Monday, February 08, 2010

Claudia Jones: A Life of Struggle and Exile

Claudia Jones, a Life in the Struggle

By Clara West

Claudia Jones was born Claudia Cumberbatch in 1915 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, a British colony. Though her family was well off, economic crisis after World War I forced the family to migrate to the Harlem section of New York City in 1922 to seek work. Jones' mother, Sybil, worked in the garment industry to support the family, but died in 1927.

Jones' father, Charles, lost his job as an editor of a West Indian newspaper with the onset of the Great Depression and took meager-paying work as a building superintendent. Poverty and poor living conditions caused Claudia to contract tuberculosis in 1932 at the age of 17, which would haunt her the rest of her life.

Claudia was a brilliant student, earning academic awards and high honors. But career choices for a Black immigrant woman were severely limited. Instead of going to college after high school, Jones took work in a laundry, then a factory, and a variety of other jobs in Harlem stores. Jones joined a drama group sponsored by the National Urban League and began to write a column called "Claudia Comments" for a Harlem periodical.

In the mid-1930s, Jones joined with thousands of Harlemites to protest the injustice surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Nine. In 1931, nine Black youths had been accused of raping a white woman. Tried without adequate counsel and before an all-white jury, the nine youths were quickly convicted. The International Labor Defense, a civil rights legal group organized by the Communist Party, took over the case and tied the appeal process to a global campaign to free the nine and to expose the racist criminal justice system prevailing in the U.S.

As a result of these experiences, Jones joined the Young Communist League in 1936. Soon after, Jones took a position on the staff of the Daily Worker, forerunner of today's People's Weekly World, the newspaper of the Communist Party. Jones became politically active in the youth movement, becoming the YCL's Harlem organizer and an activist in both the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Her eloquence as a writer and speaker, her effectiveness as an organizer and leader, and her understanding of Marxist theory speeded her advancement through the Party ranks.

In the early 1940s, she served on the National Council of the YCL, headed its educational section, and sat on the editorial board of its periodical Weekly Review. In 1943, Jones took over as editor of Spotlight, the monthly journal of the American Youth for Democracy. Throughout this period, Jones' political work focused on organizing unemployed youth in the struggle for jobs and equality. Jones worked closely with Harlem youth clubs, civil rights and religious groups, and immigrant organizations.

In the summer of 1943, according to government documents, the FBI included Jones among those subversives they felt may be "considered for custodial detention." Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's direct orders, bureaucratic processes to have Jones eventually detained were begun. It is important to note that when this order was handed down, the FBI appeared to know nothing of Jones' birthplace and believed her to be a natural born U.S. citizen. The documents do not seem to reflect that Jones' application for citizenship several years earlier had been denied because of her political beliefs. Orders for Jones’ detention at this point were drawn up purely because she was an important figure in the communist movement.

Other than her political activities gathered by informants, FBI agents knew precious little about her except that she had "good" teeth, had a "neat appearance," and attractive "dimples on her cheeks." At this point, records indicate the FBI were unsure about her address, and, until several months later, they failed to record that she was married to Abraham Scholnick. By 1947, the FBI labeled Jones a "top functionary" and demanded "continuous, active, and vigorous investigation" of Jones from its informants and agents.

In 1945, Jones was appointed "Negro Affairs" editor of the Daily Worker as that paper's youngest staff person. That same year she helped found and was assigned to the National Negro Commission of the Communist Party by the Party's National Committee. She worked closely with organizations such as the New Jersey Labor School, taught symposia at the Jefferson School for Social Research, and with inter-faith groups on the issue of civil rights and racial equality. In 1946, Jones helped organize a mass demonstration in Albany, New York to protest the slaying of two Black youths in Freeport, Long Island in New York.

In the post war period, Jones' published numerous articles criticizing the emerging Cold War mentality offered by the likes of Winston Churchill, rejected the anti-Semitism of the ultra right and the anti-Communists, called for end to lynching and terrorism against African Americans, and opposed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law. In 1947, Jones accepted the position of chair of the National Women's Commission of the Communist Party. It was during her tenure at this post that Jones first formulated the theory of the triple oppression of working-class women of color who represent a "vital link" to a "heightened sense of consciousness" of the need for a common, united struggle against oppression and exploitation.

