As well as founding the Notting Hill Carnival, Claudia Jones lived a revolutionary life fighting for black liberation and socialism, writes Lucy Nichols
Claudia Jones’ political significance is unmatched. The Trinidad and Tobago-born Communist who grew up in the US before being deported and moving to Britain was an ardent anti-imperialist throughout her life, which she dedicated to the cause of socialism.
In addition to founding the festival that is the Notting Hill Carnival, Jones dedicated her life to bettering the lives of the working-classes – whether this be in the Caribbean, Africa, the US or in Britain. She was a significant player in the Communist Party USA, and theorised on black feminism, developing Marx’s views on women – Claudia described the black woman as a victim of ‘superexploitation’; an oppressed minority within an oppressed sex.
As Angela Davis pointed out in Women, Race, and Class ‘‘Claudia Jones was very much a Communist— a dedicated Communist who believed that socialism held the only promise of liberation for Black women, for Black people as a whole and indeed for the multi-racial working class.’’
Life in the USA
Born in Trinidad, Claudia moved to the US aged eight in 1923 – more specifically to Harlem, then an epicentre for black American culture and by extension, for resistance to the vicious racism of the US state and society.
Despite Harlem’s cultural and political significance, the area was desperately poor. Claudia grew up no stranger to this poverty that plagued black America, and her mother died when Claudia was just 13.
Claudia would later regard the death of her mother as the beginning of her radicalisation. Her mother worked in poor conditions in a factory, thus leading to the demise of her health – this opened Claudia’s eyes to the suffering of the working class in America, whether black or white.
Claudia herself suffered from ill health – tuberculosis and heart disease - throughout her life, no doubt as a result of the poor conditions she grew up in.
Despite her education being impacted severely due to illness, Claudia began writing for the Harlem Journal after graduating high school, and went on to join the Young Communist League USA in 1936, further radicalised by the 1931 case of the Scottsboro Boys – nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape by two white women in Alabama.
She went on to become an editor for the Daily Worker in 1937, the Weekly Review in 1938, and the YCL USA’s monthly journal throughout the Second World War.
Claudia continued as an active member of the Communist Party USA throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Of course, this was not a good era to be a communist in the USA – especially a black, immigrant communist. Claudia was arrested in 1947 because of her activity within the Communist Party. After a lengthy legal battle – during which she suffered a heart attack and a year behind bars – Claudia was deported and forced into asylum in England.
Claudia in London
London would then be where Claudia remained for the rest of her life. It was in London that Claudia drifted slightly from the politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The racism she experienced at the hands of some of her fellow CPGB members was the cause for this drift, though she remained fiercely loyal to the party and the international communist project throughout her life.
Claudia did, however, begin to organise with Caribbean and African communists in Britain, separate of the CPGB. It was here – in meetings with the African diaspora in Britain – that she took on a slightly more pan-Africanist outlook, and began to orient herself around Caribbean politics and communities in London.
The late 1950s were a turbulent time in the UK. Growing immigration from the Caribbean and various Commonwealth countries was met with hostility, despite the state encouraging this immigration as a means to bring in a new workforce after the devastation of WW2. As in the USA, Black people in Britain were confined to dramatically impoverished urban slums, with all the disadvantage that this brought.
In 1958, Claudia founded the UK’s first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, which she edited above a barber’s in Brixton, South London (home to a large proportion of the Caribbean diaspora in the UK).
It was through this paper that Claudia aimed to mobilise Black Britain against the racism of the British state and the violence posed by groups such as the British Union of Fascists. She also promoted class consciousness and West Indian independence from the European imperial powers.
But tensions between London’s black population and the state (namely the police) remained high. The state stoked division between working-class whites and this new black population, and hate crimes committed by white people were common.
Notting Hill Carnival
The Notting Hill Race Riots marked a culmination of these high tensions, as white residents of the suburb began an attack on black residents, leading to a series of riots in West London that lasted weeks.
As a direct reaction to the high tensions between black and white Londoners, and as a result of the growing subjugation of black people at the hands of the state; in 1958 Claudia founded the Notting Hill Carnival – a festival that celebrated Caribbean culture and history, open to all who wanted to attend.
The first Notting Hill Carnival was a humble event that took place in January 1959, in St Pancras town hall. Decades on, Carnival is one of the most important dates in the calendar for many of London’s Caribbean communities, and is attended by many thousands of Londoners, regardless of race.
Founding the Notting Hill Carnival is one of Claudia’s most well-known achievements, though her legacy extends far beyond this. Claudia, a life-long revolutionary, dedicated her last years to the bettering of the working classes – despite herself living in less-than-ideal conditions.
Just before her death, Claudia travelled to both China and the USSR to meet with various Soviet and Chinese women’s groups. It was in China that she met with Chairman Mao, months before she passed away in 1964.
In December 1964, aged just 49, Claudia suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery, in the plot to the left of Karl Marx.
Claudia Jones remains a giant for the left. Her legacy serves as a reminder of her dedication not only to black liberation, but to the Marxist cause, which she truly believed would come about from and by the global working classes.
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