By Duchess of Hackney

Hackney livin' n lovin'. Sarky frosty knickers always gobby, and perpetually pissed off for good reasons. Wind up merchant extraordinaire, but a nice old fashioned unusually unusual gal... Writing lots of wrongs.

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A salute to Claudia Jones – mother of the Notting Hill Carnival

A salute to Claudia Jones – mother of the Notting Hill Carnival

I haven’t attended the Notting Hill Carnival since 1984, in fact I believe I have only been to it a total of 3 times. Until 1977 I hop scotched the Atlantic with my parents and in 1986 I left the UK for North America for almost two decades. While I might love watching carnival on TV, dealing with the crowds in West London is no longer something I relish.

On the first day of Carnival 2013, it is only fitting to pay homage to a very notable Black woman.

Carnival was the brainchild of activist Claudia Cumberbatch Jones, Notting Hill Carnival was, from its start, a tool of hope and reconciliation.

Born in Belmont, Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1915, Jones knew a lot about hatred and the conditions that can create it. At the age of eight, her family of five had moved to New York’s Harlem, hoping to escape poverty. What they found instead were even harder circumstances.

At thirteen, Claudia saw her mother die of overwork; by seventeen, she herself was ill with tuberculosis. When her school awarded the teen a Good Citizen prize, Claudia could not afford new clothes to attend the ceremony.

Yet she was talented, opinionated and determined. When, in 1935, the Communist Party defended the “Scottsboro nine” (young black Americans falsely charged with rape), Jones decided to join the Young Communist League.

Just six years later, she became its National Director. By 1948, she was one of the top editors at The Daily Worker, its national newspaper.

By then, Jones was a well known figure, invited to speak across America, in China, Russia and Japan. She stood up for her beliefs at great personal cost and went to prison four separate times because of her activism. In 1955, the McCarthy witch-hunts succeeded in ordering her deportation from America. Jones was given political asylum in Britain.

Here she again became a busy political organizer, working for anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns, including the international effort to free Nelson Mandela. In March of 1958, Jones published the first issue of the West Indian Gazette. This was a campaigning newspaper she would edit for the rest of her life.

That August, over the Bank Holiday weekend, vicious race riots erupted across London. They raged unabated for five notorious days and nights.

In Notting Hill, the violence was especially vicious. A young West Indian carpenter named Kelso Cochrane was murdered there by six white youths.

Along with activists such as Amy Ashwood-Garvey (the wife of Marcus), Jones was central in defending London’s black community. Understanding the unifying power of Carnival, she suggested London needed a similar festival.

If people only learned to understand each other’s cultures, Jones argued, they would be better neighbours and better citizens. Carnival, she knew, was the Caribbean spirit at its most inclusive and joyful.

Jones was successful in launching her carnival, although it had to be known as “Mardi-Gras”. It first took place as a cabaret-style event on 30 January, 1959, in St. Pancras Town Hall. Its organizing had been centered in Notting Hill and, according to historian Marika Sherwood, it featured artists such as the Boscoe Holder Troupe, Fitroy Coleman, Cleo Laine, the Mike McKenzie Trio, the Mighty Terror, the Southlanders, The Mighty Terror, Pearl Prescod, Rupert Nurse and his Orchestra, Sepia serenades, Corinne Skinner-Carter, the Trinidad All Stars and Hi-Fi Steel Bands and the West Indian Students’ Dance Band.

The Carnival moved to Notting Hill only in 1964, due to the efforts of a social worker, Rhaune Laslett. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1962, Claudia Jones had added its first mas costume competitions. These were a giant step towards the real Carnival she envisioned.

Sadly, Claudia Jones never lived to see her dream realised. Jones died on Christmas Eve 1964, aged 49. Found on Christmas Day at her flat, a post-mortem declared that she had died of a massive heart attack, due to heart disease and tuberculosis.

Her funeral on 9 January 1965, was a large and political ceremony, with her burial plot selected to be that to the left of her hero, Karl Marx, in Highgate Cemetery, North London. A message from Paul Robeson was read out: “It was a great privilege to have known Claudia Jones. She was a vigorous and courageous leader of the Communist Party of the United States, and was very active in the work for the unity of white and coloured Peoples and for dignity and equality, especially for the Negro people and for women”.

I lazily lifted much of the above from other sources.


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