In her report to the Communist Party’s 1950 national convention, Jones asserted the need to "demonstrate that the economic, political and social demands of Negro women are not just ordinary demands, but special demands, flowing from special discrimination facing Negro women as women, as workers and as Negroes." Jones also viewed racial oppression as a strong motivation and justification for proponents of U.S. imperialism and aggressive wars, making international solidarity, a strong peace movement, and a vigorous movement for equality more necessary than ever.

In January 1948, Jones was arrested on immigration charges, despite the fact that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had told the FBI just a few months before that it did not view Jones as in violation of immigration law. Jones was held at Ellis Island and awaited deportation. The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born came to her aid providing legal assistance and $1,000 bail. The Communist Party immediately launched a large campaign to prevent Jones' deportation. Marches were held in Harlem and at federal offices downtown, and thousands of readers of the Daily Worker sent letters of protest to President Truman.

With the able legal counsel from George Crockett, Jr., a prominent African American lawyer and future member of Congress from Detroit, Jones was not deported at this point. But in 1951, Jones was arrested again with several other Communist Party leaders, including James E. Jackson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Simon Gerson, and others, for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed "advocating" the overthrow of the US government. Government agents and prosecutors ignored the fact that the Communist Party never taught or advocated such a thing. Jones was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a heavy fine. Meanwhile, Jones continued to advocate for equality. Working with the Congress of American Women, Jones protested the exclusion of women from juries, police brutality against people of color, and full employment for African American youth. Along with the Civil Rights Congress, she led protests against McCarthyism and the imprisonment of Communist Party leaders.

Jones remained free while her case was under appeal until 1955. That year, the Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal, and she was sent to federal prison in West Virginia. While in prison, Jones suffered a heart attack and was weakened by a cardiovascular disease from which she would never fully recover.

Released in October of 1955 after a campaign led by the Civil Rights Congress to have her sentence reduced, Jones was forced into exile to Britain. In Britain, Jones continued to advocate for racial equality and the liberation of Britain’s colonial possessions. She published the West Indian Gazette, founded London’s Caribbean Carnival (now called the Notting Hill Carnival), and traveled to the Soviet Union and China in the early 1960s.

Jones may have even visited Viet Nam in her trip to the East. Diseases she had contracted while in U.S. prisons plagued her in her remaining years. In and out of hospitals, Jones finally succumbed to heart disease and died on Christmas Eve 1964. Her remains were buried near the grave of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

In an article that appeared in the journal Masses and Mainstream just months before her prison term would begin, Jones denounced the US government's continued imprisonment of Communist Party leader Benjamin Davis. In Jones' view, Davis had been arrested and imprisoned for the views he advocated, not simply his Party affiliation and certainly not for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. Davis had called for peace, workers' rights, full equality for African Americans, all racial, ethnic, and national minorities and women, and for the rights of the poor and exploited.

In a statement that would foreshadow her own future and even our own time, Jones wrote: "They've jailed Ben Davis. But his ideas are still abroad. It is Ben Davis himself who can best express his ideas from ladders on the streets of Harlem, in the broad arena of political and legislative struggle, in unity meetings with his people, Negro and white, and with white allies, and in the councils of his own Party. Until he can do so, the McCarthyites and the racists will have a strong weapon with which to spread fear and subversion."

In her autobiography, Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn published a poem title "Farewell to Claudia," with whom she had spent several months in federal prison. In it she celebrated Jones’ role in the struggle and her new freedom:

Nearer and nearer drew this day, dear comrade,
When I from you must sadly part,
Day after day, a dark foreboding sorrow,
Crept through my anxious heart.

No more to see you striding down the pathway,
No more to see your smiling eyes and radiant face.
No more to hear your gay and pealing laughter,
No more encircled by your love, in this sad place.

How I will miss you, words will fail to utter,
I am alone, my thoughts unshared, these weary days,
I feel bereft and empty, on this gray and dreary morning,
Facing my lonely future, hemmed in by prison ways.

Sometimes I feel you’ve never been in Alderson,
So full of life, so detached from here you seem.
So proud of walk, of talk, or work, of being,
Your presence here is like a fading fevered dream.

Yet as the sun shines now, through fog and darkness.
I feel a sudden joy that you are gone,
That once again you walk the streets of Harlem,
That today for you at least, is Freedom’s dawn.

I will be strong in our common faith, dear comrade,
I will be self-sufficient, to our ideals firm and true,
I will be strong to keep my mind and soul outside a prison,
Encouraged and inspired by ever loving memories of you.


