When you think of Notting Hill Carnival, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the music? Or maybe the food. It might even be the crowds of people all clamouring to see the floats and the parades. It might be the potential of catching a likkle whine yourself. Maybe it’s the sound systems, that make the streets hum as though you were in a living , breathing thing as opposed to a few roads in West London.
Maybe it is all of the above.
You could be forgiven for not thinking of Claudia Jones. But, and I will tell you this for free, you should. Because she is the very reason that all of this; the parties, the sound systems, the food stalls serving up the best in Caribbean delicacies exist.
There are many ways one can describe Claudia Jones (born Claudia Cumberbatch) but ordinary just isn’t one of them.
Born in 1915, Claudia dedicated her life to fighting against intolerance and inequality in a time when simply being black and having the audacity to exist, was enough to get you into trouble.
When she migrated to Harlem with her family at the age of 8, no one knew that this bright little girl would grow up to become one of the most influential people of the 20th century and the reason so many of us crave the August Bank Holiday so. But how did she find her way to the shores of England and become so bloody influential?
Well, Miss Jones was a rebellious woman, she spent much of her 20’s campaigning for equality. She didn’t go far in education, although she did finish high school, her schooling was cut short because she suffered with Tuberculoses as a child. Not being college educated didn’t stop her from joining the Young Communist League USA in 1936. Throughout WW2 she rose through its ranks eventually becoming the executive secretary of the Women’s National Commission.
At the age of 40, she found her way to the UK. Her road to England was not yellow-bricked nor paved with rubies. She ended up in London after being deported from the USA. Put simply, she was a problem. She was convicted of “un-American activities” and once she had served her sentence and was removed from America; Trinidad & Tobago wouldn’t take her back so off to London it was for Claudia Jones. She arrived on these grey shores in December of 1955 a UK citizen.
The thing about London during the post-war immigration is that it was rough. During a time when “no black, no dogs, no Irish” was the attitude and the slogans adopted by many a business, being a 30 something Black woman in a place that at best was aggressive and at worst dangerous; Claudia knew she had to do something.
And that “something” was to become an advocate for Caribbean community.
She campaigned against racism in housing, education and employment. She also campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela, and spoke out against racism in the workplace.
She founded her own Newspaper in 1958 called The West Indian Gazette and just 4 weeks after this the Notting Hill Riots happened. The White Defence League and racist gangs began attacking the Black community. Violent riots broke out on the streets of both Notting Hill and Nottingham in August, lasting for five nights over the bank holiday weekend.
Claudia Jones had an unconventional response. Instead of fighting fire with fire and reacting to violence with violence she hosted a celebration and that was the birth of what we know today as Notting Hill Carnival.
The fact that NHC is full of vibes and shaking of asses today shouldn’t make you forget where it all began and most importantly why. The carnival was a protest.
Originally dubbed “Claudia’s Carnival”, the first event took place at St Pancras Town Hall on 30 January 1959 and was televised by the BBC. The following six years would see the annual celebration staged in local town halls and community centres. Over the years it has grown to be the spectacle that so many of us know and love. A thing that really does bring us all together and enables us to revel in the Caribbean culture here in the UK.
When I decided to write this series I must admit I didnt know who Miss Jones was. I, of course have eaten the jerk and drank the punch at many Notting Hill Carnivals without a care in the world as to why a celebration like this exists. Maybe it is 2020, a year that has forced some to acknowledge the daily struggle of Black people and the rest of us to arm ourselves with the knowledge of our history. But whatever it is, I am glad because now I know who Claudia Jones was and why her legacy needs to be continued.
Claudia Jones passed away on Christmas Eve 1964 just 9 years after she came to the UK. She left a legacy behind that is still felt today and will be for many years to come.