Across nations and issues
As Black History Month closes, Mike Belbin argues that black feminist communist Claudia Jones (1915-64) is only too relevant to today
How do we draw lessons from someone else’s experience? We can recognise courage and intelligence when we see them, but, as Lenin said, truth is concrete. Other people’s experience is not ours and we can be all too aware of the limitation of their perspectives, especially that of political activists in the past. Then again sometimes we may wish we were them, as that past can often seem much simpler than our own conjuncture. So are we left with appreciating activists in the past, either with general respect (‘a great fighter in their time’) or political nostalgia (‘they had a real working class in those days’)?
Who was Claudia Jones? Most who remember her will know her as someone who helped set up the Notting Hill Carnival. Others will know her as a black feminist (before black feminism became a university subject) and some may even remember her work for the Communist Party, in the US and UK. Online she is one of the ‘100 great black Britons’, described as a black nationalist and fighting for equal rights.1 Still others, like myself, did not know of her (I was told about her by a black colleague).
How many though will be fully aware of her life - her journalism and activism, her participation in a diversity of struggles, across nations and issues? Claudia Jones was an activist and journalist, a feminist and communist, an anti-racist and anti-imperialist. She was all of those and more - she does not in fact need a special month to justify writing about her (the current organisers of Black History Month might even find her a little too ‘political’ and ‘negative’ for these mollifying times).
The key themes of her life, and of her example as an activist, are the neglect, location and integration of diverse, connected struggles. She acted where she found herself, often not by choice. She was born in Trinidad, went as a child migrant to the United States, was a member of the Communist Party USA as a teenager, was imprisoned (which damaged her health) and was then deported to the UK, where she played a major part in setting up a newspaper, running organisations and, yes, starting the Notting Hill Carnival - still the highest-profile Caribbean cultural event in Britain.
She has been rightly claimed as an early theorist of the ‘sex-race-class’ perspective, but she never divorced this from a struggle for the realisation of a new communist society. As a woman born in the Caribbean, she was always conscious that sexism and racism are part of modernity - this post-slavery world in which economies, industries and ideologies have their origin in the huge European slave trade and its consequences. Furthermore, she was always ready not only to fight for communism, but to criticise and improve its theory and practice. She was an activist of the concrete, of the particular moment and the specific place, while consistently theorising her work and experience in a global context.
The example of her life shows us that we should not be afraid that we are in the wrong place in a bad time, with the ‘wrong’ sort of working class, so that the only thing we can do is concentrate on some single issue (like ‘smashing the glass ceiling’) to the neglect of others. She did not accept class-conservatism in feminists or sexism in anti-racists. In her approach, the struggles of modernity were conducted against a multiplicity of oppressions and required a diversity of fronts.
Black Marxist in America
Claudia Jones was born in 1915 to Bertrand and Sybil Cumberbatch in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. The abolition of slavery in the 19th century meant that ex-slaves either continued on the sugar plantations or found some other scarce means of getting a living. After World War I, unemployment in the islands soared and by the 1920s Trinidad saw the growth of workers’ organisations and the Garvey ‘Back to Africa’ movement.
The Cumberbatch family, however, emigrated to the US and in 1924 Claudia began living in Harlem, New York. She attended Wadleigh High School, where she studied drama, a subject that might have helped her confidence in speaking and writing, as well as her understanding of people. In 1932 Claudia’s living conditions led to her contracting tuberculosis, which grew worse later in life (in 1933 her mother, Sybil, died of spinal meningitis). Despite winning awards at school, Claudia was unable to go to college, but worked in a laundry and as a salesperson, though only in Harlem. She could have become a resentful, but mainly unheard, black worker, but her interest in politics led her to start writing for a newspaper and to discovering Marxism.
