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Claudia Jones: in her own words

A political memoir: the correspondence between activist Claudia Jones and her partner Abhimanyu (Manu) Manchanda casts light on racial narratives still relevant today.

Diane Langford
15 September 2015
Claudia Jones piece rescaled.jpg

Marx Memorial Library/ Marion Macalpine

Sixteen letters between Claudia Jones and Abhimanyu (Manu) Manchanda are to be deposited in the Marx Memorial Library, along with Manchanda’s other papers. They are also published in a website commemorating Manu’s life.

These letters are evidence of an intense, complex and passionate partnership. They reveal the political and personal bond the two activists shared, the unbearable strain on their relationship due to poor health and financial worries, and the tenacity with which they have always supported each other in pursuing their struggle. Along the way, they were able to enjoy life and look ahead with confidence to a socialist future. At the time they were writing, a large, socialist bloc of countries existed, with China and Cuba having recently achieved hard-won-apparently irreversible-people’s revolutions. The spirit of Bandung prevailed elsewhere, with many non-aligned countries taking progressive anti-colonial positions, refusing to be bullied by the super-powers. National liberation movements were rocking the world; the civil rights movement in the USA was gathering momentum.

By an accident of history, I inherited the papers of Claudia Jones, progenitor of Notting Hill Carnival and founder of Britain’s first Black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette. Carnival was Claudia’s inspired, intuitive response to the 1959 racist murder of Kelso Cochrane by a gang of ‘Teddy Boy’ thugs in Notting Hill.

From 1969, until a few years before his death, I was married to Manu, an Indian revolutionary, who was Claudia’s former partner. Manu had left India, where he had been an activist in the Communist Party of India, to attend an international youth festival in Berlin. When tipped off that he would be arrested on his return, he travelled on to London and became embroiled in the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movement. He met Claudia in a North London branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Manu left a vast mountain of papers that had to be sifted through when he died.  Claudia’s passport, notebooks, cards and scores of letters had already been extracted and placed in a metal filing cabinet.

I was particularly searching for two items that Manu had told me were missing: Claudia’s autobiography, written on yellow, lined paper (as described by a Gazette reporter and friend, Donald Hinds) and a drawing by Picasso given to Claudia by the artist to help fund-raise for her projects. Manu had told me these items disappeared while he was in China at the time of Claudia’s death. I had to make absolutely sure they were not somewhere in that pile. I was helped in this task by the late Gertrude Elias, another old friend of Manu’s and Claudia’s, who came with me to Manu’s flat to set about the task. These items have never been found.

In 2001, the bulk of the material was deposited in an archive named The Claudia Jones Memorial Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library.Donald, someone I knew Manu respected and trusted, was invited to safeguard material relating to the West Indian Gazette and various other items pertaining to Claudia’s life in London. Richard Gibson, an old friend of Manu’s and mine, was first to suggest Schomburg as the best repository for the remainder of Claudia’s papers. The scholar Carole Boyce Davies cemented my decision, facilitating the efficient transfer of the material to Schomburg, including making an inventory of items. Carole went on to produce two path-breaking books and many articles locating Claudia Left of Karl Marx and Beyond Containment

 “The room we entered in a house in Hampstead was dominated by a box and, deliberately arranged as though they were spilling out of it, were the papers, photographs, newspapers, poems and letters that their curator, Diane Langford, had guarded with a passion. It is this first encounter with the box and its metaphors of containment and the spilling over of the contents of a life unwilling to be contained…that produced the title for the collection of Jones’s writings…”

[Left of Karl Marx, Duke University Press, paperback 2008]

 In her introduction to Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment [Ayebia, 2011] Carole Boyce Davies refers to a letter that Claudia Jones wrote to Dr Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, from London, asking for his help in obtaining a British passport. Claudia points out two levels of discrimination in operation: 1) being a Caribbean person 2) being a Marxist. And in I was deported (1956) she writes:

 “I was deported from the USA because as 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.”

After serving time in Alderson Prison, Claudia was deported under the McCarthyite Smith-McCarran Act. Born under British colonial rule in Trinidad and taken to the USA as a child, she was not formally a US citizen. The British believed that her organisational skills could be diluted, surveilled and controlled more easily in London than in Trinidad. 

Friends and comrades in New York City, including Paul Robeson, Ruby Dee and Lorraine Hansberry, always campaigned for her return. Scores of letters flowed back and forth from Harlem to London, anticipating Claudia’s return to Harlem one day. When her papers were repatriated to the Schomburg Library, the archivist commented that it was as if the missing pieces of a jigsaw had been recovered.

