Trinidad and Tobago has a legacy for producing some of the most talented nationals, in any sphere, who could easily knock glasses with or in some cases surpass their international counterparts. This also includes persons who would have left the twin island state to “create a better life” in the diaspora. The journey and sacrifice that these persons make when leaving the comfort of their home country to venture into unknown territory and at times unforeseen experiences will never be understood by other persons who remain or thrive in their country of birth. Nonetheless, their stories should be told just like any other, not only in the country of impact but also in the country of origin.
With this idea in mind, to commemorate International Women’s Day 2016, the story of two Trinidad and Tobago born women living in the United Kingdom and United States were chosen for a two part series. Claudia Jones and Hazel Scott, though born in Trinidad and Tobago, left pivotal marks in the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. Their steadfast advocacy and unchallenging natures made them powerhouses in the fight against racism and marginalisation in a time when discrimination was an ugly rampant product of open and deep-seated prejudice. What is to follow is only but a brief treatment into their lives and the events that made them prominent actresses in the creation of a ‘better world.’
Claudia Jones was born in Belmont on February 21, 1915 to Charles Bertrand Cumberbatch and Sybil Cumberbatch née Logan. She left Trinidad for New York City with her sisters Lindsay, Irene, Sylvia and Aunt Alice Glasgow upon the SS Voltaire in 1924 to join her parents who had left for economic reasons two years earlier. The cocoa industry in the world market was going through a recession and this meant that it severely crippled the economic growth of the colonies of the Caribbean, thereby adversely affecting land owners and other interested parties. Jones stated about her parents:
“([They]… were middle-class landowners – on my mother’s side and hotel owners on my father’s side) had been worsened as a result of a drop in the cocoa trade on the world market, from the West Indies which had impoverished the West Indies and the entire Caribbean. Like thousands of West Indian immigrants, they hoped to find their fortunes in America where “gold was to be found on the streets” and they dreamed of rearing their children in a ‘free America’” (Davies 10)
In actuality, what they met in the United States was the exact opposite. She states that,“together with my three sisters, our family suffered not only the impoverished lot of working-class native families and its multi-national populace, but early learned the special scourge of indignity stemming from Jim Crow national oppression.” (Davies 10) During her time at school, she endured many experiences that eventually cemented her belief system in fighting against inequality. Before her graduation from high school, she contracted tuberculosis and was committed for a year to the Sea View Sanatorium for treatment. There she had the opportunity to:
“…read avidly, to think deeply about the social ideas instilled in me by my mother and father… My father’s social ideas instilled in us were that of a pride and consciousness of our people, of our relation to Africa, from which my antecedents sprang, to our interrelationship to Caribbean independence the dream of San Simeon, great Caribbean patriot to the new recognition of the struggle for Negro equality in the US linked indissolubly as I later learned with the freedom and equality in the American trade unions and working-class as the future class of society” (Davies 13)
These profound ideas continued to shape the young Jones into the radical that she was to become. In 1935, she graduated high school and began to work at menial jobs to assist her family since two years prior, her mother died suddenly due to spinal meningitis and her father lost his job due the extenuating circumstances after the crash of 1929. She began to write a column for a black newspaper and later became the youth editor for an organ of the Federated Youth Clubs of Harlem. She also attended rallies in the same area. In 1936 Jones joined the Communist Party and the Young Communist League. She progressed up the ranks of the latter movement quickly from Secretary of the Executive Committee to New York State Chair and National Council Member by 1938. During this time she was an active member of the National Negro Congress and Southern Negro Congress, where she attended many conferences in states such as Atlanta, Alabama and Virginia. This type of activism continued well into the 1940s when she became a full member of The Communist Party (CPUS) after having reached the age to graduate into the adult association.
Her activism however, did not go unnoticed since she was arrested under the 1918 Immigration Act and imprisoned on Ellis Island in January 1948. She was also threatened with deportation back to Trinidad and a Deportation Hearing ensued but she continued to work assiduously with the working class and black women within the Party and later giving a speech at the May Day Rally in Los Angeles. In March 1950, she gives a speech for ‘International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace’ which contributes to her being arrested for a second time in October. She subsequently obtains bail and continues to speak but is arrested a third time and convicted under the Smith Act in 1953. She was sentenced to one year and a day and a fine of two hundred dollars. At the end of the trial, she suffers heart failure and is hospitalized. She recovers but is hospitalized again in December 1953 and is diagnosed with hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
Jones began to fulfill her sentence in January 1955 but by October she was released on ‘good behaviour’ after countless petitions against the sentence citing her health condition. The deportation order was then served in December and she left for London on the Queen Elizabeth after residing in the United States for 32 years. When asked why she was deported in an interview, she retorted:
” I was a victim of the McCarthyite hysteria against independent political ideas in the USA… I was deported from the USA because as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against 16 million Negro Americans in the United States, in my work for redress of these grievances, for unity of Negro and white workers, for women’s rights and my general political activity urging the American people to help by their struggles to change the present foreign and domestic policy of the United States… I was deported because I urged prosecution of the lynchers rather than the prosecution of the Communists and other democratic Americans who oppose the lynchers and big financiers and war mongers, the real advocates of force and violence in the USA. (Davies 17)
Upon arrival in London, Jones was embraced by friends and the Communist Party members of Great Britain. She quickly became affiliated with this faction and continues the work she started in the United States fighting against racism, immigration restrictions and general oppression of West Indians living in London. She co-founded the West Indian Workers and Students’ Association.. Jones also continued to write and founded the West Indian Gazette in 1958, which became a key pillar in the rise of Afro consciousness within the Black British community. Racial riots broke out in Notting Hill, London and Nottingham. In response to these events, Jones created the Notting Hill Carnival, held for the first time at St Pancras Hall, London in 1959. This event would evolve and blossom into its present form today. In 1962 and 1963, Jones visited the Soviet Union, the latter time as a representative of Trinidad and Tobago to attend the World Congress of Women.
In what was to be her final year alive, Jones worked in the fight against the Apartheid System in South Africa and to free political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. She spoke at a rally with George Lamming (author of the famous book “In the Castle of my Skin”) and met with Martin Luther King Jr in London on his way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She also travelled and spoke in Japan and China, meeting the infamous Chairman Mao and interviews Soong Ching Ling (wife of Sun Yat-Sen). On December 25, 1964 Claudia Jones suffers heart failure in London ending a long legacy of struggle against racism and marginalisation in both the United States and the United Kingdom for women, the working class and Blacks. In her words written in June 1964 about the future Jones states:
“Tonight I tried to imagine what life would be like in the future – personal that is. For on the broad highway of Tomorrow, despite craggy hills and unforeseen gullies, I am certain that mankind will take the high road to a socialist future… Penchant that I have for introspective discussion, I seem to have wound up where I began I bore no one but myself. I have admitted nothing; but sought to analyse all this for self-understanding, I find I have deluded myself – conscious though I ever am that delusion is unrealistic, can never replace togetherness or evoke happiness – nor sympathetic friendship or understanding. And as I become too aware of this state to even try to change – – I realize I not only have become lethargic in these matters… but positively without nerve… The bad though then become “threads to deceive.” Sometimes they can be untangled and sometimes they serve as webs. How I believe in the Loom of Language! – and in the Family of Man!” (Davies 20)