An early proponent of intersectionality, Claudia Jones’ life and legacy deserves recognition and another look argues Samir Kinks.
“I was deported from the USA because, as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side,” Claudia Jones told a 1956 Caribbean News interview after her deportation to Britain. As a leading activist and theoretician in the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), Jones pioneered an intersectional approach to organising – identifying the “triple oppression” of black, working class women. She was at the forefront of campaigns to free the Scottsboro Boys, organising against American imperialism and developing women’s leadership within the CPUSA.
Jones joined the party in 1936. Mussolini had recently invaded Ethiopia, the US was still being rocked by the Scottsboro Boys defence effort, and the Harlem Renaissance – a blossoming of black arts and culture – was in full swing. Jones’ talents as an orator and journalist were spotted early on and she quickly rose through the ranks of the youth wing of the CPUSA. These early years in a party with a serious anti-racist strategy convinced Jones of the importance of Marxism and the interconnectivity between race and class. However, the CPUSA was heavily Stalinised. It suffered from sectarianism and a huge democratic deficit. Jones herself would defend the Soviet Union until her death in 1964.
However, Jones was much more than a Stalinist automaton. In her 1949 essay An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women, Jones makes three landmark interventions in the post-war debate about how to improve the standing of women. Firstly, Jones says that black women face a “triple oppression” because they are black, they are women and are thus more likely to face economic exploitation. Secondly, she argues for the agency of black women, suggesting that the most oppressed can become leaders of struggle, and their combativity can raise the level of class struggle more generally. Finally, Jones insisted that her white and male colleagues were responsible for engaging black women, recognising the intersectional oppression they faced, and rooting out all manifestations of white supremacy and sexism.
Jones arrived in London in December 1955. Whereas the CPUSA had gone through a long struggle to commit to anti-racist struggles, many sections of the British left paid little attention to the needs of black workers, and some held openly racist ideas. Following a similar trajectory to radicals such as C.L.R. James and George Padmore, Claudia Jones embraced a more pan-Caribbean orientation.
The colour bar (which excluded black people from certain jobs) and Notting Hill race riots required a national project to unite, educate and organise a community under attack. To this end, Jones founded the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, the first major black newspaper in England. The Gazette carried news from the liberation struggles against colonialism and historical and literary articles by Caribbean writers. It was used as a pole of attraction to mobilise around. Through the paper, Jones led housing campaigns, marches against the racist Commonwealth Immigration Act, and the first Caribbean carnival, celebrating and affirming the identity of her readership.
Claudia Jones made a towering contribution to the transatlantic left. However, despite having her final resting place next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, her legacy is often overlooked. In a world where Black Lives Matter is the most important social movement in the US, and the migrant crisis is set to be the defining issue in European political life, Jones’ life and writings deserve a wider reassessment.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine.