by Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza
“The Lady with the Lamp, the Statue of Liberty, stands in New York Harbour. Her back is squarely turned on the USA. It’s no wonder, considering what she would have to look upon. She would weep, if she had to face this way.”
Claudia Jones wrote these words, more relevant now than ever, while incarcerated at Ellis Island in the late 1940s. As an immigrant journalist and political activist with distinctly anti-fascist, anti-imperialist views, she wouldn’t bat an eye at the current political turmoil in the U.S. Turns out Donald Trump is not the founder of political repression and xenophobia, as evidenced by how Harry Truman’s administration targeted Jones for being a leader in the Communist Party USA and an immigrant from Trinidad. In December 1955, Jones was deported from the U.S. to the United Kingdom (her native country denied her entrance) after being incarcerated four times due to her political activities and non-citizen status. She died of a heart attack nine years later, her resting place left of Karl Marx’s grave in a London cemetery.
Chronically ill most of her life, Jones’ death at a young age reminds me of two other Black feminist pioneers, Lorraine Hansberry and Audre Lorde. Most of Jones’ story feels familiar, which is unsurprising since conditions for Black women haven’t changed much since her lifetime. Black women are sick as ever, overstressed and underinsured. Upward mobility for Black women is still rare, and our labor is still exploited without redress. We still experience the worst consequences when we speak out against our oppression and are even more vulnerable if we are immigrants. Despite living during the era of Jim Crow and women being seen and not heard, Jones dedicated her life to naming the unique ways Black women are oppressed in her writing and politics.
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Similar to many Black millennials, the persecution of Black boys marked young Jones’ entrance into activism. She joined the Communist Party in 1936 because of their support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black boys in Alabama wrongfully accused of raping two white women. As Jones rose in party leadership, she became more aware of its exclusion of Black women’s voices. Half a century before Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” Jones wrote about the “triple oppression” of Black women as the greatest barrier to liberation for all oppressed groups. This “triple oppression” was based on race, gender and class. A must-read 1970s Black lesbian feminist manifesto, the Combahee River Collective Statement, reaffirmed Jones’ triple oppression theory and birthed one of my most cherished quotes: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
Claudia Jones’ story is not told nearly enough, especially during Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Bernie Sanders’ flock would have us believe socialism has always been for and by white men, but Jones’ life proves that Black women have been calling for an end to capitalism in the U.S. for a long time. As a Black queer femme with Pan-African socialist leanings, it’s important for me to have a historical blueprint and possibility model like Jones. The following is my attempt at shining much-deserved light on why she is the Black feminist hero we need during this Women’s History Month and every other month, too:
- She called out white leftists for ignoring Black women’s issues.
In one of her most popular essays, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman” published in 1949, Jones chastised progressives, the labor movement and her own political party for disregarding what she called Black women’s “special oppressed status.” She urged the Communist Party to center Black women in their analysis and organizing instead of white men since they were the most exploited workers. Jones also criticized Truman for pretending to care about women and democracy while Black women were being lynched and incarcerated. If Jones had a Twitter account, it would be lit, and she would be my #TwitterBae because of her fearless advocacy for Black women and girls.
- She centered Black working-class women in her theory and practice.
As a blue-collar worker who never attended college, Jones believed feminism belonged to more than just white, upper class, and/or educated women. She wrote about Black women making only half the pay of white women despite being more likely to be in the workplace. She further complicated this by noting that unlike white women, Black women contributed to their household as much or more than their men. Jones was one of the first to theorize that a class analysis excluding race and gender is not a liberatory one.
- Her squad was the epitome of #BlackGirlMagic.
Jones was a part of a 14-member Black communist girl squad called Sojourners for Truth and Justice that included Shirley Graham DuBois and Eslanda Goode Robeson, two women whose badass legacies are overshadowed by their husbands, W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. Their collective organized in response to government attacks on Black radicals and state violence against Black women. The Sojourners only lasted from 1951 to 1952, proving that even short-lived organizing efforts are important and valid, especially when led by those who are most oppressed.
- Despite being incarcerated then deported, she never quit fighting capitalism, fascism, imperialism, racism and sexism.
Jones’ essays and speeches caught the attention of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his infamous communist witch hunt and J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most diabolical FBI directors of all time. An anti-patriarchal 1950 International Women’s Day speech resulted in Jones’ eventual deportation. After being subjected to cages and violent borders, Jones remained entrenched in movement work once she arrived in the UK. In 1958, she founded London’s first Black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. To help heal her neighborhood after racially-motivated riots in 1959, she founded the Notting Hill Carnival, which is celebrated to this day. Jones’ courage and resilience gives me hope during a time when immigrants and journalists are being unjustly targeted by our government and Black women, especially Black trans women, are experiencing unprecedented rates of violence. I urge fellow practitioners and students of Black feminism to study Jones’ praxis as we learn how to resist the authoritarian-like regime we are currently living under in a sustainable, principled way.
Neesha (she/her, they/them/their) is a Black queer femme writer, dancer, and community organizer originally from the South, currently living in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys creating, laughing, and traveling with chosen family, her partner, and their cat, Seven. Tweet with her @womanistbae.