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Claudia Jones led the way

ROGER McKENZIE salutes the life and work of the famous journalist and communist, arguing that the West Indian Gazette, Britain's first black newspaper, should be remembered alongside her founding of the Notting Hill Carnival

THERE are a number of writers and journalists I really admire. Sometimes it’s for the quality of their writing. Sometimes it’s for what they have to say. Sometimes, though much more rarely, it’s both.

Two writers immediately come to mind who fit the double category. James Baldwin is one of them. I think both his non-fiction and fictional works are rarely surpassed by anyone, with the possible exception of Toni Morrison.

The other one is Claudia Jones. As I write this, on February 21 2022, I celebrate her birthday. She shares her birthday with the publication of the Communist Manifesto and the day the legendary Malcolm X was gunned down in New York City in 1965.

Jones manages something that is unsurpassed. She was a black feminist and communist who knew how to write really without ever compromising her principles. Imagine the pressures on anyone trying to write really well in any one of those three categories. She managed all three and didn’t separate theoretical writing or journalism from her activism. No mean feat I would suggest.

Born in Trinidad on February 21 1915, she was taken as an eight-year-old in 1924 to live in Harlem. Jones joined the Communist Party USA in 1936 in search of an organisation that was supportive of the Scottsboro Boys. These were nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931.

Jones went on to write for the Daily Worker in 1937 and edit the Weekly Review by 1938. She rose to the upper echelons of the CPUSA becoming a member of the national executive committee.

She was arrested for her communist beliefs in 1948 and was eventually found to be in violation of the McCarran Act for being a non-US citizen who had joined the Communist Party. This was, incidentally, a charge she never denied or tried to hide.

Eventually Jones was deported to Britain in 1955 and immediately joined the Communist Party of Great Britain as it was at that time. She immediately linked up with communist activists Billy Strachan, Winston Pinder and Trevor Carter.

In 1958 Jones became the founding editor of the first black newspaper in Britain, the West Indian Gazette, and was later a driving force behind the1959 London Caribbean Carnival which later became the world-famous the Notting Hill Carnival.

But it is the West Indian Gazette that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Founded above a barber’s shop in Brixton it pioneered what is now known as “intersectionality” before a name other than “unity” could be attached to it.

Most importantly, especially for someone arriving on these shores from the US, where the term black referred to a person of African descent, she recognised the colonial experience that brought together people of African and Asian descent to Britain and pioneered collective action under the unifying term of “black.”

Jones understood that without the building of unity between people of African and Asian descent there was little chance of defeating the virulent racism that was being experienced in the belly of the beast in Britain.

The paper was fiercely feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist. It was a paper that not only provided news to the British black community about what was happening “back home” but it also provided news about the struggles against racism in this country.

The role played by the West Indian Gazette was vital as an organising tool. Much the same role that this good newspaper plays.

Writing as a black person in Britain and being treated seriously, even on the left, is no mean feat. So, imagine the angst that must have overcome some when this black woman, who wasn’t even from here, had the audacity to claim to know anything and then to write about it.

Recently I read a conversation between my friend Mark Nowak and Vijay Prashad, whose work I have followed for some time. During the conversation Vijay commented: “As socialist writers, we take our lead from the people struggling to improve their worlds ... The socialist writer is not merely a conduit from the picket line to the reader. The writer must shape the story” and the intention is “to produce a confident community of struggle.”

I try to remember this every day as I try to develop my new craft as a journalist who is a socialist.

This is what Jones was so good at. It wasn’t about making a name for herself. It was always about the struggle for a better world.

Anti-racists, and those who claim to be, should remember the words of Jones speaking to the court that was about to imprison her in February 1953 — she said equality for her people “can only be achieved allied to the cause of the working class.”

This quote should be plastered on every wall of anyone claiming that black lives matter to them.

At the end of her courthouse speech, Jones said: “If out of this struggle, history assesses that I and my co-defendants have made some small contribution, I shall consider my role small indeed.”

Modest and brilliant and an example to anyone who wants to be a socialist writer or journalist. Jones should be remembered by all socialists as someone who never compromised her beliefs and didn’t just talk about linking theory with action. She did it while others talked about it.

Roger McKenzie is a journalist and general secretary of Liberation.


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