In 1936 she joined the CPUSA and became a member of the Young Communist League. She soon rose to become editor of the Weekly Review and from 1945 acted as ‘negro affairs’ editor of the Daily Worker. After the war she became secretary for the women’s commission of the CPUSA. In 1948 she was arrested under the US Immigration Act, because she was still registered as a Trinidadian and was therefore an ‘alien’. She was freed on bail - just in time to speak at a May Day rally. However, the federal state was already making moves to deport her. In the meantime, the CPUSA had assigned Claudia to address working class women about peace and equality and she went on a speaking tour of the states.
The party was then doing work among African-Americans, but with an emphasis very much on campaigning against segregation and for equal rights - a liberal cause, but a necessary one. Claudia, however, returned from her speaking tour and wrote an article on the situation of one neglected section of the whole exploited class: black women house workers, or ‘domestics’. Had she surrendered to a single issue?
In ‘An end to the neglect of the problems of negro women!’ (Political Affairs June 1949), she speaks about a particular oppressed section of society, but not in a charitable or isolating way. She stresses that the black woman is feared by the bourgeoisie - “and for good reason. The capitalists know far better than many progressives that once negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced.”2
‘Domestics’, female house servants, are her main focus: a neglected, non-traditional fragment of the working class. But she also argues that they have the potential for being the most radical because of their superexploitation - they are underpaid and low paid. Furthermore, the superexploitation of black women is based not only in that they receive as women less than equal pay for equal work with men, but in the fact that the majority of black women got less than half the pay of white women. The location of these women within the pay scale meant that employers could pay others that bit more and so helped prevent the more ‘advantaged’ workers from recognising that they were being exploited too. This differential was not merely an insult to the colonised and discriminated against: it was a means of keeping the better paid happier and in their place. Black women were also ‘triply oppressed’ in being exploited in their own homes as well as other people’s, while being discriminated against outside as blacks.
Jones also draws attention to the personal - many liberals who protested at segregation drew the line, she says, when it came to social intercourse between black and white. Lastly, she calls for a struggle to fight for the full equality of black working women “with the support of white workers”. She is not then just talking about the equal rights of a minority with regard to wages. She also targets the attitudes that accompany and reinforce this sliding scale of exploitation. She writes:
The responsibility for overcoming these special forms of white chauvinism rests, not with the ‘subjectivity’ of Negro women as it is often put, but squarely on the shoulders of white men and white women. Negro men have a responsibility particularly in relation to rooting out attitudes of male superiority as regards women in general.3
On the very first page of the article in which she wrote the above, she identifies another part of the problem:
This neglect has too long permeated the ranks of the labour movement. The most serious assessment of these shortcomings, by progressives, especially by Marxist-Leninists, is vitally necessary if we are to help accelerate the development and integrate negro women in the progressive and labour movement in our own party.4
Here Claudia Jones is one of the first to identify the ‘links’. As someone with her own link to the Caribbean, she knew that capitalism may not have invented slavery or sexism, but had reinforced them in its own particular way. Post-slavery societies inherited a degradation of the black person which is qualitatively different from previous ways of characterising ‘the other’, and this was further reinforced by post-slavery colonialism. From the Middle Ages, the figure of the Turk was seen as following a different religion and culture, but as an enemy. The French and Germans were rivals. The Jew was an ‘outsider’, but operated inside various levels of society and was therefore perceived as a ‘risk’ for this reason by anti-Semites. On the other hand, the slave and colonised African was a child - unruly, wild, without education: that is, not even educated in the ‘wrong way’.
When Claudia Jones wrote her article on black women workers, it was not a call for pity, but for recognition. We may think we no longer have need of such a call, but we can cultivate the sense that neglected sections may still exist (not just ‘domestics’, but the low-paid) and that relations with the rest of the exploited might not be ones of simple unity. To point out degrees of exploitation is not to deny the oppression of the class in general: in the act of bringing this to the attention of progressives, Claudia Jones was committed to integration into the general struggle, practically and theoretically. This is not ‘single-issue’ politics.
