GOWANUS Winter 2000

CLAUDIA JONES: A Life in Exile

By Kwesi Bacchra
© NTP Trust August 2000

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CLAUDIA JONES: A life in exile
by Marika Sherwood with Donald Hinds, Colin Prescod 
and the 1996 Claudia Jones Symposium
Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1999 
Friends, followers and aficionados of Claudia Jones, the mother of Carnival
in Britain, have been waiting eagerly for this book since a 1996 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 Harlem ghetto apartment.

Claudia Jones was born in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, 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

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 Dr Eric Williams,
Trinidad's prime minister, 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

Racism of BritishCommunists

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 inBritain

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 amongst others
Claudia Jones and Pearl Connor, met at Dr David Pitt's surgery to organise
approaches to the government. However, the Tories 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 BlackNewspaper

The story of the West IndianGazette, founded and edited by Claudia Jones in
1958, 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 the writer David Roussel-Milner
who, according to a 1962 letter to Claudia from Manchanda, had refused to
sell the West IndianGazette in the hairdressing salons of his Trinidadian
mother, Carmen England, allegedly because of its support for Nkrumah, Jagan
and Castro. Roussel-Milner felt compelled to express his concern that Hinds
had failed to check the veracity of this with him as, before her departure
but unbeknown to Manchanda, he had been discussing with Claudia how he might
avoid serving in any military action against Cuba as he was a reserve in the
Royal Marines. However he has now been assured by the publihers that a note
refuting the allegations will be included in any future revisions of the

"A People's Artis the Genesis of their Freedom"

In telling the story of how Claudia brought Carnival to Britain, Colin
Prescod, son of 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 events, 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 gaining 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.

© NTP Trust August 2000

(Of mainly Welsh stock but with roots in African-Caribbean culture, Kwesi
Bacchra has been a journalist for forty years and contributed to works such
as Third World Impact (8th edition). Author of Columbus, Liar amongst
Liars, as an historian specialising in ancient Egypt from a Black
perspective and the history of Kaiso-based Carnival, Bacchra was a
participator in and administrator of London's Notting Hill Carnival until
ill health forced his retirement in 1988.)