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The continuing relevance of Beyond a Boundary

The C.L.R. James classic informs our struggle against racism and transphobia in sports today

Joel Sronce describes the continuing relevance and insight of C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary. This article has been modified from a lecture given earlier this year.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary – part memoir of the author’s life in Trinidad and beyond, and part social, political, and historical exploration of his beloved cricket.

While Beyond a Boundary is lauded by some as the greatest book on cricket ever written, others celebrate it for something else – its politics of resistance. For those familiar with James’ life, this comes as no surprise. Though on its surface, Beyond a Boundary addresses a very different subject than James’ most famous work, The Black Jacobins, the former text consistently reminds us that there is considerable overlap regarding this colonizer’s game, and the anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-racist, and revolutionary struggles to which James dedicated his life.

Throughout the text, James wrestles with cricket as both a site of imposition and control, of ideological inculcation, and yet also potentially as a site of equality, dignity, and even an avenue toward liberation. A tool for the oppressor, until it’s wielded as one for the oppressed.

Six decades after the book’s publication, the world of sport remains a site of struggle against oppression – an arena in which dehumanization both gains legitimacy and becomes contested. Creating a throughline between James’ political era and our own, this article considers the lessons that we can learn from Beyond a Boundary today.

C. L. R. James was born in 1901 in Tunapuna, a town in Trinidad. Trinidad (known as part of Trinidad and Tobago) is one of the many islands, countries, and dependencies that make up the subregion known as the West Indies. Interestingly enough, the term “West Indies” endures up to today perhaps most notably due to the fact that its cricket team still collectively plays – and not to mention has historically kicked some serious ass – under this grouping, rather than separately as Trinidad, as Jamaica, as Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the list goes on.

When C. L. R. James was a child in Tunapuna, his house stood exactly behind the town’s cricket pitch – a place of incredible importance for almost everyone, and especially for James. The James’ house was so close to the wicket, James writes, that “an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window” (3). And in fact, it was James who did stand at the bedroom window, from noon to night, watching the matches. He’s the first to admit the metaphor here, calling it A Window to the World. This metaphor is central to the book’s main themes, and how cricket itself – socially, politically, and historically – is such an apt window to understanding the world. And from a very early age until the end of his life, James held the game so intensely dear.

Black and white photo showing West Indian cricketers George Francis, Learie Constantine, and Herman Griffith—all of whom feature in CLR James writings—on the team's famous tour of Australia during the 1930–31 season.
West Indian cricketers George Francis, Learie Constantine, and Herman Griffith—all of whom feature in CLR James writings—on the team’s famous tour of Australia during the 1930–31 season. Photo from the National Library of Australia.

And yet a young C. L. R. James also began to resist things around him – particularly the expectations imposed upon him by his family and by the intense scholastic demands that made up more or less the singular route out of the Black underclass. These demands, of course, resulted from the structures imposed upon him and all Black and Brown people in the West Indies, by British colonialism.

Yet rebel as he might against this subjugation, James would adamantly refuse any deviation from what he understood as the rules and ethics of cricket. This, to him, was inconceivable.

“Two people lived in me,” James writes, “one, the rebel against all family and school discipline and order; the other, a Puritan who would have cut off a finger sooner than do anything contrary to the ethics of the game.” (28)

The reasons for this are complex. Don Lash puts it well, when he writes,“It can seem puzzling that nations starved, subjugated and exploited by the British Empire would retain such affection for the sport”:

Reading Beyond a Boundary, however, one has a sense that for the colonized, cricket had a different meaning than for the colonizer. By institutionalizing cricket, the British had created a visible contradiction to the racism on which imperialism was dependent. There was an ethical dimension to the game, which James revered as a boy and for which he unapologetically retained a life-long affection.

Lash continues:

The imperialists could brutally suppress the West Indian people and deny them any opportunity to control their own destiny, but their ingrained loyalty to the game meant that within the boundaries of the cricket grounds, West Indians could assert their equality. They could also develop new styles of play, changing the game forever. To James, colonial cricketers were not playing the colonizers’ game, they were making it their own.

While continuing to play cricket after graduation, James began to teach, and not long after, he began to write. He explains,

I was a sports journalist. The conflicts and rivalries which arose out of the conditions I have described gripped me. My Puritan soul burnt with indignation at injustice in the sphere of sport… I fought the good fight with all my might. I was in the toils of greater forces than I knew. Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. When I did turn to politics, I did not have too much to learn. (65)

C. L. R. James had two early obsessions: Sport and literature. However, this began to change when he moved to England with Learie Constantine, a fellow Trinidadian, who began to play cricket there professionally. In England, having to convince that society of their own humanity, the two brought out the political in each other, as James writes,

Up to that time I doubt if he and I had ever talked for five consecutive minutes on West Indian politics. Within five weeks we had unearthed the politician in each other. Within five months we were supplementing each other in a working partnership which had West Indian self-government as its goal. (115-116)

And so, regarding those two early hobbies, James writes of his time in England: “Literature was vanishing from my consciousness and politics was substituting itself.” (121)

The publishing of his political writings during this time in England launched James into some political fame, including fifteen years in the United States, lecturing and immersed in Marxist political organizing and supporting strikes and the burgeoning labor and civil rights movements. He was also a house-guest of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City during Trotsky’s last years of his life.

