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Claudia Jones, A Life in Exile,

Marike Sherwood
Lawrence Wishart, London 2021. PB pp 240. ISBN 978-1-913546-31-1

This is an important reprint of a book written in the late 90s, with a wonderful new preface by Lola Olufemi, a Black feminist writer. The life of the Black activist and communist, Claudia Jones (1915-1965) who was exiled to England from the USA in the 1950s, is both astonishing and inspirational. I can’t do it justice in this short review. It deserves a wide readership.

The book itself is a collection of research material and oral testimonies from people who knew and worked with Claudia Jones. But as Sherwood tells us: ‘Written material on Claudia is very scarce. The papers in the Communist Archive in the People’s History Museum in Manchester have obviously been culled. There is almost no trace of Claudia in Government files in the PRO. M15 surveillance papers have not been released’ p24.

Many people remember Claudia Jones as the one of the founders of London’s Notting Hill Carnival in the wake of the race riots of the late 50s. But there was so much more to her, as her friend Gertrude Elias recalled, ‘I feel we ought to get Camden Council to put up a plaque at the house where Claudia was living [in the 60s] she was the leading Afro- American artist, writer and political leader.’ p 220.

Claudia Jones was a Communist, joining the party in Harlem in 1936 after CPUSA defended the Scottsboro boys in 1931 (9 Black boys accused, without any evidence, of raping 2 white girls. The CPUSA orchestrated a national and international defence committee during 1931-1935: five boys were subsequently released and 4 imprisoned for life.) Claudia then expanded her understanding of super-exploitation in order to apply them to the condition of Black workers, including women. She developed an anti- imperialist analysis of racism, with its roots in the colonial projects. She was arrested in 1948 and 1951 and finally deported to England, in 1955. By this time, she was well-known as an activist, writer and orator with her friendship group including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, WEB du Bois and Paul Robeson, who wrote, ‘Claudia has enriched our land… [in her] struggle for Negro (sic) liberation, for women’s rights, for human dignity and fulfilment.’ p 31.

Her subsequent relationship with CPGB was not easy – her general outspokenness and her continuing advocacy of making racial discrimination a central Party concern, made her unpopular and although she contributed to CPGB on specific issues, she had no formal role. As her fellow communist Trevor Carter remembered, ‘Claudia came in a period of post-colonial struggle [but] those of us who were communist, especially those of us who received our political education in this country, there was no experience of Black struggle to fit into. Every step we made was a struggle. Racism was in the consciousness and psyche of the society and there was the problem of racial discrimination.’ p 197.

Weakened by TB, exacerbated by years of imprisonment and exile, Claudia died in 1965, only 50 years old, an inspirational and tireless political woman. Read this book: give it to everyone you know.

Alison Ronan

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