There are points throughout history where creativity and struggle have an undeniable link. Many activists have fused their love of the arts with delivering a message of freedom and hope; amidst the household names, there are less-known heroes who have built legacies that have continued to unify people for decades.
Claudia Cumberbatch Jones is one of these heroes, a community leader whose passion for justice led her to found the Notting Hill Carnival in an effort to improve race-relations and civic peace on the streets of West London.
A political asylum seeker from New York, Jones became a busy political organizer in Britain, working for anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns, including the international effort to free Nelson Mandela.
Her belief was if people only learned to understand each other’s cultures, they would become better neighbours and citizens. Carnival, she knew, was the Caribbean spirit at its most inclusive and joyful; as the brainchild of the activist, Notting Hill Carnival was, from its start, a tool of hope and reconciliation.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1915, Jones was raised in a hardworking family. When she was eight years old, her family of five migrated to New York’s Harlem, hoping to escape poverty but meeting further hardship – at thirteen, Claudia saw her mother die of overwork, and by seventeen she herself was ill with tuberculosis.
But despite the difficulties, Claudia remained determined to succeed. Talented and opinionated, she was a brilliant student, earning high academic awards and honours. But career choices for a Black immigrant woman were severely limited; instead of going to college after high school, Jones began working in a laundry, then a string of other shops in Harlem. Alongside making a living, Claudia continued to feed her love of the arts by joining a drama group, and began to write a column called “Claudia Comments” for a Harlem journal.
Her political awakening came in 1935, when she joined the Young Communist League in defending the “Scottsboro nine”, a group of young black Americans falsely charged with rape. Just six years later she became the League’s National Director and by 1948 she was an editor at The Daily Worker, its national newspaper.
By then, word of Jones’ community-organising prowess had spread internationally, with her receiving invitations to speak across America, in China, Russia and Japan.
But her courage met opposition; she was imprisoned four times due to her activism and the 1955 McCarthy ‘anti-Communism witch-hunts’ saw her deported from the US; after which she was given political asylum in Britain.
Settling in London, Jones began working with London’s African-Caribbean community. Along with activists such as Amy Ashwood-Garvey (the wife of Marcus), Jones was central in fighting for equal opportunities for black people. In March of 1958, she founded and published the first issue of The West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first black weekly newspaper.
That August, over the Bank Holiday weekend, vicious race riots erupted across London as a result of mounting tensions between the white residents in London and the Caribbean migrants. The carnage raged on for five notorious days and nights and in Notting Hill, the violence was especially brutal. Some months later, a young West Indian carpenter named Kelso Cochrane was murdered by six white youths in a racially motivated attack, sending a further schism through the community.
After these events Jones, understanding the unifying power of Carnival, suggested London needed a similar festival to bring people together, and was successful in launching her carnival, an annual showcase for Caribbean talent. These early celebrations were known as “Mardi-Gras” and the very first one took place as a cabaret-style event on 30 January, 1959, in St. Pancras Town Hall.
Its organising was centred in Notting Hill and the pilot event featured artists such as the Boscoe Holder Dance Troupe, jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman and singer Cleo Laine. The Trinidad All Stars and Hi-Fi Steel Bands added the island music sound still prevalent at Carnival today and by the summer of 1962, Jones had added the first mas costume competitions to the show’s line-up. These were all huge steps towards the vision she had for the street party; with the efforts of Rhaune Laslett, a local social worker, Carnival laid roots in Notting Hill in 1964.
But sadly, Claudia Jones never lived to see her dream realised. On Christmas Eve, 1964, she died in her home. Her funeral on 9 January, 1965 was attended by hundreds of mourners, and she was laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery next to Karl Marx.
The greatest tribute to her outstanding life, however, came when London finally held its first official Carnival later that year.
Feminist, black-nationalist, political activist, community leader, communist and journalist, another title Claudia Jones will always hold is the mother of the Notting Hill carnival.
Posted: Thursday 5th August 2010 8:00 am
Tags: Arts & Fashion