CLAUDIA JONES: A life in exile

by Marika Sherwood

With Donald Hinds, Colin Prescod and the 1996 Claudia Jones Symposium
published by Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1999 UK£13.99 US$22.50
ISBN 0 85315 882 7

Review by Kwesi Bacchra

Friends, followers and aficionados of Claudia Jones, the mother of Carnival in Britain, have been waiting eagerly for this book since a 1996 London symposium on her life inspired the author, Marika Sherwood, to undertake an intensive period of research into the public records of Trinidad, Britain, USA and the former Soviet Union and into the archives of their various communist parties. The result is a fascinating story of the immense courage of one of the greatest Black women in the 20th century and her battles against racism, bureaucracy and sinister attempts by politicians and security forces of the East and West to silence her. And all the while she was having to cope with severe heart disease and the aftermath of TB contracted in the desperate poverty of a 1930s Harlem ghetto apartment.

Claudia Jones was born in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in 1915 but, following the loss of the family fortunes due to the post-war cocoa price crash, she was sent at the age of eight with her three sisters to join her parents in New York. Claudia's mother died five years later and in the depression years her father was fortunate to obtain work as the janitor of a run down apartment block in Harlem. So wretched was their poverty that they could not afford the 'graduation outfit' to enable Claudia to receive the Roosevelt Award for Good Citizenship she had earned, and so damp was their apartment that her formal education was virtually ended in 1932 by the tuberculosis which irreparably damaged her lungs.

The book too often assumes that the reader will have an intimate knowledge of important historical events and fails to set the political scene, forcing the interested reader to take time to search out the background elsewhere. For instance we are told that, persuaded by the spirited defence by the Communist Party of nine Negro boys falsely convicted of rape in 1935 in Scottsboro, Alabama, Claudia joined the Young Communist League where her talents as a writer and organiser were soon recognised. A more detailed description than that given in a short note of the celebrated kangaroo court trial of these unfortunate young men in the lynch-mob Deep South would have placed Claudia's experiences as a young Black woman into context and revealed the oppressive conditions under which Black people could do little more than survive.

Advocate for Peace "plotted violence"

By 1948 Claudia had been elected to the National Committee of the Communist Party of USA, was the Editor for Negro Affairs on the party's paper the Daily Worker and had been arrested for the first time under threat of deportation to Trinidad. A much sought after speaker and advocate for peace and civil rights, Claudia travelled widely in the United States but was arrested several times eventually being imprisoned for a year on trumped up charges of advocating the violent overthrow of the US government. While in prison her health deteriorated and in 1955 she was deported to England, much to the relief of the British colonial governor of Trinidad who had feared that she might "prove troublesome" had she been sent there. Once again the McCarran Act, under which Claudia was prosecuted in USA, and the relevance of Ellis Island, where she was imprisoned, should have been explained in the context of the vicious political persecution of large numbers of people contrary to their constitutional rights to freedom of thought and free speech.

Looking forward to the support of the British Communist Party, Claudia arrived in London in December 1955, having been given an affectionate send off by 350 friends and comrades led by her closest friends, the great, Black singer/actor Paul Robeson and his wife Essie. Robeson was of course still being refused the right to travel by an American government which had the bare-faced cheek to criticise the USSR for behaving similarly towards its own dissident citizens. Claudia herself was to find that the British government was no less oppressive and antidemocratic as it refused her a full passport until 1962 in spite of representations from Trinidad's first black prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, its white colonial governor having argued for restrictions on her freedom to travel to be maintained. The author's difficulty in establishing the full facts is ominously clear as some forty years later the British authorities still refuse to release files on Claudia Jones for research purposes. What do they fear from this long dead Black woman?

Racism of British Communists

The reader is treated to an all too short but fascinating discussion of the warm correspondence her friends 'back home' in New York kept up with Claudia. It reveals just a glimpse of the dire financial condition she found herself in England and a flash of her grief for a lover she left behind. The deeply racist attitudes of the British Communist Party are also exposed in a well researched chapter on its relations with what they regarded as the "backward" peoples of the world. The CPGB view of this intelligent but sometimes feisty woman was clearly that, as a 'coloured' colonial subject of the British Empire, too much should not be expected of her. That racism is still evident today amongst old style British communists, most of whom now cower behind any other name.

British communists, however, felt under an obligation to their American comrades to help Claudia obtain work but placed her mainly in positions which this highly competent woman found frustrating, while restricting her access to their publications and as a speaker on their platforms, even for visits of her close friend, Paul Robeson. In the USA Claudia had been used to a party which respected her, and the CPUSA had since its foundation in 1919 been the leading political group fighting for racial equality. In the absence of genuine fraternal warmth from her English party comrades, Claudia turned to the Caribbean community in London which welcomed her with affection and she soon became their undoubted leader.

