Saturday February 21 marked the 100th birthday of Trinidad-born Communist activist and journalist Claudia Vera Cumberbatch known to the world as Claudia Jones. As part of the 'Unconquered Series' hosted by Attillah Springer, attendees enjoyed a special screening of the film "Finding Claudia", followed by a rich discussion in her honour at the Cloth Propaganda space in Belmont. In addition to February 21st being Jones' centenary, it was also the date of of her contemporary Malcolm X’s assassination, just a couple months after her own demise on Xmas Eve, 1964. It was very much an event filled with 'amazing connections', to borrow the title of a book by Prof Ian Smart – who was also present that evening – as it turned out, where we were gathered to discuss Claudia's legacy is just feet away from where this amazing woman spent the first eight years of her life!!!
Perhaps it’s appropriate that we had that revelation; for although everyone who packed that studio in Belmont was very much grounded in an appreciation of history, it’s in keeping with the fact that many Trinis eh know (or care) about Elma Francois, pioneer labour leader Uriah “Buzz” Butler (someone actually told me he was our first president!!) or many other historical figures that contributed to the country and the wider world. One can almost hear: Who the hell is Claudia and wha she have to do with my eating ah food? This may also include some of those who go to wine down England for Notting Hill Carnival, an event that SHE essentially conceptualised and helped to create in response to riots stemming from racist treatment of West Indians. This is after all a society where few people read widely or at all and have the art of indifference, trivialising and tearing down people perfected to a science. So even if the FBI didn't make serious and deliberate attempts to erase this woman from the consciousness of African Americans because she committed the "sin" of being Communist even when it fell way out of favour in the US, we still wouldn'ta care nothing really bout she as she eh important to nothing today.
Perhaps one good day – hopefully we don't have to hit rock bottom first.....or perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen – we will come to look within ourselves and our long legacy of creativity, militancy and defiance, our history of creating mediums for political and social awareness in the unlikeliest of places, with the most deceptive of celebrations, to bring about a more harmonious, productive and caring society. When we do, we must see her as nothing short of a model from which to draw. I certainly do (maybe that's why, like her, I'm always up after frigging 1 in the morning, risking my health the same way she did). We must look at her very humble beginnings and ketch-arse life along with the institutionalised racism that kept her out of a lot of formal education, yet still putting out a body of literature more insightful than many with better schooling. So there's no need for our slavish desire for foreign validation or looking to copy from every Tom, Dick or de Beauvoir.
From way back then she was, as Dr Carole Boyce-Davies informed us in ‘Left of Karl Marx,’ "articulating political positions that combine the theoretics of Marxism-Leninism and decolonisation with a critique of class oppression, imperialist aggression and gender subordination," long before many feminist icons today were even born and when many civil rights activists were just finding their feet. Long before terms like ‘intersectionality’ were coined, Jones was speaking to the “triple oppression” of Black women, making class, race and sexual connections; refusing to separate them or give priority of one over the other.
Claudia Jones understood clearly how inter-related issues were (and are) routinely and cleverly separated by the upholders of racist and sexist power structures and what she called the “capitalist press.” Things haven’t changed much as we see how, often aided by unsuspecting persons within radical movements, modern media de-link LGBTQ issues from the wider issue of the complex, diverse question of human sexuality……and then separate that from discussions surrounding, say, the National Gender Policy. Indeed, we see it when members of the Inter-Religious Organisation hijacked talks about the NGP by making it appear that it was a disguised part of the “gay agenda.” It’s the same khaki pants when Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis – though Putin is no angel here – is discussed in a decontextualised way erasing any mention of the way the United States constantly broke agreements made by then President Clinton to not make any move that could be seen as the West trying to contain or encircle Russia (and ah hear too dat de Ukraine has among the world’s largest grain reserves. Hmmmm). All this Claudia would have written about so as to keep our eyes on the entire ball.
Take her observation that she, as “a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in [the US government’s] side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against 16 million Negro Americans in the United States, in my work to redress these grievance, for unity of workers, for women’s rights and my general political activity urging the American people to help by their struggles to change the present foreign and domestic policy of the United States”
Her words here, given in an interview, are particularly important to us in 2015. Over the last decade or so there has been an increasing insularity and very selfish individualism in dealing with issues. We saw it in the vitriol levelled at anti-smelter protestors who came from the north of Trinidad to show solidarity with those who lived around the proposed site in the south of the island. It was also displayed when the Highway Re-Route Movement became more vocal and “outsiders” were condemned as rabble-rousers. It reared its head again when certain voices were raised in solidarity with the protests in the US in response to the killings of unarmed blacks by police officers. Compare that to the dock workers who in 1935 refused to unpack Italian ships after Italy, blessed by the then Pope, invaded Ethiopia. Compare that to those who protested the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1980s and were beaten by police outside the Queen’s Park Oval. Compare that to the words and actions of Claudia Jones who, when she was very young and now starting out, was already speaking up for the African Americans known as the Scotsboro Nine, framed for the rape of a white woman.
She clearly understood, as evinced by her “Half the World” columns that women should have greater access to resources, education and that all that would redound to the benefit of all humanity. And she expressed those ideas in clear, understandable terms devoid of much of the abstract “party line” rhetoric some other Communist thinkers were expressing their views. Claudia, like other radical black intellectuals of her time, saw herself as communicating directly with the public through those newspapers and pamphlets – something academics today need to understand; of what use is speaking about revolutionaries and radicals to ordinary people (if you’re doing that at all) and they can’t follow you just once. For these Left-wing writers, journalism was a key arm of activism. The authorities understood it too; why else would Garvey’s The Negro World be banned in so many colonies and had to be smuggled in? Indeed, why else would Dr Eric Williams, himself touted as a radical scholar, see it fit to trivialise his former mentor, CLR James, by calling him a mere “pamphleteer”? They all understood the power of the written and spoken word to inform, educate and galvanise (an dey didn’t have nothing closely resembling de Internet).
