The Notting Hill Carnival was canceled last year. But it likely wouldn’t exist at all without the efforts of Claudia Jones.
For the Caribbean diaspora living in London, there may never have been a quieter weekend than the one in August 2020 that normally would have seen the Notting Hill Carnival.
England has no shortage of full-sensory festival experiences, from music in Glastonbury to Diwali celebrations in Leicester. But there’s nothing quite like visiting the Notting Hill Carnival. You exit the tube station, get off the bus or dismount your bike, and enter the irresistible hum of the celebrations, stepping off the pavement and onto the road.
That hum you hear is the combined sound of hundreds of steel pans hammering out calypso; of the decadently decorated band floats; the sweet whisperings of the girl with the Afro kissing the boy with the fade; the soca-infused bass of your favorite sound system; the rustle of the proudest feathers of a peacocking performer; the pinging of a bikini strap; the clangs of the jerk drums; the slosh of sweet punch; the back-clapping of elders who still treat Carnival as their personal reunion party and the exhilarated cries of youngsters who are in attendance for the first time.
That hum is heard by over a million visitors to Notting Hill Carnival every year, but it can also be heard in other parts of Britain, at the St Pauls, Nottingham and Cardiff carnivals, and in cities around the world: Port of Spain during Trinidad and Tobago Carnival; Rio during Carnaval; Toronto during Caribana; and New York during J’Ouvert. Of course, many of these celebrations were canceled in 2020 because of pandemic restrictions.
God, we missed Carnival last year.
After a summer where Black Brits were engaged in a protest movement — one that may have originated in the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, but which was harnessed to represent our particular struggles with racist violence, including findings that, in Britain, Black people are twice as likely to die in police custody than are white people — so many of us were desperate for distraction, to lean into the parts of our culture not enmeshed overtly in pain. Carnival has always been that reliable release, a chance to celebrate community and reconnect.
Sometimes called “the biggest street party in Europe,” Notting Hill Carnival is centered around the music, food and culture of the Caribbean diaspora. But it has its roots as a site of anti-racist resistance and rebellion, right back to the founding of the original Caribbean Carnival in 1959 by a Trinidadian activist, writer and editor named Claudia Jones.
Jones brought her iteration of Carnival to London in another time when people desperately needed it. The first “Caribbean Carnival” was held indoors in the dead of winter in January 1959, after a series of protests by Black Brits in areas of England, including Notting Hill, against police violence. These protests played out against the backdrop of the migration to England of the “Windrush” generation: the mass wave of nonwhite immigration to Britain in the postwar period. Over several decades, roughly half a million immigrants arrived from Caribbean countries. (The name “Windrush” refers to a ship, the HMT Empire Windrush, that brought workers in 1948.) The cultural contribution of this generation has inspired a spate of creative projects, from the acclaimed 2004 novel (and subsequent TV series) “Small Island” to “Small Axe,” the film anthology from the director Steve McQueen.
Jones was an atypical member of the Windrush generation. Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1915, she lived in Harlem for 30 years before arriving in London in 1955. Her journey to her life there featured many hardships: She had been afflicted by tuberculosis as a teenager and she was imprisoned in the United States under the McCarran Internal Security Act for her political work with the Communist Party before ultimately being exiled to Britain. One of the most widely circulated portraits of Jones shows her reading a copy of “Pages from a Worker’s Life” by the American Communist leader William Z. Foster.
After a “lukewarm reception,” as Jones’ biographer Carole Boyce Davies described it, from the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was not receptive to Jones’ antiracism efforts, Jones decided to turn her formidable organizational skills to uplifting the Black British community.
Alongside the activist Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jones co-founded one of the first major Black British newspapers, The West Indian Gazette (known as WIG) in 1958. By January 1959, she had set up the Caribbean Carnival, an indoor event at London’s St Pancras Town Hall. Sponsored by WIG and televised by the BBC, the carnival featured an array of elements including dancing, music and a Caribbean Carnival Queen beauty pageant.
