Claudia Jones (1955)
Molecules long hidden lay
In Earth, rich-aged with Time
Dust of the ancients stamp the way
Of peoples, rich in rhyme.
I've held in hand unmolded piece
Unformed and pliant blob
And wondered as I rolled and ceased
What form would start to throb.
I've marveled how its contents rare
Are snared in secret lime
How Nature hid in tablets here
Past History in its prime.
But most of all when turning 'round by hand this property
I turn the lock on all mankinds recorded history
For here lies proof supremely clear that bold humanity
Can storm all doors through toil and will - if they but see!
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and stalwarts like Paul Robeson, his wife Eslanda Goode Robeson, Ben Davis and William Z. Foster. Claudia Jones was also an artist and poet who underlined the importance of culture and creativity to the cause of freedom. She made enormous contributions to the world of understanding of oppression, her views today adopted by most mainstream schools of feminism. Who was this woman who accomplished all of these things and more for racial, feminist and for workers struggles and was so beloved by many in her life?
In a biographical letter to William Z. Foster, Chairman of the Communist Party of the United States and a leader of the Little Steel Strike of 1919, she describes her early life:
"As a child of eight, I came to the United States from Port of Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies. My mother and father had come to this country two years earlier, in 1922, when their economic status (which were middle class land owners on my mother’s side and hotel owners on my father’s side) had been worsened as a result of the 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.”
"This dream was soon disabused. Together with my three sisters, our family suffered not only the impoverished lot of working class native families, and the multinational populace, but early learned the special scourge of indignity stemming from Jim Crow national oppression... "
Likewise in her stirring comments to the court in her trial under the red-baiting and racist Smith Act courtrooms, she addressed the judge:
"That I have learned to interpret that history and to work to influence its change for the betterment of the people with the indispensable weapon of Marxist-Leninist ideas, that is the real crime against me.
"Of all other charges I am innocent.
"It was here on this soil (and not as Mr. Lane would depict to this Court, as a young child of eight years of age waving revolutionary slogans), that I early experienced experiences which are shared by millions of native-born Negroes — the bitter indignity and humiliation of second-class citizenship, the special status which makes a mockery of our Government's prated claims of a 'free America' in a 'free world' for 15 million Negro Americans.
"It was out of my Jim Crow experiences as a young Negro woman, experiences likewise born of working-class poverty that led me in my search of why these things had to be that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose at the age of 18 the philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism-Leninism — that philosophy that not only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them." (13 Communists speak to the Court, New York, New Century Publishers, 1953)
Despite crushing poverty and racism suffered by herself and her family, she excelled in her classes and became involved in organizations for workers' rights and racial justice. The Depression deepened the struggles of Black youth, who were hit even harder by the fallout and lack of jobs in the wake of crisis and also the attacks by racist reaction in the economic turmoil.
"I spent a lot of time coming from work listening also to the street corner meetings of the various political parties and movements in Harlem. These were the days of the famed Scottsboro Boys frame-up.
"I was like millions of Negro people and white progressives and people stirred by this heinous frame-up. I was impressed by the Communist speakers who explained the reasons for this brutal crime against young Negro boys, and who related the Scottsboro case to the struggle of the Ethiopian people against fascism and Mussolini’s invasion. Friends of mine who were Communists began to have frequent discussions with me. I joined the party in February 1936 and was assigned to work in the Young Communist League shortly after. My first assignment was secretary of the YCL executive committee in Harlem and it was about this time, I got a job in the Business Dept. of the Daily Worker. This job coincided with my application for a $150 a week job in the field of dramatics with the Federal Theatre Project under WPA. I took the job at the Worker for $12–15 a week instead."
"The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement."
(Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto,1848)
FROM: We Seek Full Equality For Women, Claudia Jones, 1949
“Taking up the struggle of the Suffragists, the Communists have set tasks, new objectives in the fight for a new status for women. The special value of Foster's contribution is:
"The leading role of the Communist Party in the struggle to emancipate women from male oppression is one of the proud contributions which our Party of Marxism-Leninism, the Communist Party, USA, celebrates on its thirtieth anniversary."