Deported over free speech
As an ‘alien’, Claudia Jones was particularly liable to harassment and worse. She was arrested three times by the American federal state in response to her speaking and writing: that is, she was detained in order to limit her freedom of speech and victimise her over her non-citizenship - contrary to two of the supposedly most American of values: freedom of opinion and acceptance of immigrants.
In 1948 she was held under the 1918 Immigration Act and during1950 she was further arrested under the McCarran (Internal Security) Act. At this time she was also served with a deportation order. In 1951 she and 16 other communists were arrested under the Smith Act, which was a relatively recent law (1940). This act stated that it was illegal to “advocate, abet, advise or teach the duty, necessity… of overthrowing or destroying any government of the United States by force or violence … to print, publish, edit, issue, circulate, sell, distribute ... any written or printed material advocating [such an] overthrow…”
The US government may indeed have faced a few spies in the forthcoming war: that is, agents secretly informing enemy powers of the size of warships and so on. But in its actual operation this was a law about speech in public: in other words, free speech. It might just be applicable to someone visiting the White House and shouting, ‘Shoot president Roosevelt now’. It was not supposed to apply to people who were pointing out the iniquities of the system and the state.
Claudia Jones never ever made a secret of her politics: she never ‘took the fifth’, claiming she need not answer prying questions about her beliefs under the constitution. In answering such questions, she made reference to Marxism and communism. In one of her hearings in 1953, she told the court: “One need only be a negro in America to know that for the crime of being a negro we are daily convicted by a government which denies us elementary democratic rights, the right to vote, to hold office, to hold judgeships, to serve on juries - rights forcibly denied in the south and also in the north.”
1953 saw her convicted under the Smith Act, though she was hospitalised instead of being imprisoned immediately. Her ill-health had already been aggravated by previous
imprisonment; in 1951 while in prison she had suffered her first heart attack.
While she was being held on Ellis Island, she wrote several poems, one of which refers to “welcome shafts of light coming through the seams” of the wall. It continues:
Ere as I write bright rays peep through
Their fiercer power pierce this dew
Strength born of atoms held at bay?
Simulation of men’s will to cast all doubt away5
Here, any sign of the sun (in other poems, trees and the ocean) encourages her resolve, as if nature is reminding her of the strength and recuperative powers of physical being and the human will. This thought process suggests that even a Claudia Jones might have occasionally been weary and self-doubting.
She also wrote poems about women friends and comrades: ‘For Consuela - anti-fascista’, about Puerto Rican activist Bianca Canales Torresola, and wrote about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn an Irish American communist who worked with Claudia and was imprisoned with her.6
In 1955 Claudia was imprisoned again, this time in the Women’s Penitentiary at Alderson, West Virginia, a prison that had recently held the musician Billie Holiday. The over-salted food served to Claudia meant she suffered another relapse and a widespread campaign was started to free her with a petition calling for her to be released on health grounds.
Her deportation was subsequently ordered on December 5 and she left for London on December 9. There was some suggestion that she might be sent to Trinidad, but the colonial governor denied her entry. She arrived in Britain on December 22 1955.
During 1956 Claudia was hospitalised in London for three months, but lost no time in affiliating with Caribbean members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She found, however, the ‘official communist’ hierarchy of the day too bureaucratic and began to work with various other organisations in London.
In 1958 she set up The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News with herself as editor. From 1958 to 1964 she was active in the political organising of Caribbean, pan-African and third-world communities in London.
Did she then swap Marxism for nationalism? To answer this it is worth looking at an article published just before her death in the magazine Freedomways (summer, 1964), entitled ‘The Caribbean community in Britain’. At that time, the situation of Afro-Caribbeans was a neglected subject - except perhaps in relation to a perception of individual male migrants, who had chosen to come to this country and were seen as having a hard time at the hands of a few bigoted landlords. Not only does she consider the position of Caribbean people in Britain, but she locates it in the general relations of migration, relating it first to where the people are coming from and proposing that it is “a stop-gap measure to ease the growing frustrations in a largely impoverished agricultural economy”.
