I think I might have a country crush on Trinidad and Tobago. As a country, it simply fascinates me and there’s a startling number of paradigm-shifting black radicals who were born and raised there which may explain why. Claudia Jones is just the latest to set fire to my imagination.
I’m also a big fan of carnival. In the part of London where I grew up, I felt like I was the only black girl whose parents didn’t make sure they participated in Notting Hill’s festivities in full costume, even though in the days before the jubilee line extension and the overground line, Notting Hill was FAR. Some kids participated every single year throughout primary school. We went as a family every year, but I wasn’t ‘in’ carnival. My happy hippy school, wider community and black-and-proud family nevertheless ensured that I had it drummed into me that Notting Hill Carnival was an important expression of our Caribbean culture, and was also to be celebrated as an act of remembrance of our place in British history.
I thus grew up knowing the name of Claudia Jones as she was ‘the mother of Carnival’. What she created sixty-odd years ago as an indoor event designed to demonstrate that Caribbean culture was joyous and valuable, not simply alien and inferior, is now the biggest street party in Europe.
What I, like lots of my Carnival-loving fellow Londoners didn’t know, is that Claudia was from Trinidad and Tobago. I also didn’t know that unlike many of the people who, like my grandparents, made up what is known in the UK as the Windrush generation, Claudia did not come to the UK by ‘choice’ and for ‘a better life’, she was deported for being a successful communist party activist. Although she was new to the UK, she was not new to the immigrant experience: Claudia had first emigrated some 30 years prior to her 1955 landing in London. As a child of eleven she’d left her home in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, and joined her parents in Harlem, New York.
From what I understand, Claudia’s teenage years were marked by a tough and impoverished reality on the one hand (damp living conditions would destroy her lungs for the rest of her life), but also an exciting time to be black: in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance. Like many people at the time, she considered that the people with the most comprehensive/effective response to righting the injustices she saw around her were communists. Claudia joined the Communist Party of the USA as a teenager, arguably when the movement was at its most anti-imperialist and aggressively anti-racist. She was a passionate, formidable activist and, like her sister-girl Amy Ashwood Garvey, a way ahead of her time feminist activist and intersectionality theorist.
Claudia rose through the ranks of the party’s youth arm, and onto the Communist Party’s National Committee. Her biographer, fellow Trini Professor Carole Boyce Davies describes her as ‘a talented writer and speaker, she travelled throughout the United States lecturing and organising. In the early 1950s, she wrote a well-known column, “Half the World,” for the Daily Worker.’ It wasn’t her first column either, she’d written a weekly column ‘Claudia Comments’ for a Harlem publication since her youth.
Like her friends and colleagues Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson, and WEB DuBois, her success at challenging the status quo re racism got her into trouble with ‘the authorities’. A speech she gave on International Women’s Day on the problem of patriarchy began a final, successful campaign to have Claudia deported for her ‘subersive’ and ‘un-American’ activities, as she’d never been naturalised.
Claudia Jones had a huge, glittery send-off in New York, 200 people, a veritable who’s who of black and leftwing activists and celebrities and a host of messages from the people, like her good friends the Robesons, who couldn’t be there in person. She left the US the same year the Montgomery Bus Boycott got under way, but Claudia had been at the heart of two decades of antiracism work which had paved the way for its success and the mass movement which followed it.
Although a Trini by birth, Trinidad and Tobago was a British colony back in 1955, so the Governor was able to refuse her entry to her homeland on the grounds of ‘seditious views’ and a history of professional political agitation. On the cusp of independence, Claudia’s possible addition to the mix were feared by the colony’s rulers. Thus Claudia headed to London instead. While there, as the ‘red scare’ and the McCarthy era’s persecution of radical dissent intensified, the campaign to wipe her out of US history was thorough. Many of her former colleagues were deported, scrutinised, harrassed and silenced. Unfortunately for the powers that be, she was not one to keep still: Claudia simply made history on the other side of the Atlantic instead.
Once in London, she and Amy Ashwood Garvey coordinated community programs to support the emerging community of Caribbean migrants. Claudia’s first big success arguably, was the establishment of a newspaper that reported on the lives of the new immigrant communities, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News but she also later led a vociferous campaign against the racist logic central to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the legislation on which contemporary UK immigration law is based.
But that story has a far less happy ending. Whereas when violence broke out in Notting Hill late in the summer of 1958, her team was the first on the scene, telling the residents’ version of events and describing their scandalous living conditions. Claudia famously wrote ‘a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’ and established what would become the well-loved annual London tradition that is carnival in response.
Claudia’s carnival wasn’t exactly the same as the one I still love. Her carnival wasn’t an excuse to drink, dance and be merry in public and then go home, a Caribbean-inspired version of the traditional summer fete. It wasn’t a commercially viable enterprise divorced from the community that created it and a world away from their struggles: It was intimately bound up with the life, concerns and struggles of a people under attack.