Sixteen letters in Manu and Claudia’s handwriting remained in the possession of my daughter, Claudia Manchanda, and myself. Following Manu’s death, we were reluctant to part with them. Transcriptions were made available to the Schomburg. Like everyone who wrote letters before the invention of computers and emails, Manu and Claudia often made drafts of their letters before sending a ‘fair copy.’ Other documents in the archive were carbon copies, also difficult to decipher after so many years.

I was familiar with both Claudia’s and Manu’s handwriting and made transcripts of hard-to-decipher documents to go along with the originals. Amongst these was a letter that Claudia sent to the editor of the Daily Worker, the CPGB’s newspaper, forerunner of the Morning Star, not long before her death. This epitomises the measured response she was able to muster in the face of an often obdurate refusal to recognise the double oppression of Black people and the triple oppression of Black women. Her letter was refused publication.

[I reproduce the letter, which has never been published before, in full]:

May 7, (Year not added, but presumed written in 1963)

Editor,

Daily Worker,

75 Farringdon Road,

London EC1

Dear George Matthews,

I thought it best to follow up our telephone discussion of this morning on the matter I raised with you re: the current news story entitled “Economic Ban-Not Colour-Sir Learie” in this morning’s issue of the Daily Worker.

I hope you’ll find it possible to print my letter in your columns, except of course, the first and last paragraphs.

[Letter for publication follows]

The news article captioned “Economic Ban-Not Colour-Sir Learie” appearing in the May 7 issue of the Daily Worker was most unfortunate. Coming as it did in the midst of a widespread protest by West Indians in Bristol and their Labour-Progressive and student allies, following the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus company to hire an 18 year-old West Indian, Guy Bailey, on the clear-cut ground that the company refused to hire ‘coloured’ workers, it can only have the effect of mitigating the struggle and confusing the issue. If this is not a clear-cut case of colour-bar, I don’t know what is.Yet the Daily Worker story was captioned     “Economic Ban-Not Colour says Sir Learie.”

The essence of Sir Learie’s remarks as quoted by you gave the impression that the issue of colour bar no longer exists, and in fact was not the issue at all in this case.

[The lead paragraph of the story ran]:

“The non-employment of West Indians on the Bristol buses is not a colour-bar issue at all, Sir Learie Constantine, High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago, said in Bristol last night.”

But actually, in the context of your story, Sir Learie after being quoted as denying the existence of a colour-bar, went on to say: “It is something more fundamental. It is due to fear generated by the small wage paid to the people employed by the bus company, who augment it with overtime. The service is certainly not properly staffed, and everybody is afraid that if it is properly staffed overtime will be lost.”

If the burden of Sir Learie’s remarks on Bristol television was to emphasise that underlying colour bar practices and actions, there is an economic basis, that’s one thing, and is a useful point. Colour bar is profitable to capitalism, to the employers and serves as a divisive tactic to the unity of the workers.

But it is quite another thing to counter-pose the existence of colour-bar to the economic fears of the workers, whether on buses or elsewhere in this country. The economic fears of all workers is what is always played on when the issue of colour-bar comes to the fore. The white worker is encouraged in his fears to fight not the bosses, but the coloured man who “threatens” his job. The coloured worker is told to “understand” that the economic recession means he can’t take away other men’s jobs etc. Hence, to counterpoise the economic issue (or economic fears) to the fight against the colour-bar or to deny its existence as a factor accelerates the disunity of the workers which only benefits the employers, the racialists and the Tories whose policies brought about the situation in the first place. To stress one without the other, in an instance where there is clear evidence of both factors, is to renege on our responsibility of exposing colour-bar practices and manifestations.

What other implication can be drawn when one reads in the text of the same story “it was easy to talk about a ‘colour-bar’ to hide the real issue which was an economic one”? This, surely, was not Sir Learie’s quotation.In the story’s context this should have been made clear; otherwise, it appears what we have is a counterpoising of the economic issue to the fight against the colour-bar, which, of course, could provide a handy excuse to those who do not wish to fight it, or who use the real question of the workers’ economic fears as an excuse to justify their actions. But this would only result in making West Indians or other coloured workers additional “scapegoats” to be last hired, first fired in an economic recession, or as in this case not to be hired at all.

How often have we heard similar excuses in the field of housing, from prejudiced landlords:  We would of course take West Indians in our homes, but our neighbours would object, or from prejudiced employers, “The workers object to the hiring of coloured workers,” hence the maintenance of a colour bar in its employment policy, etc.

We should be mindful of the fact that often when colour-bar issues exist, the retort is that it is economic. But such an approach could well mean the delay, postponement (or failure to expose) the fight against the colour-bar, when clearly, in the context of British economic life (and political considerations of Commonwealth coloured workers among the British working class today) the question of discrimination of coloured workers must be squarely faced and fought as inimical to the unity of the workers.