“We need something to get the taste of Notting Hill out of our mouths,” Jones is recalled to have said at Carnival’s inception. Later, she famously titled the pamphlet for the event “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.” In the pamphlet she directly references how Notting Hill and Nottingham brought “West Indians in the United Kingdom together as never before.” The carnival ran annually until her death in 1964, after which it was “paused” in 1965 in her honor before returning to the streets in 1966.
Colin Prescod, a Black history archivist and sociologist whose mother, the actress and singer Pearl Prescod, was a close friend of Jones’s, moved to Notting Hill as a child from Trinidad and still lives there today. Mr. Prescod takes the view that there was an area-wide anti-racist consciousness in Notting Hill that made it a fertile ground for the development of Carnival.
“I think the North Kensington area entered a proto-Black Lives Matter movement,” he said of the area in the late 1950s. These sentiments were further solidified after the May 1959 murder of Kelso Cochrane, an aspiring law student and carpenter from Antigua, who was stabbed to death by a gang of white people in Notting Hill.
“Notting Hill Carnival was one of the most beautiful means of protest,” said Fiona Compton, a Trinidadian historian, photographer and Carnival ambassador based in Britain. Jones “looked at many different ways of trying to make changes in society and she realized Carnival was the way because it showed that we create joy, too.”
Jones was a naturally charismatic figure. “She smoked, she drank, and she was an extrovert,” said Frances Anne Solomon, a director who is currently making a film about Jones. “She loved to party.” Ms. Solomon pointed out that, despite living with tuberculosis, which would eventually claim her life in 1965, Jones “had a personality that attracted people, so she could get people to do anything. Everybody loved Claudia.”
With Carnival, Jones sparked a wave of solidarity among Black Brits. Her forward-thinking attitude toward community organizing through celebration still echoes in recent attempts to position Black joy as an act of resistance and resilience.
From these beginnings, Carnival evolved into an inclusive annual street party, thanks to the artists and organizers who followed Jones’s lead. In 1966, Rhaune Laslett, a community leader in Notting Hill, revived the festival as the Notting Hill Fayre, which brought Russell Henderson’s steel-pan band in to the streets, in an impromptu performance that is said to have launched the Carnival procession we know today. Leslie Palmer, an activist from Trinidad, introduced Jamaican sound systems to Carnival in 1973, which drew in the larger crowds and opened the festival up beyond the traditions of the eastern Caribbean islands.
Mr. Prescod noted that, at the time, there was “real confrontation, great argument” about the inclusion of sound systems, which involved shows built around the ascendant genre of reggae, played over elaborate amplification systems. But the sound systems stuck, he said, because “this is what brought, suddenly, masses of more people” to Carnival.
Prescod also pointed out that, “Carnival’s got two sets of roots — it’s got two feet. One foot here in Britain and the other in the Caribbean.”
Indeed, Notting Hill Carnival was modeled on Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, which were themselves “the intervention of the emancipated Africans,” said Attillah Springer, a writer and activist. Enslaved people in areas of the Caribbean, and specifically Trinidad, took elements of European masquerade balls and subverted them, using their own rituals and traditions to find freedom in adopting masquerade — or “making mas” — and becoming different characters.
After emancipation, many of these traditions were merged into Carnival celebrations, including J’Ouvert, a pre-dawn ritual of abandonment that often sees revelers doused in mud and oil. “For a lot of people (myself included) J’Ouvert is the most important part of the celebration,” said Ms. Springer. “It’s dirty and dangerous and anonymous. It’s also highly spiritual and unapologetically political.” Ms. Springer called Jones the “ultimate jouvayist … to situate her within that consciousness of the transformative nature of those pre-dawn hours.”
In 2020, those days of celebration in Notting Hill were, for the first time in decades, silent. It was an especially difficult blow, given yet another summer of protests for racial equity and a pandemic that, in Britain, has disproportionately affected the Black British Caribbean community. As Notting Hill Carnival now takes place in August, there is still hope that Carnival might happen in 2021. But either way, its spirit persists. For Black Brits, it is “our Mecca,” in Ms. Compton’s words, or “our Christmas,” as a friend described it to me on Twitter.
At my first ever Notting Hill Carnival, as a young child held in my dad’s arms, I remember so…