Race Riots in Britain

In the late 1950s the social strains exerted on an English working class being forced to come to terms with the sham of their indoctrinated racial superiority culminated in attacks on Black people and rioting. In Notting Hill, west London, this resulted in the murder in May 1958 of a young Antiguan carpenter, Kelso Cochrane, by six white youths who have never been caught. This was a turning point in Black/White relations, and a committee under the chairmanship of Amy Ashwood Garvey, which included Claudia Jones, met at Trinidadian Dr (later Lord) David Pitt's surgery to organise approaches to the government. However, the Tory government seemed more interested in pushing through racist immigration control laws and refusing to ratify the ILO Convention on Racial Discrimination. From that point until her untimely death six years later, Claudia became the foremost Black leader in Britain, sought after by progressive political leaders and acknowledged internationally as a fighter for peace.

A Campaigning Black Newspaper

The story of the West Indian Gazette, founded in 1958 and edited by Claudia Jones, is told by Donald Hinds, a Jamaican, who joined the paper as its first young roving reporter. Like all the other staff he was unpaid and survived by working as a bus conductor while studying part time for a Bachelor's then a Master's degree, becoming in due course a history teacher. He discusses the various activities of the paper which, in spite of its unceasing financial problems, was Claudia's vanguard in her fight for a fair deal for Black people. Hinds traces the difficult relationship Claudia loyally maintained with her gentleman friend, the late Abhimanyu Manchanda, who seems to have been deeply disliked by almost everybody. This self-promoting communist from India argued with Claudia frequently about the way the paper was run and even threatened to sue her when he could not get his own way.

Manchanda was not above spreading lies about colleagues especially if they had opposed him politically. One such was a well known left-wing writer who, according to a 1962 letter from Manchanda to Claudia while she was receiving medical attention in Moscow, had refused to sell the West Indian Gazette in the hairdressing salons of his Trinidadian mother because of its support for Nkrumah, Jagan and Castro. Havibg expressed his concern to the publishers that Hinds failed to check the veracity of the contents of Manchanda's letter, they have promised him to include a note in any future revisions of the book refuting the allegations .

"A People's Art is the Genesis of their Freedom"

In telling the story of how Claudia brought Carnival to Britain, Colin Prescod, son of Trinidadian actress Pearl Prescod, rehearses how in response to the 1958 riots Claudia began to organise Carnivals under the auspices of the West Indian Gazette, the prime purposes of which were "to present West Indian talent to the public, which at that time could not see Caribbean people as anything other than hewers of wood and drawers of water". The programme for the first show in February 1959 clearly declared Claudia's intentions, "A part of the proceeds of this brochure are to assist the payment of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events". For six years, these indoor Mardi Gras celebrations, which were to evolve into Notting Hill Carnival a few months after Claudia's death, were organised in halls in west London under the slogan, "A people's art is the genesis of their freedom".

These early indoor Carnival events drew a level of genuine support from famous artists, leading politicians and Commonwealth High Commissioners which was never to be seen in the outdoor Notting Hill Carnival. Rather, as the British authorities became concerned that they might not be able to control the ever growing numbers of 'freeness' loving Black people, they used every method they could to ban it or cut it down to the catatonic insipidity of an English garden fete. After decades of scheming opposition, in 1989 the English authorities succeeded in wrenching out of the hands of Black administrators control of the carnival they could not stop but, in doing so, they destroyed its spirit of Kaiso. Only Black people chosen by government are now allowed to run the heavily restricted Carnival of today.

The book is completed with four chapters of selected transcripts of how participators in the 1996 Symposium remembered Claudia as friend, political activist, newspaper woman and carnivalist. It is copiously annotated, which will be a useful guide for future researchers, but it is a great pity that the publishers cut out so much of the manuscript, about one eighth, without consulting the author; and why did they refuse to publish any of the Carnival pictures? This reviewer challenged them to explain, but the anger they expressed at his questions would suggest that the charge that their actions were racist might well have been valid. However the author, an Hungarian brought up in Australia, must be commended on having produced an important historical work which will prove a valuable academic resource in future. Hopefully it will inspire students and writers to investigate the life of a great daughter of Trinidad further, and maybe one of them may be moved to write a biography with more appeal to the mass of the public.

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