Noteworthy Caribbean women are not overlooked when history is written, they are ignored. Whether inscribed by Caribbean men or others, the narrative is often about male leaders and intellectuals of the region. With this in mind we explore the achievements of another Great Caribbean Leader, Claudia Jones.
The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones, a tribute by David Horsley
In this book I chose not to speculate on aspects of her life and use her own words as often as possible’
Claudia Jones has been claimed by different organisations and individuals and even the British state who put her image on a postage stamp. The stamp read “Claudia Jones Feminist, Political Activist, Journalist”. She was indeed all of these but she was also a fighter against racism, colonialism, imperialism, for unity of a multi racial working class and above all a Communist.
A member of the Communist Party of the United States from 1936 until her deportation to Britain in 1955. On arrival, she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, of which she remained a member until her premature death in 1964. Claudia was a unique, brilliant woman who became a leader and mentor for many throughout the world. At her funeral, the ANC of South Africa’s message read “World Liberation Loss. The death of Claudia Jones has deprived liberation fighters all over the world of one of the most dynamic and most militant fighters. It is difficult to think of anyone in recent years who has remained so incorruptible in spite of the insidious influences of artificial independence. Claudia as we knew her belonged to the forefront of the struggle against imperialism, colonialism and fascism”.
Claudia’s family had moved from Trinidad to New York with the dream of a better life but in her own words, “The dream was soon disabused. Together with my three sisters our family suffered not only the impoverished lot of working class native families and its multi national populace but early learned the special scourge of indignity stemming from Jim Crow national oppression”.
She experienced atrocious housing conditions, despite a loving family who worked hard to raise her. The damp conditions in the apartment led to her suffering a year in hospital as a teenager, battling against tuberculosis then known as the workers disease. This resulted in continual hospitalisation through her life which was further worsened by the poor treatment she received in prison prior to her deportation.
She was becoming politicised and when her mother Sybil died this had a profound effect. Many years later she said, “On this day, my 37th birthday, still attending school, I think of my mother. My mother, a machine worker in a garment factory, died when she was the same age as I am today, 37 years old. I think I began then to develop an understanding of the sufferings of my people and my class and look for a way to end them”.
She wrote, “I spent a lot of time coming from work listening to the street corner meetings of the various political parties and movements in Harlem. This was the days of the famed Scottsboro Boys frame up. I was impressed by the Communist speakers who explained the reasons for this brutal crime against young Negro boys and who related the reasons for the Scottsboro case to the struggle of the Ethiopian people against fascism and Mussolini’s invasion. Friends of mine who were Communist although I didn’t know it then, seeing my interest, began to have discussions with me”.
Claudia, among other outstanding Black women members of the Communist Party, developed the theory of triple oppression under capitalism, experienced as Black, women and working class. She wrote, “Our Party was the first to demonstrate to white women and the whole working class that the triply oppressed status of Negro women is a barometer of the status of all women and that the fight for the full economic political and social equality of the Negro woman is in the vital self interest of white workers, in the vital interest of the fight to realise equality for all women”.
Among her female Black mentors in the Communist Party were a remarkable generation of Black women Communists. Alone of all political forces from the late 1920s onwards the Communist Party sought out the experience and political wisdom of Black women and actively promoted them to senior responsibility, right to the top of the organisation. Women such as Maude White Katz, who went to study in Moscow in the 1920s and became a union organiser and journal editor on her return and Williana Burroughs, sacked from her teaching job for demanding better lunches for her students. Williana went to the Soviet Union and broadcast in English there throughout World War 2. Louise Thompson Patterson travelled to Spain as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. She also worked alongside such outstanding Black Communist women as Esther Cooper Jackson who later edited Freedomways journal, Augusta Strong a leading member of Civil rights organisations and the brilliant dramatist Lorraine Hansberry.
Claudia in turn was a mentor for Charlene Mitchell who in 1968 was Communist candidate for president, the first time an African American woman stood for that position. Charlene, currently in her 90th year, visited Claudia in London in 1960 and she went on to become the mentor of another Black Communist woman who twice stood as vice presidential candidate for the Party, Angela Davis.
Her deportation to Britain came as a result of the refusal of the authorities to allow her to adopt American citizenship. Parallels with the present Windrush scandal and the racist laws of the British government are obvious. At her kangaroo court trial, she along with 12 other Communists were tried and all sentenced to terms of imprisonment. But Claudia’s spirit was indomitable. On trial for an article she had written, she addressed the court after being sentenced. She began, “Your Honor, there are a few things I wish to say. For if what I say here serves even one whit to further dedicate growing millions of Americans to fight for peace and to repel the fascist drive on free speech and thought in our country, I shall consider my rising to speak worthwhile indeed. Quite candidly Your Honor, I say these things not with any idea that what I say will influence your sentence of me. For even with all the power Your Honor holds, how can you decide to mete out justice for the only act to which I proudly plead guilty, and one moreover, which by your own rulings constitutes no crime, that of holding Communist ideas of being a member and officer of the Communist Party of the United States. Will you measure, for example as worthy of one year’s sentence, my passionate adherence to the idea of fighting for full unequivocal equality for my people, the Negro people which as a Communist I believe can only be achieved allied to the cause of the working class”. She ended her speech with these words. “If out of this struggle, history assesses that I and my co-defendents have made some small contribution, I shall consider my role small indeed. The glorious exploits of anti fascist heroes and heroines, honoured today in all lands for their contribution to social progress, will, just like the role of our prosecutors, also be measured by the people of the United States in that coming day”.
