How a Trinidadian Communist Invented London’s Biggest Party

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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.

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 desperately wanting to climb over the barriers and join the beautiful women sashaying down the road to the beat of the drums. I remember one woman fluttering her feathers at me. I cast her in a high regard that I had only ever previously held for princesses.

Last year was a quiet one, and a hard one. But Carnival will rise once again. And when it does, I have no doubt that, with the knowledge in our hearts that Carnival can be a political space and a celebration of resilience and renewal, we’ll return to the streets as energized and radicalized as Claudia Jones would have wished.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a journalist, podcast host and the editor in chief of Gal-Dem magazine. She is the editor of two anthologies, “Black Joy” and “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children,” and lives in London.

Produced by Veronica Chambers, Marcelle Hopkins, Dahlia Kozlowsky, Ruru Kuo, Antonio de Luca, Adam Sternbergh, Dodai Stewart and Amanda Webster.

Photo and video credits: group 1, Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images; Richard Braine/PYMCA, Universal Images Group, via Getty Images; ITN, via Getty Images. Group 2, Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images; Hulton Archive, via Getty Images; Daily Mirror, Mirrorpix via Getty Images. Group 3, Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images (stills); British Movietone/AP (video). Group 4, PYMCA/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images; ITN, via Getty Images; Steve Eason/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images. Group 5, PYMCA/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images (stills); ITN, via Getty Images (video)

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