James is perhaps best known for his book The Black Jacobins, which gives a historical account of Toussaint Louverture and the uprising of slaves in the Haitian Revolution – the only slave revolution in history that broke the slave system and led to the rule of non-white, formerly-enslaved individuals. In 1936 in London, when C. L. R. James’ play Toussaint Louverture was performed at Westminster Theatre, playing the lead role was none other than Paul Robeson, one of the most famous activist-athletes in world history.

Ultimately, James’ writings became a significant snare in the decolonial drumline that began to rattle the world, shaking it of some of its formal colonial chains. James returned to Trinidad just a few short years before it won its independence from Britain, and he was instrumental in that movement, too.

James’ footsteps during these years deserve much more than I could ever provide here, so instead  I want to return to Beyond a Boundary and how it addresses a few questions: Exactly how had cricket plunged James into politics, so that he “did not have too much to learn”? What injustices did it foreground, that burnt his soul with indignation? And finally, what injustices – new ones as well as vestiges from James’ day – parade among us on pitches and fields and in gymnasiums? What does James tell us about them?

Of course, the primary injustices that James found and faced through cricket were ones relating to racism, stemming directly from the desire—and the systemic need—of those in power to maintain the status quo, and by extension their own supremacy. And of course, these injustices brought about James’ political education, and informed his avenues of resistance.

Beyond a Boundary is filled with stories from this struggle, though here I will only share a few. And unfortunately, even these few examples will resonate all too well with the world we’re living in today.

To no surprise, James’ adolescence was dominated by colonialism and white supremacy, even in the less visible ways where physical violence is absent.

Of this reality in his youth, he writes,

It was only long years after that I understood the limitation on spirit, vision and self-respect which was imposed on us by the facts that our masters, our curriculum, our code of morals, everything began from the basis that Britain was the source of all light and leading, and our business was to admire, wonder, imitate, learn; our criterion of success was to have succeeded in approaching that distant ideal – to attain it was, of course, impossible. (29-30)

Even in the allegedly colorblind, meritocratic world of sports, this reality penetrated. Of Trinidadian cricket’s resulting political contradictions, James writes,

The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins. (66)

As political forces prowled beyond the boundaries of the pitch, neither James nor any other cricket player of color could – to put it in modern termsshut up and bowl.

Finally, there’s the case of Frank Worrell, another Black West Indian cricketer for whom James helped wage an intense campaign for his deserved captaincy, and for a captaincy on display not just in other colonized countries, but in majority-white countries, too. James writes,

Worrell as captain at home or in India was bad enough, but that could be swallowed by the manipulators. What was at stake was the captaincy in Australia and still more in England. Their whole point was to continue to send to populations of white people, black or brown men under a white captain. The more brilliantly the black men played, the more it would emphasize to millions of English people: ‘Yes, they are fine players, but, funny, isn’t it, they cannot be responsible for themselves – they must always have a white man to lead them. (233)

I think one needs to look no further than the Rooney Rule and the lack of Black coaches in the NFL today – not even to mention the conversation that surrounds that reality, in and almost all sports – to see the vile but undeniable present continuity.

These continuities in sports – not only across the six decades since Beyond a Boundary’s publication, but across the eight, nine, and ten decades since the book’s events took place – are absolutely worth recognizing and interrogating by anyone committed to building a world beyond them.

I could go on about the seemingly immovable ways in which sports endure as a tool for maintaining the established order. Yet we know that it can work the other way around, too, challenging and even toppling the status quo. For as we have seen over the course of modern history, sport itself can be an actor – not merely a subject, nor simply a passive pastime – on the stage of human history. For James alone, where sport might have plunged him into politics, and at its worst have burdened him with injustice, it played other roles, too – roles that James used to rattle the world.

In James’ discussion of the political writings that he did while living with Constantine in England – again most notably, his incredibly influential book, The Black Jacobins – he provides their historical influence in the decolonial era, as well as their origins in sport. (It’s very important to note here that it was Constantine’s generous salary, not to mention his generosity, that gave James the time for political engagement, the time to write, and the avenues to be published.)

Some years later [James writes, meaning after his publications] the Trinidad workers in the oilfields moved. They were followed by masses of people in all the other islands, closing one epoch in West Indian history and opening another. One Government commentator, in reviewing the causes, was kind enough to refer to the writings of C. L. R. James as helping to stir up the people… I continually meet middle-class West Indians and students who say this: When the upheavals did take place these books were high on the list of those few that helped them to make the mental and moral transition which the new circumstances required. At such times literary values are not decisive. There must be new material, new in that its premises are the future, not the past…I have shown the circumstances in which the material was produced. Others may be able to separate from these circumstances cricket and a great cricketer [meaning Constantine]. It should be obvious that for me this is impossible. (121)

And so it was sport, in many different ways, that brought these influential texts to the world. And therefore sport was a small spark that contributed to setting in motion significant waves of a political movement, of strikes and of uprisings, of regime changes, of streaks of light through the blinds of injustice, and of a changing in human history.

