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Claudia cumberbatch, a mighty woman

Published: 
Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival, Claudia Vera Cumberbatch introduced the Notting Hill Carnival to England. Each year over a million people celebrate the Notting Hill Carnival and very few are aware of Claudia’s part in its history.

As Saturday’s crescent moon rose over Cazabon Street in Belmont, 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, organising 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 organised 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, my students and I read Left of Karl Marx, Carole Boyce-Davies’ book about Claudia Jones’ life and politics, marvelling 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 don’t start with US Black feminism and Angela Davis or Third World feminism and Chandra Mohanty, and we don’t start in the 1960s.

We start decades earlier, in Belmont, with the thinking of Claudia Jones, an activist, intellectual, cultural worker and writer without any 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 49 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 Claudia Jones.

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