Commemorating the 100th birthday of Claudia Jones 21 February 1915 – 24 December 1964

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!

 

20131223diasporaJour­nal­ist, 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

 

Cheddi Jagan and Claudia Jones  Photograph courtesy Carole Boyce Davies,  Left of Karl Marx.  The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke, 2008), 236.
Cheddi Jagan and Claudia Jones
Photograph courtesy Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx. The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke, 2008), 236.

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.

 

 

 

 

Around the Web

Comments