By MURPHY BROWNE
There’s a woman who walks this mighty land
With a queenly grace goes she
In her struggles she never stands alone
For look at her company
Harriet Tubman is at her side
“Good cheer, Claudia,” cries she
“The slavers also wanted my head,
But our brave people still fought free.”
Fred Douglas and Garrison are here with her too,
And the people of every land
Stand shoulder to shoulder with Claudia Jones
She speaks and they understand.
Excerpt from “A Ballad to Claudia” published in the Daily Worker, written by Label Nibur.
Claudia Jones, who is recognized as one of the founders of the Nottinghill Carnival in London, England, was born on February 21, 1915 in Trinidad. In the book Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, author Carole Boyce Davies has documented the life and times of this little known but very important activist. Boyce Davies writes of Jones:
“The only Black woman among communists tried in the United States, sentenced for crimes against the state, incarcerated and then deported, Claudia Jones seems to have simply disappeared from major consideration in a range of histories.”
Jones was born Claude Vera Cumberbatch on February 21, 1915 in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, to Charles Bertrand Cumberbatch and Sybil Minnie Magdalene Logan Cumberbatch. Twelve days before her ninth birthday, on February 9, 1924, Jones arrived in New York on the SS Voltaire with her sisters Lindsay, Irene and Sylvia, accompanied by their aunt, Alice Glasgow, to be reunited with her parents who had immigrated to New York in 1922.
As a 20-year-old in 1935, Jones (who is described as “Black, woman, Caribbean born, Pan-Africanist, antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist”) became involved in social justice activism organizing to support the Scottsboro Boys. The case of the Scottsboro Boys (who were also supported by African-American activist Rosa Parks) began on March 25, 1931 when nine African-American young men were accused of raping two White women.
Despite strong evidence of their innocence, an all-White jury convicted the young men and sentenced eight of them to death. The accusation of rape came after a fight broke out between a group of White men and African-American young men who were riding on a Southern Railroad freight train.
The train was stopped by a White mob in Paint Rock, Alabama and the African-Americans were arrested for assault. Rape charges were added when two White women who were also on the train accused the African-American youth of rape. It was speculated that the White women accused the African-American youth of rape because they feared they would be arrested for vagrancy. One of the women had been arrested for adultery and fornication just two months before in January 1931. Whatever their reasons for the accusations, the women stuck to their stories until April 7, 1933 when, under cross examination, a different story was told (http://library.thinkquest.org/12111/scottsboro/rubybate.htm). The Scottsboro boys eventually gained their freedom but the process took almost 20 years.
As editor of a youth newspaper for the Federated Youth Clubs of Harlem, Jones wrote a regular column, “Claudia’s Comments” and so had a platform for her activist work.
Between 1936 and 1937, Jones joined the Communist Party and Young Communist League, became Associate Editor of Weekly Review, a newspaper of the Young Communist Party League and served as Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Young Communist League in Harlem. By 1938 she was the New York State Chairperson and National Council member of the Young Communist League.
In 1949, Jones wrote an article entitled “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” which was published in the June issue of Political Affairs and addressed the intersectionality of race, class and gender in African women’s lives. This is an excerpt from the article which has been reprinted in several books, including Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology, by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings; Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, by Beverly Guy-Sheftall; Notable Black American Women, Book II, by Jessie C. Smith and The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism, and Corporate Responsibility in Postwar America, by Laura Warren Hill and Julia Rabig:
“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women begin to take action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced. As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale, and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children. Viewed in this light, it is not accidental that the American bourgeoisie has intensified its oppression, not only of the Negro people in general, but of Negro women in particular. Nothing so exposes the drive to fascization in the nation as the callous attitude which the bourgeoisie displays and cultivates toward Negro women.”
As a result of her activism and rise in the Communist Party, Jones became a target of “aggressive” surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She was the latest in a long line of Africans in America targeted by the FBI, including Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Jones was arrested for the first time on January 19, 1948 and imprisoned on Ellis Island under the Immigration Act.
As a woman who had spent most of her life (24 of her 33 years) in the U.S. she was threatened with deportation to Trinidad. On December 5, 1955 she was ordered deported to Britain. She left the U.S. four days later on a ship, ironically named the Queen Elizabeth, and arrived in Britain on December 22.
Deportation from the U.S. to Britain did not curb her activism and once she settled in London, Jones co-founded the West Indian Workers and Students Association in 1958 and founded the West Indian Gazette. She was active in the political organizing of racialized communities in London and was instrumental in organizing the first London Caribbean Carnival on January 30, 1959 at St. Pancras Hall, London, which eventually became the Nottinghill Carnival of today.
The initiative came out of a response to a White supremacist British culture that saw White youth rioting through African-Caribbean neighbourhoods from August 30 to September 5, 1958. At the time senior White police officers lied in their reports and laid the blame on “ruffians both coloured and White”.
However, a report 44 years later exposed the lies and in the British Guardian newspaper in an article published on Saturday August 24, 2002, Home Affairs editor Allan Travis wrote:
“While senior officers tried to play down the racial aspects to the riots the internal Metropolitan police files released this month at the public record office confirm that the disturbances were overwhelmingly triggered by 300-to 400-strong ‘Keep Britain White’ mobs, many of them Teddy boys armed with iron bars, butcher’s knives and weighted leather belts, who went ‘nigger-hunting’ among the West Indian residents of Notting Hill and Notting Dale. The first night left five Black men lying unconscious on the pavements of Notting Hill.”
In Left of Karl Marx, Boyce Davies writes:
“The intellectual, cultural, and political work of Claudia Jones, in my estimation, offers one of the best models of African diaspora available. For Jones, who emerged as a leading member of the developing London Caribbean community in the 1950s and early 1960s, carnival carried, in its cultural practice, resistance to Euro-American bourgeois aesthetics, imperialism and cultural hegemony, and political and racial oppression. Carnivals, in the African diaspora tradition, demonstrate the joy that its people experience in ‘taking space.’”
In the preface of the book, Boyce Davies writes:
“Claudia Jones was a Black woman and a communist, clear about her ideological orientation, as she was about her identity as a Black woman writing and doing political work simultaneously. Jones was a Black communist woman very conscious of her location in history and her contributions to advancing her particular understandings of anti-imperialism. But her Trinidadian origin, identity and Caribbean diaspora belonging are also always present, as is her African diaspora experience, all gained through a series of migration and lived experiences.”
Although I knew of Jones previously, I first heard of this extensive study of her life when I attended the Black Women and the Radical Tradition National Conference at City University of New York in March, 2009.
Until Boyce Davies resurrected Jones in 2008, her story was ignored even by the communists. Since the publishing of Left of Karl Marx, I have attended several community events where communists and other socialist groups have books on display and never have I seen Left of Karl Marx among those on display. Asking about the book and even mentioning her name elicits puzzled looks, heads shaking and: “No, never heard of her or the book.” The book is available at the Toronto Public Library and at our community bookstores, including A Different Booklist and Nile Valley Books.
Jones, one of our mostly unsung sheroes, is buried left of Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, England. The inscription reads in part:
“Valiant fighter against racism and imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own Black people.”