Manjikian: Passages from the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora

“What is an ocean between us, we know how to build bridges.”
—Claudia Jones

My first encounter with Claudia Jones was a few years ago. I recently stumbled upon the article that first introduced me to her and still find her story to be fascinating and inspiring. As someone who is intrigued by exile and the migratory paths of people, I am drawn to this woman’s story, not only because her roots and routes (to use Paul Gilroy’s play of words) overlap so interestingly, but also because her trajectory connects exile, deportation, and diaspora in a positive way, which rarely is the case. And what is most appealing is that this woman shifted her struggle and suffering, brought on by exile, into a proactive fight for justice and rights.

Claudia Jones was a political activist, journalist, and black nationalist. She was born in Trinidad in 1915 and moved to New York with her parents at the age of eight. She lived in New York for 30 years, during which she became involved in local communist politics. From a young age, she was engaged in several social justice causes and eventually started to take on positions of leadership on a national scale. She soon became a notable public speaker around the country for human and civil rights. At the time, however, the Unites States equated communism with radical thought; this made Jones’ application for U.S citizenship all the more challenging, considering she was an Afro-Caribbean woman who happened to hold certain unwelcomed political ideals. Claudia Jones was the only black woman among a group of 13 communists tried, convicted, detained, and then deported for communist activities in 1953. The authorities arrested her for a piece she had written for an International Women’s Day rally. She was seen as a criminal, an undesirable “alien,” inadmissible and therefore deportable for offenses such as teaching revolutionary ideas. Without delving into the racial and ideological repercussions related to non-citizens—coincidently an issue up for debate currently in states such as Arizona and California—I turn to the activism Jones carried out, once subjected to exile.

Researcher Carole Boyce Davies argues that “this sense of statelessness under deportation created an international identity in diaspora.” Jones’ ties to the diaspora were not new; many individuals from Trinidad are largely of African descent. Her physical exile from the U.S. was preceded by the inheritance of a forced and brutal exile from Africa, namely through slavery. However, rather than returning to Trinidad, Jones and her legal team were able to change the deportation order into a voluntary departure to England. And it is during and after her departure from the U.S. that I find particularly rich. Her exile to London allowed her to re-define herself and fully commit to her activism once again. She became an important organizer in the Afro-Caribbean community, with a political identity that was PanAfrican but internationalist as well, influenced by Marxist-Leninist views of world revolution. She formed a coalition of Afro-Asian organizations which functioned as a lobbying group for pressing issues that touched the African, Caribbean, and Asian diaspora.

You may be wondering why I am writing about this woman in an Armenian newspaper and what it has to do with the Armenian Diaspora. What I find useful and insightful in Jones’ life trajectory is how she transformed the pain of deportation and her exile “into the possibilities of diaspora” into a “purposeful migration,” to use Davies’ vocabulary.

Similarly, as Armenians are dispersed around the world, the realities of our existence can be a struggle, the day-to-day challenges we face in our communities and in our homeland are daunting, and the personal journeys we travel are perhaps confusing. To complicate matters, we live oceans apart, but we are connected more than ever. Like Jones has said, “What is an ocean between us, we know how to build bridges.” Throughout the diaspora and Armenia, amid the tides that come and go, as they should, amid our fluid and ever-changing identities, we can bring in new ideas, mechanisms, new communities, as long as the bridges we build are solid and as long as we continue forging our identities together.

Note: The article referred to in the beginning was from Carole Boyce Davies’ piece, “Deportable subjects: U.S. immigration laws and the criminalizing of communism,” published in The South Atlantic Quaterly 100:4, fall 2001.

Lalai Manjikian

Lalai Manjikian

Dr. Lalai Manjikian is a humanities professor at Vanier College in Montreal. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of immigration and refugee studies, media representations of migration, migrant narratives and diaspora studies. She is the author of Collective Memory and Home in the Diaspora: The Armenian Community in Montreal (2008). Lalai’s articles have been published in a number of newspapers and journals including The Armenian Weekly, Horizon Weekly, 100 Lives (The Aurora Prize), the Montreal Gazette, and Refuge. A former Birthright Armenia participant (2005), over the years, Lalai has been active in volunteering both within the Armenian community in Montreal and the local community at large, namely engaged in immigrant and refugee integration. She previously served as a qualitative researcher on the Armenian Diaspora Survey in Montreal. Lalai also serves as a board member for the Foundation for Genocide Education. She holds a PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University (2013).
Lalai Manjikian

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1 Comment

  1. You are absolutely correct Lalai in stating that no matter where we are, no matter how many miles and oceans separate us, we as Armenians are extremly hard working and intelligent community.. this means those bridges will never be hard for us to build… All it takes is common goal, common destination, common purpose.. and that is to get justice for what was done to our people and rebuild our birthplace…  as long as we support each other, those bridges will be as strong as a rock and no living breathing organism can destroy it… i see these bridges as our love and dedication to our nation, our Armenian culture, soul and heart…

    Gayane

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