Claudia Jones — a legacy deferred
Published Mar 10, 2010 5:58 PM
Excerpts from a speech by Andrea Egypt at a Workers World Party Black
History Month forum in Detroit.
Andrea Egypt speaking at Int’l Women’s
Day in Detroit.
WW photo: Kris Hamel
Sometimes a legacy can be buried within the rubble of politics for a long
time, waiting to be unearthed and refined like a diamond in the rough.
Such is the legacy of Claudia Jones. She was persecuted by the McCarthyite
anti-communist witch hunt and by the McCarran-Walter and Smith Acts against
Claudia Jones was a triple threat: She was Black, a woman and a communist, at a
time when this country was undergoing social and political upheaval.
She was powerful in both theory and practice, with a radical, revolutionary
approach that challenged national and women’s oppression. She launched
transnational challenges to U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of Marxist
and Leninist theory. She had the ability to address a wide range of issues and
was widely known as the Communist Party’s principal theorist on the
“woman question.” She wrote reviews, theses and essays on Pan
Africanism, Black nationalism, Afro-Asian Caribbeanism and immigration rights
as well as the West Indian diaspora of struggle, using her journalistic skills
to integrate issues of race, class and gender on local and international
She was noted for the party’s theory of the “triple
oppression” of Black women. She wrote that “if the party wanted to
be a place of equality, then it means above all fighting for the economic
equality of women, because her economic dependence on men in our society, and
her exclusion from production makes for a double exploitation of women and
triply so for Negro women in present-day society.”
Jones was born in 1916 in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad, then a British colony. Her
family lived well until the cocoa industry crashed and her father lost his job.
The family was forced to emigrate. She was 8 years old when they moved to
Harlem, where they lived in squalid, impoverished conditions. Shortly after
they assimilated, her mother died due to spinal meningitis and overwork in the
garment factories. Her father could find only custodial work to support the
family. They were so poor that Claudia missed receiving an important
Citizenship Award at her high school because she had no clothes to wear for the
Due to poor conditions, at the age of 17 she contracted tuberculosis and was
committed to a sanitarium for a year. She suffered severe lung damage that
affected her health throughout her life.
Her health, her living environment, the death of her mother, her father’s
employment situation, her inability to find work except in laundries and
factories, as well as her sisters being confined to housekeeping jobs —
these encounters with racism, sexism, poverty and working class exploitation
would later inspire her, as a journalist, to call for equal pay and equal
rights for all women of the world, starting with Black women, in order to win
Black journalism was on the rise. Between 1935 and 1936 she wrote a weekly
column for the Negro Nationalist newspaper. She attended marches and rallies on
matters like the Scottsboro 9 case. She was impressed by how the Communist
Party’s legal defense raised the case to a national level, exposing the
racist injustice of the criminal court system.
She decided to join the Young Communist League and by 1937 was elected to its
National Council. In the 1940s she became associate editor of the Weekly
Review. Her weekly column, “The Quiz,” answered questions on
religion, the Soviet Union and other political inquiries. She was editor in
chief of the Political Score, which responded to political and social events
and racial concerns surrounding the African-American struggle. She wrote
“Half the World,” where she noted that the Communist Party needed
to refine its position on gender and asserted that “white women need to
be clear that the Negro question is prior to, and not equal to the women
question.” She met with some criticism but stood firm in her belief that
as the position of Black women advances, so will the entire social
Her assessment was that “women bore the brunt of the culture’s
economic and social exploitation and since women made up half the world
population, no attempt to move society forward is possible if half the
population remains unaccounted for and under-represented.” Between 1945
and 1946 she was Editor of Negro Affairs in the Daily Worker and was elected a
full member of the National Committee of the Communist Party.
FBI agents had begun infiltrating her rallies and meetings to build a case
against her for expulsion from the U.S. As she became more influential within
the Communist Party in relation to her anti-imperialist views, the FBI seized
upon the fact that no birth records identified her as a U.S. citizen.
Jones was arrested for deportation on Jan. 19, 1948, but released on $1,000
bond a day later. FBI records show a firestorm of protests and petitions
against her deportation.
The FBI continued to plant agents at every rally and event she participated in.
Jones was arrested again in 1951 with many other party members, including
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, under the Smith Act. Because of a speech she had given
on International Women’s Day that challenged the overall male patriarchal
establishment, she was charged with plotting the overthrow of the government.
Her bail was raised higher this time.
Jones was sentenced to one year in prison but remained free on appeal. In 1955
the Supreme Court refused to hear her case and she was sent to federal prison,
where she suffered a heart attack. She never recovered and her health began to
interfere with her journalism.
Finally she was released but was forced into exile in Britain. She found refuge
in the Caribbean community of Notting Hill, where she eventually became the
Mother of Carnival.
There she also founded the West Indian Gazette and the Afro Asian Caribbean
newspaper in 1958. She brought both awareness and self-identity to a nation
subjected to the same racist and fascist imperial oppression, with a British
twist. But her health and the newspaper began to suffer as she went in and out
of hospitals to battle cardiovascular disease.
In 1964, Claudia Jones died of a heart attack. She was buried to the left of
Karl Marx’s grave at London’s Highgate Cemetery. May we never
forget to give her a rightful place for historical advancement and achievement
in Black history and culture.
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