Claudia Jones was born in the British Empire, on the island of Trinidad on 15 February 1915. As was the case with millions of families born in the Caribbean, her family had to migrate to find opportunities for work. Her family moved to New York, and it was in America that Jones became politicised. As a high school students she became of member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), before abandoning their incremental reform approach and joining the Communist Party to argue for revolutionary change. Her prominent activism in the CPUSA meant she was declared un-American and deported in 1955.
Rather than deport her to Trinidad, where the colonial governor thought “she may prove troublesome”, the authorities sent her to Britain. After all, her passport would have read “subject of the British Empire”. Jones is a reminder that the migration narrative in Britain needs a rethink. Those who came from the colonies were not foreigners. Britain was an empire, not a nation, and every single colonial “subject” contributed just as much as the so-called indigenous population to these islands. The Caribbean played the same function for the British Empire as the American South for the US, housing the plantations that powered economic development. Claudia Jones was born and died in Britain, and those who remain in the former colonies today have just as much claim to British wealth as anyone on the British Isles. Indeed, calls to “keep Britain white” have always been not just offensive, but ignorant.
It was because of this that Claudia Jones campaigned against the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which aimed to stop migration from the colonies. It is no coincidence that independence was granted to Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Jamaica the same year that the Immigration Act was passed. Relinquishing control of the colonies meant that they were separate countries with limited immigration rights.
Jones also tells us of the global solidarity that has been central to black political movements in Britain. In her campaigns against the vicious racism of the time in housing, education and unemployment, she was joined by figures such as the American-born Paul Robeson, and Amy Ashwood Garvey, who hailed from Jamaica. Britain became a conduit for such transnational connections because of the expansive empire. These links are essential to maintain in current struggles.
One of Jones’s most underrated achievements was the setting up of the West Indian Gazette in 1958. She knew that a “people without a voice were lambs to the slaughter”. The paper was essential in organising within black communities, just as the use of smartphones is to Black Lives Matter today. Admirers of Jones should support independent platforms of news, like Gal Dem.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy that Claudia Jones left behind was one we are quick to dismiss as nothing but a rowdy street party. She was instrumental in organising the Notting Hill Carnival after the race riots (white youth attacking black people) in 1958, and the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959. She co-ordinated a series of cultural events designed to “wash the taste out of our mouths” of white racism and raise funds for the legal fees of black youths caught up in the riots.
Carnival has always been a political act. It emerged as a celebration on slave plantations, and represented the links to Africa that the slave masters tried so hard to beat and torture out of African-Caribbeans. Even in 2017, it remains contentious, with Birmingham’s carnival cancelled, and fears of crime hyped up ahead of Notting Hill Carnival, despite the fact it is statistically as safe as Glastonbury. Any attempt to move or restrict Notting Hill carnival should be seen as political suppression. We cannot let the racist stereotypes of crime and fear for public safety derail our political expression.
Engaging with Claudia Jones’s legacy should not be restricted to October’s Black History Month – she is vitally important to understanding the issues facing us today. As a transnational, radical activist she tirelessly campaigned for racial justice and wanted to get Britain to take responsibility for its racism. She refused to accept the oppression that black communities experienced. After she died at the age of just 49 in 1964, she was fittingly buried to the left of Karl Marx in North London’s Highgate cemetery.
Kehinde Andrews is associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University and co-chair of the Black Studies Association. Follow Black History Month for more stories @BhmUK