The pull added to the push was, of course, that Britain after World War II needed cheap labour to fill semi-skilled and non-skilled vacancies, in the expanded public services and rebuilding programmes of the new welfare state. In 1962 in reaction to rightwing agitation, the government brought in the Commonwealth Immigration Act. This was designed to discriminate against Commonwealth citizens, for whom it introduced a voucher system. Just enough migrants of colour would allowed in to take up the increased number of low-paid jobs, so as not to irritate the racists too much. White professionals leaving Britain to take up work in other countries (often twice as many as the migrants coming in) did not face such discrimination.
The whole issue exposed and reinforced divisions between UK and colonised workers - conditions, Claudia Jones says, which “have delayed fundamental social change in Britain”. She is quite clear that racism, the categorising of people into a general degraded class, is a force for the exploitation of colonised peoples and results in the division of the working class. This inheritance from the empire need not be something conspiratorially promoted, but just an ethos taken for granted and encouraged by its coincidence with other attitudes of superiority, such as class, nationalism and sexism.
Claudia, however, poses a future that need not be all gloomy. The migrant workers may well bring a new fire to the struggles for peace, trades unionism, democracy and social change, as well as the growth of new institutions, like her own newspaper. One call she makes, however, is for the avoidance of any subdivision of West Indians into different island nationalisms - Jamaicans, Trinidadians, etc. Caribbeans must be acquainted with their own whole history; her other aim, besides unity in the UK, being a united socialist federation of islands in the Caribbean itself. A demand similar to the one for a United Socialist Europe.
In 1958 a riot took place in Notting Hill, an area full of run-down Victorian houses rented out expensively to Caribbean families. That August there had already been attacks on black people in this area and in Nottingham. On August 29, a Swedish woman was arguing with her black husband near Latimer Road tube station. Some white people tried to intervene and a fight broke out. The woman was later attacked by white youths and called a “black man’s trollop”.
Later that night 300-400 white people came into the area and picked on any black person they could find, while attacking houses with black residents. The rioting continued nightly until September 5. The police were accused by many residents of not taking the attacks seriously. In 2002, files were released showing that senior police officers told the home secretary of the day, RAB Butler, that the riots had little or no racist motivation. The denial of serious racism in Britain is an old tradition.
The following year, in response, Claudia Jones and others set up a ‘Caribbean Carnival’, to be held in winter to coincide with the carnival in Trinidad. This first festival of music and celebration took place inside St Pancras Town Hall. The primary focus, as far as Claudia Jones was concerned, was to counter the chilling and disintegrating fear left after the riots. It would be a festival of West Indian culture, another occasion for unity. In the original souvenir brochure, she writes: “A pride in being West Indian is undoubtedly at the root of this unity … It is true to say that pride extends not only to what West Indians have proudly established in the culture of the Caribbean, but to the treasury of world culture.” She goes on to mention the space exploration programme (with no national prefix), pointing out that this is all part of our “multi-racial culture [which] should be the fount, helping the universal quest to turn the instruments of science everywhere for the good of mankind”. (Would she now be connecting the struggle for an open internet with people’s equality everywhere?)
After her death, it was agreed that the carnival should be moved to the summer, to the August bank holiday weekend. Caribbean consciousness had been raised and celebrated; now the festival would take a more outdoor form, such as the procession of steel bands around the streets of Notting Hill. It opened up the occasion to a more mixed public, creating an intoxicating weekend - non-royalist and focussed on Caribbean culture, but definitely a London event, with up to a million people attending each year. After 1975 - the largest yet - there were loud calls for a crackdown on crime at the event which led to ‘over-policing’ in 1976 (as if pickpockets never mingled with crowds at a royal wedding, on the tube or in Oxford Street). A state of tension was created - this author was himself barged by a line of eighty police officers while walking with a mixed-race friend.
