In the British education system, and the public spheres beyond it, we very rarely learn about black history. In the limited contexts in which black history is discussed, we often hear about America’s civil rights movement – but not about the legacies of black people living in Britain. This Black History Month, the Race Matters blog is spotlighting people and movements that have played important roles in black British history, especially those whose contributions are often overlooked. This week, Acting Online Editor Micha Frazer-Carroll looks at the work of activist, journalist and black feminist, Claudia Jones.
Claudia Jones, the founder of Notting Hill Carnival, did not have an easy childhood. Jones (who was born to the surname “Cumberbatch”) was born in Trinidad in 1915 – and migrated to Harlem, New York at the age of nine after the post-war cocoa trade crash, which rocked Trinidad and Tobago. Her mother died five years later, and as a teenager, Jones was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that plagued New York in the 19th and 20th centuries and thrived in dark, crowded conditions. The implications of colonialism and poverty were a part of Jones’ childhood – and no biographer would be amiss in concluding that these conditions were instrumental in her politicisation.
It was towards the tail end of Jones’ teenage years that she began to develop a more formal analysis of the triple oppression of race, class and gender (what black feminist author and professor bell hooks would later famously dub the “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”) that was so present in her own life. While working in a laundrette and in retail, she began to nurture a passion for writing and journalism focusing on race and class. Alongside shifts, she started a column called "Claudia Comments" for a local black nationalist Harlem publication, and as time went on, she began to more actively participate in political organising. Jones’ credentials from this period read like the most dedicated of busybody young activists: she joined the Young Communist League USA and became the New York State Chair, became a member of the Communist Party, and wrote and edited for the Daily Worker, the Weekly Review and American Youth for Democracy.
Of course, the 1940s was a time where the United States were becoming increasingly hostile towards Communist Party members. Accordingly, Jones was arrested in 1948 – later being found to be in violation of the McCarran act, which barred non-US citizens from joining the party. She served prison time on Ellis Island, where she had a view of the Statue of Liberty from her cell. She later wrote of the view from her window: “The Lady with the Lamp, the Statue of Liberty, stands in New York Harbour. Her back is squarely turned on the USA. It’s no wonder, considering what she would have to look upon. She would weep, if she had to face this way.”
Jones' treatment by the U.S. state should be of note to anyone interested in migration, as it reveals the (often overlooked) historical changeability of Britain’s borders. In 1951, Jones was tried and convicted of “un-American activities”, for which she would be deported – not to Trinidad, but to Britain. Black Studies professor Kehinde Andrews once argued in the New Statesman: “Jones is a reminder that the migration narrative in Britain needs a rethink. Those who came from the colonies were not foreigners… The Caribbean played the same function for the British Empire as the American South for the US, housing the plantations that powered economic development.” And Andrews is right – what we are not often taught in school is that Trinidad, like a number of other Caribbean islands at the time, was considered a part of the British Empire – and its citizens were treated as "subjects".
So Jones came to London in 1955 at the height of postwar immigration, alongside members of the “Windrush generation”. When she arrived in London, she found a rapidly-expanding community she described as being in desperate need of organisation. Accordingly, Jones campaigned against racism in housing, education and employment, and against the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, which would eventually make it harder for people from former colonies to migrate to Britain. Throughout all this, Jones managed to find time to maintain her passion for journalism, and in March 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette – a magazine written by and for black Caribbeans. The Gazette was the first magazine of its kind, and so should be considered a precursor to race-focused publications like the Voice and gal-dem (a magazine I have also worked for).
Then came Notting Hill Carnival, perhaps Jones’ greatest legacy, which was born out of dire circumstances. The summer after the founding of the Gazette, the racist hate that was so widespread in the 1950s continued to grow, with the White Defence League and other racist gangs launching a series of attacks on black communities. Five nights of rioting broke out on the streets of Notting Hill and Nottingham – encompassing the August bank holiday weekend. Jones’ response to the riots was unconventional but much-needed: the creation of a series of celebratory cultural events designed to "wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths", and to raise money for any young black people with legal fees to pay after the riots. Perhaps consistent with the brand of "Claudia Comments", the weekend was originally dubbed “Claudia’s Caribbean Carnival” – but would later become the annual event we now know as Notting Hill Carnival.
Jones was a woman who could truly do it all. In her writing, and in founding Notting Hill Carnival, she showed how journalism, art, and indeed celebration, were intrinsically connected to the broader anti-racist struggle. For Jones, culture work didn’t simply run parallel to the “real” world of politics, it was a part of it – and she used these things as tools towards crafting a more just world. After all, it was Jones who said: “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom,” and "people without a voice [are] lambs to the slaughter".
We should also never forget that she was a momentous organiser and agitator – fittingly buried to the left of Karl Marx’s grave after suffering a tuberculosis-related heart attack in 1964. Reflecting on An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!, Jones' best known essay (which tackled the issue we would now describe as “intersectionality”), that exclamation mark sums up Jones’ attitude to activism. Her work was – and still continues to be – a rallying cry, which jumps off of the page, and is never afraid to convey the urgency of its demands.
Header image via Wikimedia Commons