Today’s Notting Hill Carnival rests upon the legacy of a remarkable persevering campaigning journalist
From Trinidad and Tobago, to the United States, to Britain, Claudia Jones stood firmly at the centre of every struggling society she entered, transforming even dark detention centres into active political arenas and causing colonial establishments to dread her influence. While Claudia’s name now surfaces in discussions about the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival, few have understood her legacy, and access to her speeches and television interviews remains limited.
A dedicated grassroots community leader active on both sides of the Atlantic, and a black woman no less, Claudia Jones captivated an audience of 14,000 in New York’s Madison Square Garden in the mid-1940s, an era which preceded the modern civil rights movement and followed women’s suffrage. In Britain, she set up one of the earliest black newspapers, the West Indian Gazette, and among her many campaigns, she organised the week-long hunger strike tent for the Free Mandela movement at St Martin in the Fields in the early 1960s.
What Claudia witnessed clearly paved her path. Her family emigrated from the then British colony of Trinidad following economic unrest and mass upsurges in the city of Port of Spain where unemployed workers’ councils were growing. There was a mounting consciousness particularly amid the Trinidadians through the Garvey Movement which, rightfully, was a cause of concern for European and American colonial powers. A few years after their arrival in Harlem, New York City, when Claudia was just 12 years old, her mother collapsed over a sewing machine in a factory, dying out of sheer exhaustion. As a teenager, she had to abandon further education and contracted tuberculosis due to poor living and working conditions, and this plagued her with ill health for the rest of her life. At the same time, she began to observe the systematic discrimination taking place around her, and was especially affected by the Scottsboro Boys trial of Alabama between 1931 and 1937 in which nine African-Americans were falsely accused of raping two white women. She also closely followed Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) and its closer alignment with Nazi Germany.
Claudia sought a radical political force to combat the social issues being faced by black communities during the Depression: the least paid, least educated, highest mortality and most imprisoned. She found this in the Communist Party. During this period, the Communist Party in Harlem was carrying out strong work in the social sphere, stepping in to stop evictions by white landlords and leading high profile legal-political cases in relation to the incrimination of black men in the south. As such, Claudia Jones joined the youth league swiftly rising to become the “negro affairs” editor for the Daily Worker newspaper and a regular speaker addressing the issues of working-class women. Poet and activist Elean Thomas comments in a 1989 edition of Spare Rib magazine: “She did not seek to compartmentalise human beings or see social activities as merely another method of politicity – but as a natural human interest.”
The FBI spent more than ten years spying on Claudia Jones. She was arrested on a deportation warrant in 1948, and again, under the McCarran Act in 1950, charged with being a communist “alien” (non-US citizen). In a letter she addressed to her friend John, she describes activism within the confines of Ellis Island with a vivacious pride: “There are trade unionists and maritime industries, who smile their firm greetings of approval when, from shops and locals, wires or letters come, telling of actions taken on behalf of American liberty.” Moreover, she petitioned the United Nations with fellow detainees, asserting, “Our freedom of conscience [has been] violated and our right to think outlawed.”
This Orwellian feeling is reiterated in an extraordinary court speech in 1953 when she is accused, this time under the Smith Act, with the ludicrous charge of advocating the overthrow of the US government. She appeals to judge and jury:
“The thinking process, as your honour well knows, is a process that defies jailing. When it is all boiled down what shows is not the strength of the policies and practices of our prosecutors – which are akin to police state practices – but their desperate fear of the people. Nothing shows this more, your honour, than our exposure of the biased jury drawn from a system which virtually excludes Negro, Puerto Rican and manual workers. This virtual exclusion exists not because of a lack of qualifications or even financial hardship, but because of deliberate discrimination based on consciously cultivated white supremacist ruling class prejudice which sullies our boasted western culture.”
Eventually, in 1955, the courts ruled that Claudia needed to be deported under the McCarran Law. Her country of origin would not take her, petrified of the power she would have on the small island. So Britain had no choice but to accept her as a colonial subject. After 33 years in America, ejected by a superpower frightened by this one woman’s courage, she left for Britain penniless and alone.
The West Indian Gazette and the Notting Hill Carnival
Impoverished as she was, Claudia Jones forged networks from the moment she stepped into Britain. She surrounded herself with creative practitioners and humanitarians, including Paul Robeson, Trevor Carter and Pearl Prescod. She immediately recognised that the community needed organising and a voice of its own.
The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News – its full name – was launched in 1958 in the aftermath of the Notting Hill race riots in which Kelso Cochrane was killed. As well as the newspaper, Claudia set up a committee with Amy Ashwood Garvey (the ex-wife of Marcus Garvey) to defend black victims.
The black press in Britain had a strong history in campaign journalism, published as letters in the 18th-century and gaining momentum as journals in the 19th-century. The mob violence of 1919 perpetrated against returning black servicemen of the first world war who were denied settlement – as well as Arab, Portuguese, Chinese and other minority groups – was the worst race riot in British history and gave the government licence to strengthen its immigration laws. Some black communities escaped targeted areas like Cardiff and Liverpool, while others stayed to launch papers and fight back.
Rooted in local and international campaign work, the West Indian Gazette lobbied the government on anti-racial legislation, featuring news stories on culture, immigration and responses to the media’s racialised language. Its publication period coincided with the pan-African movement and the liberation of many African countries, and its message very much echoed the sentiments of the 1945 Pan-African Congress in the UK, namely, the eradication of the colour bar and unity against British imperialism. In a December 1959 edition of the paper she writes, “We can only stop the prejudice in people’s minds by education, by persuasion, but we can stop the actions of incitement and discrimination by outlawing them.”
Claudia Jones went beyond the newspaper – and the unreceptive British Communist Party – to bring the local community together. She set up the first roofed festival in St. Pancras in the winter of 1959, televised by the BBC, in the belief that “unity can defeat rising racial tensions”. With carnival’s strong emancipative traditions, particularly in Trinidad where creative organic celebrations once provided the opportunity for people to dress-up and mock colonial powers, this was an ideal medium. Today, discussions on London’s Notting Hill carnival revolve around its commercial structure and its originality, and for decades it has been under threat from authorities and police clampdowns, and now, gentrification of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea. Its communal energy, however, continues to reverberate upon Claudia’s previous festival work and anti-racism marches in London.
The vast impact of Claudia’s work is still being unearthed. Earlier this year, the National Archives of Ghana released a “thank you” letter dated 27th October 1942 which she was sent by Kwame Nkrumah of the West African Students’ Union (WASU), a man who went on to become independent Ghana’s first prime minister and president.
Claudia Jones passed away in her sleep on Christmas Eve in 1964, not living long enough to see the UK’s first legislation addressing racial discrimination come about – the Race Relations Act of 1965. Claudia helped lay the foundations for the progress to come, as well as the values we must savour and revisit as we face refugee crises and the prejudiced discourse that has ensued.
Last week on a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon, British Jamaican author Donald Hinds sat in front of an audience at the Brixton Cultural Archives, humbly smiling, and spoke of her legacy. Having worked with her at the West Indian Gazette of 250 Brixton Road, Donald described Claudia as a woman with a big heart who laughed a lot and worked beyond her physical capacity. His wife now tells him he has inherited Claudia’s messy desk policy. In a calm but poignant recital, he read the words of George Lamming at her funeral in Highgate where she now lies buried to the left of Karl Marx.
“I shall think of her as a person, as a superior person – superior to the quality of our response to living… Here was a great source of our strength… If we mourn her, it is only to celebrate her example.”
Featured image from: http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2013/04/warrior-charge-the-birth-of-uk-soundsystem-culture-feature
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