"Marxism-Leninism exposes the core of the woman question and shows that the position of women in society is not always and everywhere the same, but derives from woman's relation to the mode of production.
"Under capitalism, the inequality of women stems from exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. But the exploitation of women cuts across class lines and affects all women. Marxism-Leninism views the woman question as a special question which derives from the economic dependence of women upon men. This economic dependence as Engels wrote over 100 years ago, carries with it the sexual exploitation of women, the placing of woman in the modern bourgeois family, as the proletariat' of the man, who assumes the role of 'bourgeoisie.'
“A pioneer in the fight for the organization of working class women, our Party's the first to demonstrate to white women and to the working class that the triply-oppressed status of Negro women is a barometer of the status of all women that the fight for the full, economic, political and social equality of the Negro man is in the vital self-interest of white workers, in the vital interest of the fight to realize equality for all women.
"Foster's special contribution lies in his unique expose of the mask placed on the status of women in every sphere in the US by American imperialism. Comrade Foster exposed the bourgeois lie that women in the US have achieved full equality and that no further rights remain to be won. ”
FROM: An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women, Claudia Jones, 1949
"Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the Protector, of the Negro family. From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militancy shielding it from the blows of Jim Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation, and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. The intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been a hallmark of the postwar reactionary offensive, cannot therefore but lead to an acceleration of the militancy of the Negro woman. As a mother, as Negro, and was worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale and the very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children.
"Viewed in this light, it is not accidental that the American bourgeoisie has intensified its oppression, not only of the Negro people in general, but of Negro women in particular. Nothing so exposes the drive to fascination in the nation as the callous attitude which the bourgeoisie displays and cultivates toward Negro women. The vaunted boast of the ideologists of Big Business-that American women posses the 'greatest equality' in the world is exposed in all its hypocrisy in the Soviet Union, the New Democracies and the formerly oppressed land of China, women are attaining new heights of equality. But above all else, Wall Street's boast stops at the water's edge where Negro and working-class women are concerned. Not equality, but degradation and super-exploitation: this is the actual lot of Negro women!...
"Inherently connected with the question of job opportunities where the Negro woman is concerned, is the special oppression she faces as Negro, as woman and as worker. She is the victim of the white chauvinist stereotype as to where her place should be. In the film, radio and press, the Negro woman is not pictured in her real role as breadwinner, mother, and protector of the family, but as a traditional 'mammy' who puts the care of children and families of others above her own. This traditional stereotype of the Negro slave mother, which to this day appears in commercial advertisements, must be combatted and rejected as a device of the imperialists to perpetuate the white chauvinist ideology that Negro women are 'backward', 'inferior', and the 'natural slaves' of others...
The Negro Woman Worker
"The negligible participation of Negro women in progressive and trade union circles is thus all the more startling. In union after union, even in those unions where a large concentration of workers are Negro women, few Negro women are to be found as leaders or active workers. The outstanding exceptions to this are the Food and Tobacco Workers' Union and the United Office and Professional Workers' Union.
"It is incumbent on progressive unionists to realize that in the fight for equal rights for Negro workers, it is necessary to have a special approach to Negro women workers, who, far out of proportion to other women workers, are the main breadwinners in their families. The fight to retain the Negro woman in industry and to upgrade her on the job, is a major way of struggling for the basic and special interests of the Negro woman worker. Not to recognize this feature is to miss the special aspects of the effects of the growing economic crisis, which is penalizing Negro workers, particularly Negro women workers, with special severity...
The Struggle for Peace
"To win the Negro women for full participation in the anti-fascist, anti-imperialist coalition, to bring her militancy and participation to even greater heights in the current and future struggles against Wall Street imperialism, progressives must acquire political consciousness as regards her special oppressed status.