C. L. R. James never wrote about trans athletes. Unfortunately, Beyond a Boundary, much like a lot of political and popular writing of the early twentieth century, in which the book’s events unfold, doesn’t leave much room for anyone outside of the masculine gender. However, in terms of how sports clash with oppression, I do find that the book’s lessons are still quite valuable and transferable.

James touches again on how sports were used by those in power as a way to maintain the status quo of their own supremacy. He writes,

The authorities needed always to have one white player as captain, and one or two others in reserve in case of accidents and as future candidates. They believed (or pretended to, it does not matter) that cricket would fall into chaos and anarchy if a black man were appointed captain. (70)

His words, “They believed (or pretended to, it does not matter)” are echoed so poisonously in the transphobic backlash that we see today. (And if you really want my editorial, it is that they “pretend to.”) Powerful conservatives are painting the picture of trans people, particularly trans women, as “taking over sports,” when we see that that is clearly not the case. Even considering the strength and international breadth of these reactionary attacks, the straw-person nature of these arguments is nonetheless staggering. Again, the statistics and evidence here are myriad, but here’s just one illuminating example:

As previously discussed in Tempest, when the New York Times reported on Utah’s recent ban on trans student-athletes, it included that the ban will affect four children, in a state with well over three million people. Four kids, four high-schoolers, none of whom, obviously, can cast a vote about their own discrimination or their discriminators. And only one of the four kids identifies as a trans girl, which is even more revealing, as transwomen athletes have in particular drawn the sexist, patronizing ire of the right.

In the introduction to Beyond a Boundary, Lipsyte writes,

It seemed like a classic ploy by the conquerors: games, particularly so restrained and ritualistic a game as cricket, could be imposed upon the colonies to tame them, to herd them into psychic boundaries where they would learn the values and ethics of the colonist… But once given the opportunity to play the master’s game, to excel at it, the colonials gained a self-esteem that would eventually free them.

If we were to try to map this onto the oppression of trans athletes today, what could we say? Certainly, the lessons that young trans people are learning from those in power are cruelly personal, and clearly political – for political gain. The calculated attack on trans youth athletes is doubtlessly a ploy by aspiring conquerors of certain weaponized ideological positions. They are imposing upon young people struggling with their identities a vice of fixed, binary boundaries, herding them into one of the two options. They are enforcing the “values” and “ethics” of a heteronormative society, built atop the foundation of patriarchy and white supremacy, for their own personal and political gain.

Trans kids – like Black and other BIPOC athletes previously and presently – are seeing their self-esteem, and any even fleeting notion of liberation, facing a redoubled attack. Facing a campaign to criminalize the joy that the most beautiful and sometimes most vulnerable people find and help to bring into the world. Within and beyond sport, these are evil solutions to problems that do not exist, while those leading the legislation are benefiting from the division, the dehumanization, and the deflection.

In these dark times, I wish there were better answers: A clearer, more humane path forward. With Beyond a Boundary’s help, I look for some hope where I can:

At the end of his introduction, Robert Lipsyte concludes, “Yet at the heart of it all is the true glory of sport, the individual daring to be better. How society can nurture the dream without cynically exploiting it may be the true sports challenge of the century” (xiv-xv).

His words remind me of Shaun Harkin’s writing ahead of the 2014 men’s World Cup in Brazil: “The struggle for the soul of football is synonymous with the struggle for the kind of society we deserve to live in.”

And as I see it, the same is happening now among us. The struggle for the soul of our athletic programs, particularly high-school and all youth athletics, is synonymous with the struggle for the kind of society that we deserve to live in – that all of us, that every single one of us – deserves to live in. A society that uses sport to honor and uplift our individuality, our identities, our right to seek out and to discover what so many of us value so dearly: the community and camaraderie, the self-determination, the fulfillment, the belonging, that our games and our teams bring us. The joy of sports.

In Beyond a Boundary, sport as a tool of the oppressor, and its related devastating continuities, give us despair; and yet sport’s ability to bring about new social possibilities, to provide a self-esteem that feels like freedom, or even to rattle the world – these all give us hope. Perhaps at this moment, our strongest hope can be found in our ability to read the world around us, to acknowledge the lines in the sand, and to realize our own courage in being very deliberate and very visible – and fuck it, even being fearsome – about which side we are on.

Featured image credit: pellethepoet; modified by Tempest.

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Joel Sronce View All

Joel Sronce is a writer and activist from North Carolina, currently living in New York. He is a member of Tempest and the Greensboro Revolutionary Socialists.