Deported after serving her prison sentence, her final message in the USA read, “This special kind of reaction in it’s racist immigration laws directed especially against West Indians from whose proud heritage I spring and also against Asiatic people is the shame of America”.
In Britain she was hospitalised for months on arrival and as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, she served on both the West Indian Committee and the International Committee. Such outstanding Caribbean comrades in the Communist Party as Billy Strachan, Trevor Carter and Cleston Taylor, recognised she had a greater understanding of race and class than themselves and a greater vision. One small example Billy Strachan and Trevor Carter years later discussed how they felt elated because they had succeeded in having West Indians as bus drivers, while she asked why are you not calling for them to be bus inspectors.
Claudia’s greatest achievements in Britain were the creation of the annual Caribbean Carnival in 1959 which celebrated the talents, culture, achievements and unity of people despite racism and founding and editing West Indian Gazette in 1958. Her skill and unique personality as leader and mentor, attracted many young people, like the Caribbean Communist Winston Pinder who worked with her and regularly sold the paper and Donald Hinds a Jamaican bus worker who, encouraged by her, went on to become a teacher, lecturer and writer. The paper featured articles on Black British, Caribbean, African, and colonial news. It supported the Soviet Union, China and Cuba and gave total support to liberation movements. As the anti racist struggle took shape, the Gazette became West Indian Gazette and Afro Asian Caribbean News“. She was a skilled newspaper woman, having edited Communist papers in the United States and she wrote many articles from the 1930s onwards.
Her last and most important article written in 1964, the year of her death, was The Caribbean Community In Britain which was published in the African American journal Freedomways, edited by her old comrade Esther Cooper Jackson, still a member of the Communist Party. This lengthy article was ground-breaking as the first analysis of Caribbean people in Britain written by a Caribbean Communist. She examines racism in all its forms which culminated in the brutal murder of Kelso Cochrane in London in 1959. She goes on to look at the government response to racism which was to pass even harsher racist immigration laws in the 1962 Immigration Act. When in opposition, the Labour Party opposed the Act, but once in government in 1964, did nothing to change it or the thinking behind it.
In the article, she wrote, “With the sole exception of the British Communists who completely oppose the system for quotas and control,for Commonwealth immigrants, all other political parties have capitulated in one way or another to this racialist immigration measure. A recent statement of the Executive Committee of the British Communist Party declared its opposition to all forms of restrictions on Coloured immigrants, declared its readiness to contest every case of discrimination, urged repeal of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act and called for equality of access for employment, rates of wages. promotion to skilled jobs and opportunities for apprenticeship and vocational training. It gave full support to the Bill to outlaw Racial Discrimination and pledged its readiness to support every progressive measure to combat discrimination in Britain. It also projected the launching of an ideological campaign to combat racialism which it noted, infects wide sections of the British working class”.
The writings of Claudia Jones are available in books and on-line and are as relevant today as they were when they were written. I urge you to seek them out. Researching and writing The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones has been an inspiration and we need to treasure the deeds and memory of this most remarkable person.
David Horsley, Author of The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones
Claudia’s legacy is manifold. For example: –
- The National Union of Journalists‘ Black Members’ Council holds a prestigious annual Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture every October, during Black History Month, to honour Jones and celebrate her contribution to Black-British journalism.
- The Claudia Jones Organisation was founded in London in 1982 by Yvette Thomas and others to support and empower women and families of African-Caribbean heritage. They can be found at 103 Stoke Newington Rd, Stoke Newington, London United Kingdom N16 8BX. Phone: +44 (0) 20 7241 1646
- Winsome Pinnock‘s 1989 play A Rock in Waterwas inspired by the life of Claudia Jones.
- Jones is named on the list of 100 Great Black Britons(2003 and 2020) and in the 2020 book.
- In August 2008, a blue plaque was unveiled on the corner of Tavistock Road and Portobello Roadcommemorating Claudia Jones as the “Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain”.
- In October 2008, Britain’s Royal Mailcommemorated Jones with a special postage stamp.
- She is the subject of a documentary film by Z. Nia Reynolds, Looking for Claudia Jones(2010). On 14 October 2020, Jones was honoured with a Google Doodle.
Launch of The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones
On the 1 December 2020 the Communist Party of Britain, with the participation of the Claudia Jones School for Political Education, Washington USA, launched The Political Life and Times of Claudia Jones, at a Zoom meeting attended by over 700 persons from across the globe.
Hosted by the Anti Racist – Anti Fascist Commission, the meeting was chaired by Luke Daniels – President of Caribbean Labour Solidarity. The speakers included author and Communist Party member David Horsley, Dr Claire Holder – Past Director of the Notting Hill Carnival, Jacqueline McKenzie – Windrush Barrister and Civil Rights activist and Angela Cobbinah – Freelance author and activist.
A special message was received from activist Winston Pinder, a contemporary of Claudia.
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