Opinion

Remembering Claudia Jones beyond Notting Hill Carnival

Countless Black figures were born or passed away on this day.   Malcolm X, the inspiration behind this platform,  passed in 1965. Nina Simone was born onthis day in 1933. Robert Mugabe in 1924. And more still. Yet few seem to have been overlooked as much as Claudia Jones.

The foremost scholarly work on her life and politics is named ‘Left of Karl Marx’. Before speaking with its author, Trinidadian-born Professor Carole Boyce Davies, I thought its name might be a reference to Jones’ well-known leftist politics, as a dedicated communist. In reality, it’s a reference to her resting place – an unassuming plaque next to a towering statue memorial of Karl Marx.

If you’re not intent on finding it, you’d be forgiven for missing it.

In left of Karl Marx Professor Carole offers her own explanation for this: “The study of black communist women remains one of the most neglected among contemporary examinations of black women for at least one of the reasons that Joy James identifies: The revolutionary remains on the margin, more so than any other form of (black) feminism.”

Efforts are underway to correct this, Professor Carole told me during a podcast recording earlier this week in celebration of Claudia Jones’ birthday.  A bigger memorial is in the process of being planned and Jones’ profile has raised significantly over the past few years thanks to recognition in the form of Google’s Claudia Jones Doodle last year and Nubian Jak’s plaque in her honour, recognising her as the mother of Caribbean carnival in Britain.

And while we know increasing amounts about her activism and role in the origins of Notting Hill, in celebration of her birthday, here are a couple of facts you might not know about  Claudia Jones.

A pan-African vision  

An All African Women’s Freedom Movement gathering held on African Women’s Day in December 1961. Seated at the far left is Claudia Jones whilst American author, civil rights activist Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895–1965) speaks to the audience. via: New York Public Library

Professor Davies notes that as her life progressed, Claudia Jones began to identify with pan-Africanism, fighting for causes of people of African descent everywhere as she became aware of their inter-connectedness. Her upbringing had established this as a foundation, as she writes “My father’s social ideas instilled in us were that of a pride and consciousness of our people, of our relation to Africa“, but it is later in life that Jones’ early teachings manifest most prominently in her work and activism. It was in this part of her life that she writes about being influenced and incensed by Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and began to encourage the inclusion of continental African narratives in the West Indian Gazette, the paper she founded in 1958.

Amy Ashwood Garvey, co-founder of the UNIA, and editor of the paper had also worked with Jones, according to renowned Garvey scholar Tony Martin, who notes that the pair collaborated on an essay about Ghana in the first ever issue of the West Indian Gazette. He notes “Jones particularly desired Amy’s comments on federation and possible independence for the Caribbean and “how (if at all) Ghanaians view this new federation within the context of Nkrumah’s plan for a Pan-African Federation”.

During her international travels to the USSR (World Congress of Women, 1963) and Japan for the 10th World Conference against Hydrogen and Atom Bombs, Jones is likely to have met Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of Fela Kuti who was an activist in her own right. Engagements such as these, as well as the documented visits of Kwame Nkrumah to her place of residence in the UK are likely to have played a part in shaping her pan-African outlook too.

A pioneer  

Jones visited Asia in the 60s, first heading to Japan and then on to China just months before her passing in 1964  for a 7-week trip as part of a Latin American delegation. She meets Chairman Mao, travels across the country and even manages to further her journalism, interviewing Sun-Yat Sen’s widow Rosamond Soong Chingling. She writes poetry about what she witnesses in China, with one of the most interesting being “Yenan – Cradle of the Revolution”, retelling what she witnesses in communist China during her visit. On her return to the UK, she writes up her experiences for the West Indian Gazette, making her one of the first woman of African-Caribbean heritage to document and experience the middle kingdom at that time.

Claudia Jones during her visit to China

Poetry and Journalism

Jones is known for her activism but wore many more hats, as both a journalist and poet. Many of her poems are compiled in Carole Boyce Davies’ Beyond Containment, which collates the texts, speeches and poems of the woman herself.

Beyond the relatively well-known history of the West Indian Gazette mentioned earlier, Claudia had written extensively on everything from women’s rights to the need for global peace intitiatives at the time of her passing. She used a bi-weekly column ‘Half the world’ in US-based paper the Daily Worker to encourage women to advocate and agitate for peace. One such example is her article  “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace” written and released shortly before the Korean War.

Claudia passed on Christmas Eve in 1964, after suffering a heart attack. She was just 49 years old. Decades later, we still have so much to thank her for – if Notting Hill Carnival wasn’t enough, above are just a few examples of how her activism paved the way for subsequent generations of globally-minded activists, writers and even travellers.

Recommended reading:

Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment

Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones

Pan-Africanism, transnational black
feminism and the limits of culturalist
analyses in African gender discourses by Carole Boyce Davies

1 comment

  1. Great pity that the author has not read my book on Claudia, which is partly based on the meeting I had organised of all I could find who had worked with her. I also wrote a book on Malcolm X’s visit to the UK and to Africa.

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