It’s been more than 50 years since Claudia Jones gave her final farewell, but every August as Londoners don fanciful feathers down the streets of Notting Hill, you can still feel the activist’s spirit of resilience and togetherness making its way through the very neighborhood that gave her refuge.
As the “Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival,” Jones, born Claudia Vera Cumberbatch in Port of Spain, Trinidad, will always hold influence in the community that provided a home, a place to continue her activism, and a reception of acceptance. But at her core, Jones was a woman of the world, fighting for the representation and recognition of all Black people—our lives, our stories, our liberation.
Jones learned early on, as a young West Indian immigrant coming of age in 1920s Harlem, that life as a Black American would prove to be difficult and, for her, an act of defiance. By age 12, she had lost her mother to harsh working conditions. By 13, she was forced to become a school dropout, and at 17 she contracted tuberculosis because of poor living conditions.
Life for Jones was no crystal stair, but it shaped her, molded her into a social activist, and taught her that the only way to fight exploitation and oppression was to take a stand and raise her voice. When the case of the Scottsboro Boys made headlines across the U.S. in the 1930s, Jones found an opportunity to do just that, writing on behalf of the boys’ legal defense for the Young Communist League’s journal.
As Carole Boyce Davies, author of Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, wrote on what would have been Jones’s 100th birthday, in 2015, “Communism provided [for Jones] a theoretical explanation for the treatment of oppressed black and working class men and women.” It helped the developing thought leader understand the societal norms that she and the rest of Black America were rejecting as problematic and unjust.
The communist theorist spent her entire adult life within the Communist Party USA, even adopting the last name “Jones” to avoid persecution by those who stood against the school of thought. But a name change did little to change the fact that Jones’s ideas of equality and intersectionality were radical at a time when Jim Crow was law.
In a 1949 article for the Marxist publication Political Affairs, titled “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” Jones laid out how the economic “super-exploitation” of Black women undermined the health and well-being of the entire Black community. A subsequent speech, titled “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” delivered on International Women’s Day 1950, explored a similar subject. This time, however, her public dissonance had gone too far. The move landed Jones in jail.
In spite of her anguish—and a heart attack while imprisoned—the fearless leader did not let the physical bars hold her back. America chose to deport her; Trinidad later rejected her from its shores. But in 1955 she ended up in London, and she found a renewed strength to fight against the civil rights abuses she experienced there.
Jones confronted oppression through her writing as the founding editor of London’s first Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. She confronted it as a community organizer who challenged racism in housing, education and employment. She confronted it as an outspoken advocate for the release of Nelson Mandela, and for putting a halt to legislation that would make immigration to Britain difficult for nonwhite migrants. And she confronted it by helping to launch Britain’s first Carnival event in 1959, using joyful dance to bring peace to a neighborhood upended by race riots, where West Indian residents were targeted by bigoted white terrorists.
From Trinidad to Toronto, Barbados to Brooklyn, the vibrant colors of Carnival spread a message of freedom, of hope and of pride while celebrating West Indian culture. But there’s something particularly special about Notting Hill’s celebration. It’s a reflection of Jones’s use of Caribbean tradition to bring about community healing and understanding after a turbulent period of unrest.
Now, more than 60 years after the race riots, over a million people still prance down Holland Road, past Notting Hill Gate to St. Mark’s Road, every August bank holiday. Whether they know it or not, Jones’s presence follows them, always a reminder that her unwavering resilience in the face of injustice will forever be a fitting reason to revel.