The implications of the phrase “it is easy to talk     about ‘colour bar’ ”is to dangerously minimise this issue. Assuredly, it is far from “easy” to talk about colour bar – far more experience this indignity, and most coloured workers would prefer forthright struggle for its elimination rather than to “talk” about it.

It is this element that was witnessed in Bristol when the community (or a section of it) took action to end it, which deserves the wholehearted support of all progressives.Completely eliminated from the story is the earlier statement of discrimination in the refusal of the company to hire an 18 year-old Jamaican who applied for a job. Instead, your article quoted Mr. Ian Patey, general manager of the Bristol Company, as saying, “There are no vacancies for bus crew anyway. We have a waiting list for jobs, so that when these are available, there are local men to fill them.”

“Local,” meaning native? Is this not another manifestation of a colour bar that they will hire no outsiders only those native to Bristol? And if this was the situation in the first place, how explain the earlier statement of the company that they will not hire coloured workers?

The statement of the Bristol Communist municipal candidates condemning the bus colour-bar and other political forces, the action of Bristol University students in their swift support and the original protest of West Indians themselves, should be highly commended. It is our job to expose these incidents, to fight and support all efforts that will bring to the fore instances of colour-bar not recognised yet by many British workers and even progressives, to speed its elimination from British life.

[End portion of letter submitted for publication].

All in all, I’m afraid I must agree with you as you indicated on the telephone, that I read this in a different context than you say did the Daily Worker staff. This does not as you imputed; however, mean that I expect you to fight “colour bar only”. I quite naturally expect that the Daily Worker as a communist journal would be foremost in fighting colour bar and I would hope that it will increasingly recognize the subtleties in the struggle against it must be fought lest we unwittingly fall into an opportunist position. It behoves us to be alert to these trends, even if the views obscuring them are mouthed by certain West Indian leaders. (You should also know that I am awaiting results from my call to the Trinidad Office and it is not yet clear whether he was quoted out of context or not. I will keep you posted.)

With all good wishes,

Yours fraternally,

Claudia Jones

All the issues touched on in Manu and Claudia’s correspondence have a heightened relevance today. For example, several currently topical subjects are dealt with in a letter that Claudia wrote from Moscow, dated October 25, 1962: the EU, Cuba, ‘easing away’ of newly independent countries from capitalist economic relations.

She starts with personal household matters: flat hunting, as eviction looms due to rent arrears, then appraises Manu’s efforts to bring out the paper in her absence.

“About the October Issue (of West Indian Gazette) – it looks rather good. I remarked to my associates here that if this keeps up --- I’ll be ‘out of a job’ (smile) I thought Page 1 was smashing (except for the spelling of Guyana).

Nehru certainly deserved the lead piece for his stand on the ECM (European Common Market) and his advocacy of world trade without discrimination. Ditto for the piece on Nigeria etc. What I meant by my query on the ‘tap of the wrist’ ‘rebuke’ to Dr. W.  [Eric Williams, DL] was not that I disagree with it (Your point was well put critically in the editorial) but there was no need to rush to characterise W’s position since there are many basic unsolved problems facing new states just emerged from imperialist domination like Trinidad & Tobago & Jamaica who intertwined as they are with world capitalist economic relations cannot all at once untwine themselves from this picture. The “easing away” process true must be indicated in their recognition of the neo-colonialist character of the ECM but we must likewise seek to give answers as to how they make the transition. Last night I read an article by a leading economist here [Moscow, DL] which puts some interesting questions: “Having failed in their attempts to oppose the EEC with her seven-nation Europe and Free Trade Association (EFTA) Britain has been driven to negotiations for Common Market membership. The reason for this is that Britain can neither destroy or neutralise the Common Market, nor afford to remain outside.

At a time when the British Empire is on its last legs and British imperialism is seriously weakened, Britain cannot afford to keep out of the squabble for markets or to leave, voluntarily at least, the initiative in the hands of her principal rival in Europe, West Germany…” [this was written before German reunification. DL]

[Claudia continues….]

Cuba-and the middle spread, timely and well documented. Did you get help from our friends here or from inner-office material? Clearly this issue in view of the sharp and dangerous crisis emanating from Washington and the Pentagon means a very serious situation. The war tension is felt here and the superb calm and firm determination reflected in the Soviet Government statement and Khrushchev’s answer to Bertrand Russell (It’s wonderful how he at last reflects an advance in his position on recognising the source and breadth of the war danger)…[at one point, Bertrand Russell had suggested that Moscow should be bombed! DL]

That the Marx Memorial Library has agreed to take these papers is another step along the road to reconciliation between Claudia’s irrepressible, revolutionary spirit and her experience of the Communist Party. It might take a little longer for Manu to settle in and I hope he forgives me for entrusting his archive to its new home. Perhaps the next step is for the Morning Star to publish and re-evaluate the letter about the Bristol Bus Company that Claudia submitted in 1962?

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