As a younger generation is being reared, we must find ways to harness their talents, capitalise on their brashness, idealism, even their indifference and the passion with which they give no fucks. We need to stoke their fire, so we can get more of them to speak their minds, particularly in the face of an authoritarian culture, which is one of the enduring legacies of colonial rule. Taking the cue from Claudia, we see what it looks like to be a real warrior and stand in your truth:
“Your Honour, there are a few things I wish to say………I say these things not with any idea that what I say will influence your sentence of me. For even with all the power your Honour holds, how can you decide to mete out justice for the only act [to] which I proudly plead guilty, and one, moreover, which by your own rulings constitutes no crime – that of holding Communist ideas; of being a member of and officer of the Communist Party of the United States?” – Claudia Jones from “Speech to the Court,” February 1953
Even as this is being done, we must do what we can to blunt some of the swords used to intimidate them and others into silence. Sexual shaming is perhaps top of that list of weapons; even in recent news we are seeing how people’s sexuality, especially those of women, are used to gauge their fitness to contribute to society and speak on social issues. Once again, creeping into political and social discussions, is a puritanism revolving around the egregious North American ideal of “wholesome” family values (read, nuclear, married, monogamous, male-centred). Anyone whose sexual preference is not in keeping with this ideal is shunned and shamed or, as Dr Boyce-Davies told us on Saturday, in the case of Claudia, erased or glossed over. Her intimate life was not in keeping with this ideal and seems to be the source of unease in some circles. Today, there is a recoiling by African and other “exotic” peoples from the stigma of their innate hypersexuality in ways as pathetic as the notion of said hypersexuality is racist. The sooner we understand that history as well as biology provides overwhelming evidence that the monogamy-is-the-only-morality ideal is absolute and complete unrealistic rubbish, the better off we’ll be.
Sunity Maharaj, in her usual deep-thinking way, asks the seventeen-year olds, like the one who wined on Dr Rowley as if that was anything for puritans and UNC sycophants to talk about, to seriously examine the “Finance Minister’s disclosure that the Government will make no payment to the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) this year. While this is all well and good for Mr Howai’s generation of well-cushioned retirees, the hard price of this decision will have to be paid by today’s 17-year-olds when their turn comes to run this country. ” Claudia would have and engaged the elites that Mr Howai represents in a very direct way. That same militant spirit was once very, very strong here in Trinbago in the 1930s and the 1970s in the hearts of people who had little of the comforts we take from granted today, certainly none of the abilities to communicate in an instant.
We must look at how Claudia Jones understood that politics has no business being kept solely in the hands of politicians. She was very suspicious of bourgeois nationalist leaders – as most post-colonial Caribbean leaders were – and for pretty much the same reason she was very critical of bourgeois feminists. I’m sure we can all point to photogenic activists who can be seen on display for some protest or International Women’s Day but for the daily, dirty work of reaching out to women and men in the rural areas or depressed urban communities……..(crickets chirping). They want nothing to do with the grassroots women, some of whom although they would refuse to be called feminist, their daily toils in the communities and on radio are very much in keeping with what Elma Francois, Christina King, Thelma Williams and Claudia Jones were doing and saying.
We must look at the Notting Hill Carnival, which Claudia was instrumental in putting together and don't only see in it a chance to wine and wear bikini costumes in England and jam to soca – that “tyranny of beauty” as journalist Attillah Springer so eloquently put it in her TEDx talk. We must see it as expressions of Caribbean identity in the midst of a society that did not (and still does not) see people of colour as fully human, a society that had deep issues with its own self and with an ascetic approach to living as a result of said issues.
Notting Hill Carnival with its colour, gaiety and bacchanal was a disguised form of resistance; the ultimate middle finger to the ideals of Puritanical restraint for which Britain was well known. This power of political parody is something we are yet to fully understand with our own Carnival here; when George Bailey put on “Tears of the Indies,” when Peter Minshall put on “Danse Macabre,” “The River,” “Santimanitay” and “Papillon,” many people don’t understand that those were disguised political and social protests dressed up in colour and glitter and pageantry. The Baby Doll is deeply, scathingly political, so too the Robber, the Jamette, the Jab Molassie, all in their own way showing up the stinking and hollow pretensions of patricentric morality and society. Claudia understood that aspect of the Mas as well as the potential it had (and still has) to heal millions of people who struggled with depression as a result of the rat-race, individualistic and alienating lifestyle that accompanies modern capitalism. It was our way of injecting real life and therapy into that place. Again, it is something we don’t understand about our own Mas, our carefree lifestyle and the immense potential of all this to be turned into a revenue-earning venture through “therapeutic liming.” Perhaps that's why Carnival is becoming a mockery of its own self with soulless, imported bikini trash that says nothing; we never bothered to see ourselves the way persons like Claudia Jones did. We seem to insist on seeing ourselves through other people’s eyes. That’s why her admonition that “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom” will eventually turn on us if we continue to ignore it the way we do.
So happy belated 100, Claudia….and asante sana, (thank you)
is an amateur history reader from La Romaine who believes he's a progressive thinker. He simply wants to see more deep conversations on important issues and an informed population who are always asking and answering for themselves uncomfortable questions that will help bring about progressive change whether the leadership likes it or not.