Claudia’s carnival provided an outlet for extraordinary expression in an extremely pressurised space, a celebration of the skills and culture of a people purported to be endowed with neither, and work and salaries for those involved in the hard graft of establishing something original and untested, but routinely discriminated against in the workplace, and when searching for a place to live.
Claudia’s carnival was supposed to mean that the same people refusing us accomodation on Friday, would envy our joie de vivre despite them(selves) on Saturday. That the police officers who harrass us on Saturday, cannot party with us on Sunday, and go back to harrassing us on Monday. That the columnists who cover our fabulous peaceful weekend festival feel foolish demonising us thereafter. Where else in the UK can 2 million people gather in the space of less than 5 square miles and the 8 arrests be considered proof that the event is a threat to law and order?
If the people’s art is indeed the genesis of their freedom, then if we are beautiful on Carnival Monday, then we are beautiful full stop Claudia Jones argued. In the process of curating our unique mix of joy, flamboyance and colour, we ignite pride in ourselves, we assert our right to be, we welcome friends, and we emasculate hate. Our creations must reflect who we are, and when they do, they and we can be enjoyed by everyone.
As an adult, I don’t like to miss a carnival. Notting Hill Carnival is undoubtedly less of a Caribbean Carnival than it once was. As a child, steel pans, soca, and calypso were the exclusive music of carnival. I remember when a bhangra band first joined the procession; ‘we’ were pleased ‘they’ wanted to join ‘our’ festival. I don’t lament the change because amongst the Brazillian bands, the trucks playing R’n’B, Hip Hop, Grime, etc, for one weekend in August, I will still enjoy more soca, calypso and steel bands on the streets of London than I’ll get for the rest of the year combined. I do however miss the deep sense of ownership I once felt.
For every serious soca fan and carnivalist, I can only recommend Port-of-Spain’s annual extravaganza. Think of it an homage to the mother of London’s carnival. Carnival in Port-of-Spain has to be lived by to be believed. It’s bigger, longer, better organised, there’s more soca, more live music, more build-up, more complementary parties. Where Notting Hill and the Caribbean carnivals that take place over the summer in cities across the UK are weekend long street parties, Port-of-Spain is a months-long national festival.
Claudia Jones’ time in Trinidad and Tobago is not so well-documented; although she spent her childhood there, she had not yet made her mark on the world when she emigrated. I like to ruminate on what she might have learned there, what people, events and attitudes, shaped her youthful thinking, how she interpreted what she witnessed. Like her renowned countryfolk Stokely Carmichael/Kwamé Turé, George Padmore, CLR James, Henry Sylvester-Williams, and Althea Jones-LeCointe*, Claudia Jones spent much of her life somewhere other than Trinidad and Tobago. But I can only wonder, what is in the water in T&T? How can one small place turn out so many great thinkers who would mark history so decisively in such a short space of time? But then I remember we’re talking about Caribbean people: It’s just how we roll.
Another tribute can be paid to the late, great Claudia Jones. Claudia’s February 1915 birth meant I was able to celebrate carnival 2015 and mark her centenary. In a design studio in Belmont, Jouvayist, and Caribbean cultural activist Attilah Springer created an incredibly special event in which I was honoured to partake. The commemoration of 100 years since the birth of Claudia Jones included a blessing outside Claudia’s childhood home in Belmont, the screening of a documentary about her life, a few words from Professor Carole Boyce Davies whose restoration of Claudia’s legacy is unequalled, and the personal recollections of a niece. Given the US government’s dedicated committment to erasing this indefatigable successful woman from the US history books, the best homage is perhaps remembrance.
*In case these names mean absolutely nothing to you:
Stokely/Kwame is the dude who was a mentee/colleague of Martin Luther King as a student. He like invented black power. Okay I’m being facetious: Look him up.
CLR James has hundreds of books about him, wrote a best-selling history of the Haitian revolution in English when the British Caribbean’s masses were in full revolt against the colonial powers among notable achievement. The West End stage play version starred Paul Robeson and was a huge hit in the late 1930s. Look them both up.
Althea Jones-LeCointe was a leader of the British Black Panther Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, colleague of the infamous Darcus Howe. Look her up.
George Padmore’s Camden flat in the late 1930s has been described as a Mecca to which all black political leaders came to pay homage for the next 20 years. Padmore was another well-travelled Trinibagonian; he initially left the island to study in the US, but later moved to Moscow, Vienna, and Hamburg before the Nazis swiftly deported him to London in 1933 two weeks after Adolf Hitler’s accession to power. He went straight to Paris, moving to Camden in 1937 where he lived until heading to Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana. He had mentored Kwame Nkrumah in the lead up to Ghana’s independence. Look him up.
Henry Sylvester Williams arguably coined the term Pan-African when he organised the first Pan-African Conference back in 1900 one of whose committees produced the line ‘the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the colour line’. WEB DuBois was but one of the esteemed delegates, but was on that committee. More on Henry Sylvester Williams here, or you can just look him up for yourself.