Notting Hill? No Carnival without a Communist

The story of Notting Hill Carnivals founder Claudia Jones.

Nowadays, young activists black and white, are encouraged to deride communism, especially the official communism of smoky union meetings and back-rooms of pubs, as ‘stale, male and pale.’ In contrast events like the Notting Hill carnival are seen as the victory of racial tolerance and cultural individuality over the divisive political war-footing of the past: embracing your multi-faceted identity is an act of resistance, and the only act of resistance you need.

How many of us then, given the recent decades that have seen the Balkanisation of working class communities along ethno-cultural lines, know that the very flagship of the black British identity was the work of a Communist?

In 1959, Notting Hill was a working class part of West London awash with undercurrents of racial intolerance – the era of the infamous “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs in boarding house windows.

Oswald Mosley and the rump of his pre-war Blackshirts along with Colin Jordan’s “White Defence League” plagued the area, seizing on new black-white racial tension to rebuild the fascist project in Britain. It wasn’t long before beatings and police harassment lead to the first race riots.

Against this background, a local black Communist activist and recent arrival in Britain, journalist Claudia Jones, organised events to celebrate Caribbean culture in what she called “the face of the hate from the white racists.”

Forty-five years on, the result is the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street festival, attracting over two million people, and largely devoid of progressive politics – but it all began with Claudia.

Jones was born in Trinidad in 1915. Her family name before she married was Cumberbatch, which she shares with the actor Benedict Cumberbatch: he is the descendent of the slave-owners who gave their name to her ancestors – their slaves.

As a child Jones migrated with her family to the US. In 1936, aged 21, she joined the Young Communist League and by 1937 she was writing for the Daily Worker, the international sister paper of the Daily Worker, forerunner of today’s Morning Star. Just one year later, she was promoted to editor of the Worker’s Weekly Review.

When the Young Communist League renamed itself American Youth for Democracy during World War II, Jones became editor of its monthly journal, Spotlight.

After the war, she took a leading role in the Communist Party USA women’s commission and the National Peace Council, making major contributions through her work and writings for the burgeoning US civil rights movement.

An effective and eloquent black woman Communist organiser would not be tolerated long in the America of the 1940s and 50s. In 1948 she was jailed for the first time, and would be jailed four more times before, at the height of the red scare, the powers that be decided to deport her.

The US authorities had at first wanted to send her to Trinidad and Tobago. But Governor Major General Sir Hubert Elvin Rance – it was still a full blown British colony at the time – was too frightened to have her back in Trinidad, so she was eventually offered residency in Britain on humanitarian grounds in 1955.

By 1958 she had founded Britain’s first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. From its office above a barber’s shop in Brixton she used the paper to campaign against the racism the new wave of black workers faced in housing, education and employment.

Through her paper she became a key figure in the rise of consciousness within the black British community whilst all the while she participated in the workers movement and the Communist scene internationally – even visiting the USSR and meeting Mao Zedong in China. As the independence movements grew across the globe she had talks with progressive black colonial leaders such as Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, Norman Manley of Jamaica and Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago.

Just four months after launching her paper, race riots hit the streets of Notting Hill and some other British cities, including Nottingham.

Jones decided the black community needed to confront the atmosphere of fear created by the ongoing racist violence on the streets of Britain, so she booked St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 for the first Mardi-Gras-based carnival.

Jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman and singer Cleo Laine were among the headline acts. But don’t assume this simply an exercise to take the community’s mind off of things – it was overtly political; this and five other London events raised money “to assist the payments of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events.” This nod the class nature of the rioting – not placing one race or the other caught up in the rioting over the other – is a strong indicator that communism was at the heart of this early era of british black politics.

The event grew and grew from there: the first official Notting Hill Carnival was held in the summer of 1964, and, having lived to see her most vibrant legacy take shape, Claudia Jones died in December that year.

Appropriately, Jones was buried near Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. At her large funeral a message from her lifelong friend and comrade Paul Robeson told the assembled mourners:

“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.”

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