On the bank holiday Monday, rioting broke out against the overbearing police presence. Let me observe that after it all kicked off someone did try to lift my wallet, but he was so obvious that I managed to catch his hand going into the inside of my jacket. The crowd around us, meanwhile, were more interested in when we should take to our heels in response to the police charging towards us with dustbin lids and batons.
The Notting Hill Carnival led to other carnivals in Britain, and even if the North London event has become much more corporate in recent years (like rock festivals) Notting Hill still represents the contribution of another culture to the European scene. The original idea was to promote a festival of involvement - of music, costume, dancing and simple social solidarity - first for people from the Caribbean and then in the streets for anyone. Such a festival is not unlike the sort of art envisioned by those Paris avant-gardists, the situationists, at around the same time. Concerned that citizens in modern western capitalism were more and more becoming mere spectators, whether in museums or cinemas, they called for an art of greater involvement. ‘Against the spectacle’, their first manifesto, declared: “… the realised situationist culture introduces total participation. Against preserved art, it is the organisation of the directly lived moment” (Guy Debord, May 17 1960). And don’t forget to jump up while you’re there.
Unity for all
Claudia Jones saw West Indian or indeed pan-African unity as a necessary step in her era. In this she was close to another Trinidadian, though a Trotskyist, CLR James, who also believed then in a ‘black international’, if it was not separate from class struggle.
Unlike James, Claudia Jones never renounced the CP, though she increasingly took her distance from it in London. She visited women’s groups in the Soviet Union and went to China, where she was photographed in a group beside Mao. She went to Trinidad and Tobago and she spoke in Japan. In her book on Jones, Carole Boyce Davies comments on Claudia’s relationship to James: “Even though CLR James, a Trotskyist, argued for self-determination [that is, national liberation] and pan-Africanism [unity of all those of African descent], he also upheld proletarian internationalism; it is therefore entirely consistent that James and Jones, even given their differences over Trotsky and Stalin, were on the same page when it came to the black international.”7 Both Jones and James showed that promoting the self-consciousness of a section does not mean neglecting the location of that section within a necessary general movement. As Claudia Jones showed, you cannot separate these struggles.
One of her last public appearances in Britain was a brief filmed interview for BBC TV news in 1964. She was asked about the Commonwealth Immigrant Act in these terms: “There was a great deal of ill feeling about this act when it was introduced. Has this ill-feeling among West Indians died down?” Instead of just commenting as a ‘representative’ of black British or West Indian “feeling”, Claudia replies:
What is important now is not so much the feeling directed against the act as such … but the consequences of the act: namely, the fact that the population at large, because of the whole propaganda against the West Indians, regard them as second-class citizens, and they themselves, on the job and in virtually every sphere of life, find this difficulty since the Immigration Act in terms of discrimination, colour bar, housing, etc, etc.”
That is known as making the links.
Not the end
In the year she died, 1964, Claudia Jones met Martin Luther King, who was on his way through London to collect his Nobel prize. Afterwards she penned an editorial for The West Indian Gazette, the last thing she would write, which was published posthumously.
She refers to the parallels many at the time were making between black-white relations in the UK and the US: “We can agree that there is enough that is similar from which to draw important lessons. One such lesson is the necessity to uphold a principled stand on every issue of discrimination …”8 A lesson in drawing lessons.
She goes on, however, to discuss the warning that some people were making about the development of ‘ghettos’ in British cities. She points out that this often accompanies “an attempt to divert the concern from the spawners of racialism and racialism itself onto the heads of Commonwealth citizens from Asia, Africa and the West Indies …”
The same trick of diverting the concern (or shifting the blame) is, of course, a favoured technique today. Black and recently Muslim communities are said to ‘huddle together’ in self-created, separate areas - enclaves. Though they are often mixed in with the general poor, what is also ignored and neglected is that housing discrimination, as recently exposed, is still rife (even if they are middle class, when people from those minorities pursue better housing some estate agents put the price up when they walk in). Just as teachers (and working class parents) are blamed for underachieving children in education, instead of resource-starved schools and class disadvantage, the discriminated-against are blamed for their separation from society.
