Claudia Jones was a feminist, political activist, pioneering journalist, and visionary. She is known for being the ‘Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain’.
Claudia Jones was born on 21 February 1915 in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. At the age of eight, her family emigrated to Harlem, New York following the post-war cocoa price crash in Trinidad. Her mother died five years later, and as a teenager, Jones was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that plagued New York in the 19th and 20th centuries and thrived in dark, crowded conditions.
The damage to her lungs as well as severe heart disease would plague Claudia for the rest of her life. In spite of her illness, she managed to graduate from high school, but her family could not afford the expenses to attend her graduation ceremony.
Activism in the US
Claudia was academically bright but being classed as an immigrant woman severely limited her career choices. Instead of going to college, she began working in a laundry and later found other retail work in Harlem. During this time, she joined a drama group and began to write a column called “Claudia Comments” for a local black nationalist Harlem publication.
Soon she began to actively participate in political organising. In 1936, at the age of 18, she joined the Young Communist League USA – a working-class youth organisation devoted to Marxism and Leninism – which later became the American Youth for Democracy during the Second World War. She would later become a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as the Communist Party USA. Jones also wrote and edited for the Daily Worker, the Weekly Review and American Youth for Democracy.
The 1940s was a time where the United States was becoming increasingly hostile towards Communist Party members. Consequently, Jones was arrested in 1948 and sentenced to the first of four spells in prison. Incarcerated on Ellis Island, she was threatened with deportation to Trinidad.
Following a hearing by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, she was found in violation of the McCarran Act for being an alien (non-US citizen) who had joined the Communist Party. Several witnesses testified to her role in party activities, and she had identified herself as a party member since 1936 when completing her Alien Registration on 24 December 1940. She was ordered to be deported on 21 December 1950.
Jones was deported to Britain, not her birth country of Trinidad. She was refused entry to Trinidad, partly because the colonial governor Major General Sir Hubert Elvin Rance was of the opinion that “she may prove troublesome”. She was eventually offered a home in Britain on humanitarian grounds, and federal authorities agreed to allow it when she agreed to cease contesting her deportation. Trinidad like many other Caribbean islands at the time was considered part of the British empire and its people were treated as subjects.
Activism in the UK
Claudia Jones was deported on 7 December 1955 and arrived in London two weeks later. This was during the height of the post-war immigration when the Windrush generation were arriving on a regular basis, expanding the Black community in Britain.
It wasn’t long before Claudia was organising and campaigning again. She campaigned against racism in housing, education and employment, and against the Commonwealth Immigration Act, which would eventually make it harder for people from former colonies to migrate to Britain.
She also managed to find time to maintain her passion for journalism, and in March 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette – a magazine written by and for Black Caribbean people. The Gazette was the first magazine of its kind.
In August 1958, four months after the launch of the West Indian Gazette, the Notting Hill race riots happened. Four months after the riots, Claudia launched the Caribbean Carnival as a way of showing solidarity and strength within the growing Caribbean communities and an opportunity to celebrate their heritage in defiance of the race riots.
Claudia Jones died on Christmas Eve 1964, aged 49, and was found on Christmas Day at her flat. A post-mortem declared that she had suffered a massive heart attack, due to heart disease and tuberculosis.
As one of the most important Black feminists in history, Jones championed Black women and made no secret of her lifelong mantra: no peace can be obtained if any women, especially those who are oppressed and impoverished, are left out of the conversation. Her most prominent piece of work, an essay titled “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!”, was published in 1949, and helped to establish the foundations of intersectional feminism. She urged others to recognise the unique oppression faced by Black women specifically in order to create a more nuanced comprehension of the oppression of the race overall.
Claudia Jones not only played a key role in fighting for racial equality in the UK, but she also helped to bring Caribbean culture to the forefront of British life.