pamphlets related to a Trinidadian police campaign of violence and subversion against the National United Freedom Fighters, a guerilla movement whose members advocated “revolutionary violence” and took up arms in an effort to remake Trinidad as a socialist society free of foreign economic and political influence. One of the group’s most prominent members was Beverley Jones, a seventeen-year-old who was killed in a shootout by Trinidadian police in 1973; her sister was Altheia Jones-Lecointe, who was then the leader of the British Black Panthers in London. I knew some of this material might be in the papers of Darcus Howe, who was involved in the 1970 uprising against the Williams government in Trinidad, but I was surprised by t

C.L.R. James Papers, Columbia RBML, MS #1529

he depth of Caribbean materials in James’ papers while he was living between London and the US from the late 1960s and through the 70s.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

In Howe’s papers, there’s a fascinating collection of letters documenting his efforts to launch a complaint against the Trinidadian police in the wake of an attempted raid on his family home in 1979. I found it really surprising that given his militant political activism, especially regarding police harassment of Black and Asian people in Britain, the letters describe taking a more cautious approach to politically-motivated police harassment in Trinidad. In one letter, he writes to the Minister of National Security that he avoided making public mention of police intimidation in Trinidad—including a strip search at the airport—because “I did want anyone to construe any statement of mine as an intervention into the political life of the country.” In London, by contrast, Howe observes that “had similar treatment been meted out to me at Heathrow Airport, London, I would certainly have made a political issue out of it.” I suspect this relates to the politically fraught situation for radical activists (and ordinary Trinidadians) in the 1970s, as the Williams government imposed a series of states of emergency and campaigns of arrests against people seen as “subversives” and threats to “public order.”

In the James papers, I was surprised to find correspondence documenting his increasingly estranged relationship with Selma James, his wife and longtime political collaborator. Prior to embarking on this research, I didn’t know much about James’ personal life, especially in his later years, as many biographies focus on his earlier years of political activism in the US as a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency and on his prolific career as a writer and historian. One 1981 letter, from Selma James’ colleagues in London-based groups that called for wages for housework and rights for sex workers, is particularly striking. In it, the activists, including Solveig Francis, a founding member of the Crossroads Women’s Centre, and Wilmette Brown, a former Black Panther, point to James’ lack of public and financial support for Selma James, who supported herself for years as a typist. They write: “it is sobering to realize that a man of your political stature is unable to appreciate women’s contribution when the woman in question is your wife…We would have hoped that you had not joined the ranks of most other historians whose expertise consists of writing women out of history.” I found this a fascinating document revealing the complexity of C.LR. James’ interactions with antiracist feminist organizers that bridged the political and the personal.

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Archivists have a wealth of knowledge of the ins and outs of the collections they work with, so it’s always helpful to discuss your research and what you hope to find before and during your visit. I also think blocking out more time than you think you might need for an archival visit is a great strategy in case you discover new or unexpected materials while examining a collection.