Notting Hill Carnival: It Was the Most Beautiful Response to Race Riots
by Rossella Forle’
Today starts the London’s biggest street party, with costumed revellers and steel bands bringing the city to life in a colourful celebration of West Indian culture.
In sharp contrast to its euphoric atmosphere, Carnival’s origins lie in race riots that saw the newly arrived immigrant population attacked by white nationalists.
As Majbritt Morrison argued with her husband Raymond Morrison outside Latimer Road tube station on 29 August 1958, neither could have anticipated what would happen next. The mixed-race couple’s argument – Majbritt was Swedish and Raymond, Jamaican – became the catalyst for racially motivated attacks carried out by a white nationalists, particularly a subset youth movement called the Teddy Boys.
This subgroup had long been critical of West Indian immigration to the North Kensington area, especially when it came to interracial relationships. When Morrison rebuffed a group of Teddy Boys who later approached her, they resorted to flinging insults and objects at her, calling her a “black man’s trollop”.
The following night, Notting Hill erupted in violence as hundreds of young white men took to the streets, throwing home-made firebombs at the houses of black residents. The attacks continued until 5 September.
The end of the Notting Hill riots was far from the end of racism against Britain’s West Indian population. Oswald Mosley, used the political climate to incite more racial tension. In 1959, Mosley ran for the North Kensington parliamentary and called for forced repatriation of West Indian people and a ban on interracial marriages. Mosley was defeated, and instead community activists focussed on a way to show white Britons what the West Indian population had to offer in terms of cultural wealth.
The origin of the Carnival
The very first London Caribbean Carnival, a precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival, was held indoors at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The event, televised by the BBC, was organised by Claudia Jones, who has gone down in history as the Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain.
Claudia Jones was a Trinidadian-born journalist, communist, feminist, black rights campaigner. She was also an indomitable figure in the early struggle for racial equality, and worked tirelessly throughout her short life to promote revolutionary politics worldwide. She arrived in Britain following her expulsion from the McCarthy-era US.
After working in a laundry facility and in retail roles, Jones joined a drama group, and began writing for a Harlem journal. It was thus that a future career in the radical media was born, with Claudia embarking on an alternative pathway to education in political activism.
Jones would later credit her radical political views as beginning with the death of her mother, aged just 37; having worked as a machine worker in harsh conditions in a garment factory, her death led Jones to ‘develop an understanding of the suffering of my people and my class and to look for a way to end them,’ recognising that the degradation of black communities in America was shared to a degree by the non-black working classes.
Following the Second World War, Jones would become the executive secretary of the Women’s National Commission and the secretary for the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party USA. Jones had a talent for public speaking and community event organising, which she utilised well in her political activism, touring the country to give speeches. In 1953 she became the editor of Negro Affairs, continuing to write passionately about intersectional Marxism, arguing for the emancipation of black women as fundamental to class- and race-based revolutionary politics.
The Notting Hill Carnival
Undoubtedly influenced by Jones’s event, Notting Hill Carnival really began as a traditional British celebration in 1966.
The event was put on by community activist and one of the founders of the London Free School, Rhaune Laslett, who aimed to highlight the cultural richness of the area.
Laslett, born to a Native American mother and a Russian father, saw Notting Hill’s diversity as something to be celebrated. The week-long festival included pageants, food stalls and music, and the celebrations ended with a parade.
Notably, Laslett invited the musician Russell Henderson and his Trinidadian Steel Band to perform for the crowd. Henderson also performed at Jones’s Carnival and was well loved in the West Indian community. In conjunction with the London Free School, the Notting Hill Fayre intended to give Londoners exposure to the cultures around them.
As Henderson recalled to The Guardian before his death in 2015, “I said, ‘We got to do something to make this thing come alive.’” That meant a procession through the streets, led by the distinctive beat of his band’s calypso music.
The events was captivating and revolutionary. It became a symbol of the endurance of West Indian culture and identity in North Kensington.
As the West Indian population established in the area, their presence became more dominant. Most came to the event after hearing of Henderson’s march through Notting Hill.
The Carnival in the ‘70s
Despite the gross racial violence and discrimination they faced, including subsequent riots in 1976 and 1981, Carnival has become a way for West Indian people to assert their belonging to the motherland.
Where is the Notting Hill Carnival
Notting Hill Carnival starts today from 6.00 with a traditional J’Ouvert celebration that runs until 9.00. There will then be an opening ceremony on Great Western Road at 10am, followed by a parade at 10.30.
Music and celebrations will then continue in the Notting Hill area until around 20.30 on Monday, but there will be other events taking place later that evening. On Monday the carnival will have another parade taking place from 10.00 and celebrations will continue throughout the day The carnival concludes at around 20.30 on Monday, but many people are likely to continue their partying throughout the night.