"It is this consciousness, accelerated by struggles, that will convince increasing thousands that only the Communist Party, as the vanguard of the working class, with its ultimate perspective of Socialism, can achieve for the Negro women—for the entire Negro people— the full equality and dignity of their stature in a Socialist society in which contributions to society are measured, not by national origin, or by color, but a society in which men and women contribute according to ability, and ultimately under Communism receive according to their needs.”
FROM: International Women's Day and the Struggle for Peace, Claudia Jones, 1950
"Women under Socialism
“Complete emancipation of women is possible only under Socialism. It was only with the October Socialist Revolution that, for the first time in history, women were fully emancipated and guaranteed their full social equality in every phase of life.”
“But it must be frankly stated that it is necessary to combat all and sundry male supremacist ideas still pervading the labour and progressive movements and our Party. The uprooting of this ideology, which emanates from the ruling class and is sustained by centuries of myths pertaining to the "biological inferiority" of women, requires a sustained struggle. Failure to recognize the special social disabilities of women under capitalism is one of the chief manifestations of male supremacy. These special forms of oppression particularly affect the working women, the farm women and the triply oppressed Negro women,- but, in varying degrees, they help to determine the inferior status of women in all classes of society.
"The manifestation of bourgeois feminism in the progressive women's movement and also in our Party is a direct result of the prevalence of male superiority ideas and shows the need for our women comrades to study the Marxist-Leninist teachings on the woman question. According to bourgeois feminism, woman's oppression stems, not from the capitalist system, but from men. Marxism-Leninism, just as it rejects and combats the petty-bourgeois "equalitarianism" fostered by Social-Democracy, so it has nothing in common with the bourgeois idiocy of "the battle of the sexes" or the irrational Freudian "approach" to the woman question. These false ideologies must be combated by women labour-progressives and in the first place by women Communists. Key participants in the fight against these ideologies, and in the fight to enlist the masses of women for the pro-peace struggle, must be the advanced trade-union women and women Communists on all levels of Party leadership. All Communist women must, as Lenin said, "themselves become part of the mass movement," taking responsibility for the liberation of women”
FROM: For the Unity of Women in the Cause of Peace, Claudia Jones, 1951
Our Party's Work among Women
"To help transform women's peace sentiment into a mighty organized movement for peace, security equality and defense of children, means we must change our Party's methods of work and approaches to our own women cadre. In his report, Comrade [Gus] Hall stated that:
"What is necessary to achieve this "new level of understanding" in work among women? It means, first of all, recognizing and applying the Leninist concept that Communist women must "themselves be part of the mass movement of women." It means the virtual release of dozens and dozens of our women comrades for work among women for peace and to struggle for women's special demands.
"In many Party sections a consciousness exists that in order to make it possible for women to participate generally in Party activities, the obstacles to women's full participation must be recognized. Party cadres here understand that because under capitalism, care of children is more than often the sole responsibility of women, and not viewed as a social responsibility, as is the case under Socialism, it is necessary to provide for babysitters to help release women for general Party work. But examination shows that this practice, limited because of its costliness, is not widespread. Nor is the same approach taken to release Party women cadre for work among the masses of women. Coupled with this a general underestimation of work among women is expressed in the practice of taking practically all of our women comrades out of their natural habitat thus robbing them of their mass contracts in PTA's and women's organizations while they function as general Party actives.
"Then there is the general male supremacist approach which relegates only certain phases of responsibility to women on the assumption that women aren't ready for top leadership responsibilities on a policy-making level. The fact that in the basic units of our Party, a great deal of leadership is exercised by our women cadres refutes this assertion. But what is required here is the elevation of women to policy-making bodies of the Party organization.
"There are literally dozens of women in every Party section who, viewing such practices, ask: How can women function fully in the Party - women with families and children, whose problems cannot be fully solved under capitalism? Of course women can and do function as general Party actives and that is all to the good, but they function as general Party actives, and not among the masses of women. The splendid results shown in not a few communities where women were released for work among women, shows how fully one-half of the Party's effectiveness could be strengthened if our Party leadership on all levels overcomes this general underestimation of work among women.
