Editor’s note: This week’s column, by two contributors, pays tribute to Trinidadian born intellectual-activist Claudia Jones. The first is by Carole Boyce-Davies, Professor of English and Africana Studies at Cornell University, and author of Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (2008). It appeared in Viewpoint Magazine (an online review of contemporary politics) on February 21, and introduced readers to Claudia Jones’ 1949 essay, We Seek Full Equality for Women. Jones’ essay can be found in the 2011 collection, Claudia Jones. Beyond Containment, edited by Carole Boyce-Davies (Banbury: Ayebia, 2011). The second tribute: A Mighty Woman, was written by Gabrielle Hosein, Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and carried in the Trinidad Guardian on February 26.
We (Still) Seek Full Equality!
Journalist, editor, intellectual-activist, communist theorist, community leader and human rights advocate Claudia Vera Cumberbatch Jones (1915-1964) was born February 21, 1915 in Trinidad and Tobago. After years of membership beginning as a teenager, she became the only black woman on the central committee of the Communist Party USA and Secretary of the Women’s commission in 1947. In that role, she organized women’s groups across the United States and wrote a Women’s Rights column titled “Half the World” for The Daily Worker. A speech titled “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace” delivered on International Women’s Day in 1950 was cited as the “overt act” which led to her arrest, trial, conviction, and imprisonment for being a communist in the United States. In December 1955, she was deported to England because she was still then a Commonwealth “subject.” There, she became the founder of the first black newspaper in London, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News (WIG) in 1958 and developed a praxis that bridged the United States and United Kingdom, informed by the world politics of decolonization. She organized a parallel March on Washington in 1963 and met world leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mao Tse-Tung, Norman Manley, Cheddi Jagan, and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya.
For Claudia Jones, communism provided a theoretical explanation for the treatment of oppressed black and working class men and women. Claudia Jones is credited with putting consistently on the platform of the Communist Party the triple oppression of black women based on their race, class, and gender and for popularizing the triple rights call on behalf of workers, women, and black people in the United States throughout the 1940s and up to the mid-1950s. “We Seek Full Equality for Women” (1949) was published in the same year as her most well-known and circulated essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women” (1949). I have described this essay as best capturing Claudia Jones’s art of black left feminism. In it she identifies the black woman’s place in the Marxist-Leninist theorization of the mode of production. While it begins with the idea of taking up the history of struggle of the Suffragists, she hastens to describe how communists were proposing to advance women’s rights. She summarizes the basics of Marxist-Leninist feminism, outlining the work that was taking place in applying this theory. She describes the organization of state branches of the Women’s Commission and describes the Communist Party USA as leading the way to developing a progressive women’s movement. The essay explains the causes of the inequality of women under capitalism and indicates that winning equality was determined by the extent to which the particular “problems, needs and aspirations of women – as women” were addressed. In 2015, a good 65 years after this essay was written, inequality remains. “We Seek Full Equality for Women” should therefore be read again, and included as part of the common library of thought on this subject.
Claudia Cumberbatch, A Mighty Woman
On Saturday February 21, as the crescent moon rose over Cazabon Street in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago, people gathered from all over the world to remember Claudia Vera Cumberbatch, better known as Claudia Jones, on the one hundredth anniversary of her birth.
There were also gatherings in Harlem and London, but it was the few dozen holding hands in a lamp lit circle on a ribbon of rough asphalt, who got to hear the unexpectedly beautiful percussion of corn and rice rolling like rain off the galvanize roof of her childhood home, and who witnessed the first time that African invocations, water, palm oil, memories and appreciation were offered from us here to this little known daughter of the soil.
For women busily going about life, organizing communities, hand sewing their traditional portrayals for Carnival, establishing their own incomes, dreaming of being writers or wanting to make a fairer world, Claudia Jones is the inspiration whose picture you could pin to your clothes, like Bobo Shantis do with Haile Selassie, to remind yourself that articulate, fearless and powerful women have long been home grown.
Born in Trinidad, on February 21, 1915, Claudia Jones became the leading black woman in international communism between the 1930s and 1950s. While living in the US, she was arrested and imprisoned for ten months for giving a speech on “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace”. Facing deportation and eventually choosing exile to England in 1955, because Trinidad’s Governor was too frightened of her movement-building capacity to let her resettle here, she organized the first Carnival celebrations in London. Her belief that “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom” established the precedent for every Caribbean Carnival now held around the world.
A communist, pan-African and women’s rights political agitator, more radical than any men of her time or region including Marcus Garvey and CLR James, Claudia Cumberbatch began to write as Claudia Jones to throw the CIA off her tracks, knowing that the US government considered her a threat. She was indomitably bad ass, crossing out the job title of secretary that was put on her passport, and writing ‘journalist’ instead, the only right thing to do for an immigrant woman who later wrote for and edited youth, women’s, workers’ rights and African American magazines, and founded her own newspaper, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.
Last term, in my Gender Studies classes at the University of the West Indies, my students and I read Left of Karl Marx, Carole Boyce-Davies’ book about Claudia Jones’ life and politics, marveling that she even met China’s Mao Tse-tung and Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted them to know that when Caribbean students learn about transnational, anti-imperialist, anti-racist feminist theory, we begin right here in the region, with the thinking of Claudia Jones, an activist, intellectual, cultural worker and writer without any university degrees to her name, now buried in London, to the left of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.
Yet, even having taught her book, it never occurred to me to turn onto the lane where she walked as a child and to look up at the same moon she would have seen, on her birthday. It did occur to those who invited the nation to honour a woman who died, at forty-nine years old, alone on Christmas day.
By putting passion and pen to our principles, making transformation of black working class women’s lives our marker of change, and unapologetically pursuing equality and emancipation for all, may we mightily walk in the footsteps of the path-breaking Caribbean woman Claudia Jones.