As Claudia Jones puts it at the end of her last editorial:
This is why Dr Martin Luther King’s answer had to be a dual one: namely the necessity of all decent Britons to challenge every case of racial discrimination and for the Commonwealth citizens to organise and unite - the better to challenge the disabilities confronting us.9
She always posed it as a united strategy of distinct groups, one that we might well apply to a coalition of the Marxist left.
On December 25 1964, Claudia Jones died of heart failure and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. The funeral drew recognition from around the world. Singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson sent a message and a memorial meeting was held in Beijing by the Committee of British and American Friends of Claudia Jones. The National Union of Journalists still holds an annual Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture every October.10
Her grave in Highgate cemetery lies alongside and “to the left of” Karl Marx. A flat headstone was later added. It read: “Claudia Vera Jones. Born Trinidad 1915. Died London 25.12.64, Valiant fighter against racism and imperialism, who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own black people.”
What example, what lessons?
What can we learn from this woman in the past of our modernity?
Others, such as Carol Boyce Davies and bell hooks - she insists on presenting her name in lower case - have continued her struggle against not just a racial or racist enemy, but an imperialist patriarchy. In 2008, Boyce Davies in her book on Claudia Jones Left of Karl Marx, comments on global capitalism: “What is produced is not just the material conditions we live under, but also the very conception of what it is to be human. Claudia in many ways struggled with the very challenge to her humanity.”11
It is quite clear from her life that Claudia Jones never gave in to seeing herself simply as a victim. Whether she got her confidence from being a Trinidadian rather than a ‘downgraded’ (black) American or absorbed it at school and in her home or even from Marxism’s global perspective, she rejected the self-hating option of seeing white people as responsible for everything she was. As bell hooks has written more recently, “Significantly, the black folks who see themselves as always and only victims are as deluded as those black folks who insist that black people are not victimised by ongoing racist assault on all fronts.”12
The human being, in going beyond the mainly instinctive animal state into the history of creating technologies (like fire), social institutions and mythologies in order to survive and seek happiness, is always in danger of being dominated by previously constructed forms and notions that do not actually benefit all of us much of the time. Claudia Jones’s efforts to locate, unify and create a better future was a struggle to be a more conscious human being.
She was poor, stateless, sick. She was imprisoned, deported, ignored. She was probably not optimistic all the time, but she never ceased to locate exploitations and oppressions in relation to each other. She was supported by many others (I wish I had time to name and celebrate them all), though like so many black women she was either entirely forgotten or had her full contribution obscured. We need to remember that she was not sectional or sectarian, but neither did she ignore still-existing divisions: she brought up neglected subjects and related them to existing structures and knowledge.
She was no great leader to whom we must build a new temple: it is up to us to find whatever was useful in her words and her example, and apply it to our situation. She was transnational, international: she believed the answer was a new society.
Dedicated to Dawna, who, among her other achievements in life, made Claudia Jones known to me.
2. B Johnson ‘I think of my mother’: notes on the life and times of Claudia Jones Hope Valley 1985, p103.
3. Quoted in Ibid p103.
5. ‘Morning mists’, quoted in C Boyce Davies Left of Karl Marx: the political life of black communist Claudia Jones Durham, N Carolina 2007, pp121-22.
6. Ibid pp112-17.
7. C Boyce Davies Left of Karl Marx: the political life of black communist Claudia Jones Durham, N Carolina 2007.
8. B Johnson ‘I think of my mother’: notes on the life and times of Claudia Jones Hope Valley 1985, p156.
9. Ibid p158.
10. See nuj.org.uk/events.
11. C Boyce Davies Left of Karl Marx: the political life of black communist Claudia Jones Durham, N Carolina 2007, p232.
12. B hooks Rock my soul, black people and self-esteem Washington 2004, p77.