Combating Male "Supremacy"
"But true security for the family, including families of Party members, comes in the first place from participation of both male and female members of the family in activity for peace and social progress. True security for the Communist family means not liquidation of women's work but expanding that work on the basis of recognizing that the activization of women generally confounds those who desire to keep one-half of the population in passive acceptance of the false ideas of the inevitability of war and fascism.
"Overcoming these male supremacist notions means to recognize moreover that our Party, as distinct from those who hold petty-bourgeois equalitarian notions, fights for the true equality of women. What does it mean? It means fighting for the right of women to enjoy every right and privilege enjoyed by men. Many shout equality in general, but in practice show lack of understanding of the special aspects of equality. The petty bourgeois equalitarian denies the special problems and needs of women. True recognition of the special aspects of equality for women means fighting to squeeze out every concession right here under capitalism relative to fighting women's numerous disabilities and inequalities in the home, on the job, in the community.
"It means above all fighting for the economic equality of women, because her economic dependence on men in our society, her exclusion from production, makes for a double exploitation of women (and triply so for Negro women) in present-day society. It means support to her special demands, for child-care centres, health centres, etc. It means elevation of women to leadership on all Party levels."
Before being deported to Britain, Claudia Jones along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were found guilty of violation of the Smith Act and were sentenced to a brutal stint in Alderson Federal Prison. The prison sentence was not enough to quell the spirit of Claudia Jones, who faced down the Jim Crow segregation of the prison, winning the right to be with her comrade.
“I can never forget my joy at seeing her in the doorway, with friends helping carry things. It changed my life in prison for that period....She became interested in all the crafts taught there-ceramics, pottery, metal jewellery, wood carving and leather work...Her absorption in the many projects helped pass the time more quickly, Even when in the hospital she did clay modelling. She set-up a small loom in her room and wove a centerpiece and matching place mats of white and gold thread, which won a prize at the local country fair.
She also taught several girls in our cottage to model in clay, and another to play the piano enough to encourage her to take some lessons from the music teacher.” (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Alderson Story, 1963)
"A people's art is the genesis of their freedom" -Claudia Jones
At the young age of 49, Claudia Jones lost her struggle with her health, and was found deceased in her apartment in London on Christmas Day, 1964. She had suffered complications from heart disease, aggravated by the bad prison diet in the US. In her short time in the UK, she labored tirelessly on issues of injustice in the community of Black Britons, establishing the newspaper West Indian Gazette and also organizing a world-renowned festival of Caribbean culture and arts that is still celebrated today, Notting Hill Carnival.
"Long before the academic community started theorizing about intersectionality, she argued that racism could not be eradicated without also ending the specific forms of racialized and gendered oppression assailing black women . She was also a vigorous advocate of multiracial coalition building between people of color, something she practiced as co-founder and chair of the Confederation of Afro-Asian-Caribbean organizations during her exile in England. Lastly, her analysis of the connections between global capitalism, state repression, and racism provided an important radical foundation for international solidarity between oppressed and colonized peoples worldwide." (Julia Sudbury, "A world without prisons: resisting militarism, globalized punishment, and empire", 2004)
Claudia Vera Jones was laid to rest and buried next to the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery with the words "Valiant fighter against racism and imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own Black people" At her funeral, Paul Robeson's statement on her life was read out ""It was a great privilege to have known Claudia Jones. She was a vigorous and courageous leader ... and was very active in the work for the unity of white and coloured peoples and for dignity and equality, especially for the Negro people and for women." (Buzz Johnson, "I Think of My Mother": Notes on the Life and Times of Claudia Jones, 1985, p. 175)She embodied in life the words of Marx ""Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment." (Karl Marx, Letter to Kugelmann, 1868)
For further reading at People's World: Claudia Jones, Dynamic champion of equality
For further reading on the roots of women's oppression, study Frederick Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Video documentary featuring rare footage of Claudia, focusing on the ruling class attacks on West Indian workers who emigrated to England and were subjected to racist reaction on arrival, even though they are citizens of the commonwealth.