#NOBAN — C.L.R. JAMES, 1953

C.L.R. James Papers; Box 24 Folder 33; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

The Department of Justice and its policies, not the aliens, are the chief source of the demoralizing regime on Ellis Island. It cannot even organize and give some sense of direction to its own American security officers. Its misunderstanding of the aliens themselves is absolute.

The whole of the world is represented on Ellis Island. Many sailors, but not only sailors; Germans, Italians, Latvians, Swedes, Filipinos, Malays, Chinese, Hindus, Pakistanis, West Indians, Englishmen, Australians, Danes, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Canadians, representatives of every Latin-American country. As I write each word, I see someone whom I knew. To the administration on Ellis Island and I presume, at 70 Columbus Avenue, these are just a body of isolated individuals who are in reality seeking charity, or a home in the United States which is a better place to live in than their backward or poverty stricken countries. Of all the blunders I encountered on Ellis Island this is undoubtedly the most colossal.

These men, taken as a whole, know the contemporary world and know it better than many world-famous foreign correspondents. They discuss among themselves their attitudes to the United States, their attitudes to World War III, to Russia, to totalitarianism, to democracy, to national independence. I have never heard or read in any newspaper such coldly realistic discussion as to the possibilities of war, and weighing of which side offered the greater advantages. They pass to one another political articles in the popular press, and they discuss and fill in from personal knowledge. With a devastating simplicity they sum up regimes. I have heard a man say in five minutes all that needed to be said about one of the most controversial regimes in the world today. He ended, “I know. I have lived and worked there.” Their consistently recurring view of the United States is worth recording. “America is all right if you have money.”

Indo-China, the Malay States, Pakistan, Franco Spain, Yugoslavia, Europe yesterday, today and tomorrow, Asia today, Germany, East and West, I picked up, sometimes at second-hand, sometimes confused, sometimes contradictory but always authentic views. There was a Scandinavian who had traveled all over the world, spoke many languages and knew Europe and Europeans to his fingertips. I spent some days in his company. He spent his time alternately declaring with great emphasis that he didn’t care about anything any more, not a damn thing—it was too much for him—he was tired of it. And then he would immediately launch into such descriptions, reminiscences, analyses and forecasts of the European situation as I had never heard before. He wanted to, but he could not leave it alone.

This is my final impression. The meanest mariners, renegades and castaways of Melville’s day were objectively a new world. But they knew nothing. The symbolic mariners and renegades of Melville's book were isolatoes, federated by one keel, but only because they had been assembled by penetrating genius. These were federated by nothing. But they were looking for federation. I have heard a boy, a young oriental, say that he would fight in the war on either side—it didn’t matter to him. What he wanted was a good peace, no half-peace. This peace, however, he added almost as an afterthought, should include complete independence for his own little country.

This then is the crowning irony of the little cross-section of the whole world that is Ellis Island. That while the United States Department of Justice is grimly pursuing a venomous anti-alien policy, and in the course of so doing disrupting and demoralizing its own employees desperately trying to live up to their principles, the despised aliens, however fiercely nationalistic, are profoundly conscious of themselves as citizens of the world.

C.L.R. James, “A Natural but Necessary Conclusion,” in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953)

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