This post was first published on July 8th 2019, but in view of recent events I have decided to republish it.
The horrific death of George Floyd on 25th May in Minneapolis, Minnesota during a police arrest caused shock waves throughout America and the rest of the world. The sickening video shows him pinned facedown on the ground, by a white police officer who proceeds to press his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Three police officers had also ‘assisted’ in restraining him. George Floyd was handcuffed, on the ground and needed no restraint, he was in fact, calling out that he couldn’t breathe and died calling for his mother.
The ensuing riots and protests in America and around the world, called for justice, not just for George Floyd, but for all those who suffer violence and discrimination purely because they are black. Under of the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter Foundation, and using #BLM and #BlackLivesMatter social media has been awash with support for the movement – across all ethnicities, as like minded people come together to once against fight against racism. However to fight it, you need to understand it.
My original post concentrated on the injustice of the ‘Windrush’ repatriations, with a background showing a history of institutionalised racism in the UK. The reading list that accompanied it was designed to further explain and put into context the lived experience of many who came to the UK from the Caribbean. This might be useful to the many readers who have been asking for books that give an understanding of what it’s like to be black in a white society.
While the rest of the country (if social media is to be believed) was, and still is, engrossed in the goings on on Love Island, I tuned in to watch a programme that may have gone under the wire. The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (BBC2) was researched and presented by historian, David Olusoga, and made uncomfortable watching, to say the least. Using documents from government archives, he revealed a shameful pattern of institutionalised racism that laid the foundation for what is happening today. These revelations were made in a matter of fact way, with the evidence just being presented. No drama, no embellishment just quietly left for the watcher to digest.
Most people, I assume, will be aware of the ongoing Windrush Scandal concerning Caribbean-born citizens, who settled here legally, but are now been being detained, denied legal rights, and, in at least 83 cases (as per Sajid Javid Nov 2018) deported from the UK by the Home Office.
The programme incorporated the stories of three such Windrush victims struggling with threatened deportation, as an ‘illegal immigrant’ one of them was Sarah O’Connor. Sarah came to Britain, legally, from Jamaica at the age of 6, in 1967. She attended school here, worked continuously, paid tax and NI, held a driving licence and voted. For 17 years she was married to a British citizen, and all of her 4 children hold British passports. In 2017, she became unemployed, after working for 16 years in the same job. She successfully applied for a number of others, but each time was unable to take up the posts because her new employers wanted to see a British passport, a passport she’d never needed, and which she did not have. With no passport, and no job, she applied for benefits only to be told she was not eligible and had to prove she was in the country legally. This legal requirement as set out by Home Office in a letter to one of the other victims required that “the evidence submitted must be continuous, and cover the entirety of the 51 years that your client has claimed to reside in the UK.” This “hostile environment” was created by the Immigration Act of 2014 courtesy of Theresa May when she was the Home Secretary.
In The Secret Windrush Files David Olusoga went back to the beginning in 1948 and the arrival of the Empire Windrush, the ship that left Kingston, Jamaica with 492 hopeful settlers. All were anticipating well paid jobs in the ‘Mother Country’ a country that was rebuilding after the war and in desperate need of skilled labour. As the English speaking passengers, included electricians, mechanics, welders and carpenters as well as ex-servicemen, who had served in England during the war, you would have expected they would have be welcomed with open arms. Well think again, it appears that the current ‘hostile environment’ was nothing new.
While the Government had been readily accepting thousands of predominantly ‘white’ asylum seekers, and ‘Displaced Persons’ from Europe (including war criminals and members of the Waffen SS). It appears that the impending arrival of the Empire Windrush raised major concerns. The then Labour prime minister Clement Attlee described it as an “incursion”, while 11 of his MP’s delivered a letter to him warning that “an influx of coloured people” would “impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life”. The answer (if it was possible) was to divert the ship to east Africa, and have it’s passengers be employed there picking peanuts.
This “incursion” was the unseen result of the 1948 British Nationality Act. The Act confirmed the right of all British subjects to move freely and live anywhere within the newly created Commonwealth. Movement which Olusoga contends was intended to aid the frictionless travel of the large ‘white’ populations of Canada and Australia, not those of Asia, Africa and in this case the West Indies.
The material unearthed revealed a mounting panic about ‘black’ immigration and the policies taken to ‘discourage’ settlement in Britain. In the 1950’s government commissioned research was undertaken via dole offices that was tantamount to an undercover race survey. The underlying assumption being that ‘blacks’ were idle, had low standards of living, and were essentially coming to live off the welfare state. This had reached another level by 1955 when Churchill, obsessed by the number of ‘coloured’ Post Office workers suggested the next election be fought on the slogan “Keep England White”. This was a precursor to the rhetoric of Enoch Powell 13 years later in the face of the Labour government’s impending Race Relations Bill.
It was however the 1971 Immigration Act that has produced the ‘scandal’ of today as it required individuals to ‘prove’ they were here legally. Consequently the ‘Windrush Generation who legally came to Britain between 1948 and 1970 to settle are now faced with producing documentation for each year, from 1971 onwards to prove they are here legally.
Watching this programme made me ashamed and angry that we could treat people this way. While the earlier prejudice and hostility was largely founded on colour, this later legislation, while undoubtedly hitting the Windrush Generation the hardest, is also being used against all immigrants that the government deem ‘illegal’.
What impressed me about this programme though, was the dignity of those being victimised. Yes, they were rightly angry, but somehow they channelled that anger into exposing the wrongs and fighting for justice. Sadly that justice came too late for Sandra. Despite finally being naturalised in 2018, the struggle had taken it’s toll, she died aged 57 before filming was finished.
As an aside the absurdity, harshness and toxicity of this legislation was laid bare in another series shown on BBC2 called Who Should Get to Stay in the UK? I only caught the last episode of this series and watching that, common sense and decency said ‘all of them’. We are not looking at people who are a ‘drain on the system’ which is the usual call to arms of those who have a problem with immigration.
Watching The Unwanted reminded me of reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island which probably first introduced me to the ‘Windrush’ story in a way which made me understand a little more about the expectations and reality for those that came to Britain. For anyone else who wants to discover more I’ve attached a reading list. It’s not exhaustive and I apologise if I’ve missed any seminal works from the list. I’m not an expert, I’ve just tried to put together a list that puts things into context and gives more background. I’ve included fiction because for me that’s often an easier way into a complex subject, it can set the scene, it puts flesh onto the bones of facts and can be just as emotive and truthful as a memoir.
All mistakes and opinions in this piece (apart from those expressed in the programmes) are my own. While I watched the programmes I relied on two particular articles for the finer detail and quotes. These were:
The Windrush Generation : a reading list
(NB This post features affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases but there is no charge to the purchaser)
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do?
Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It’s desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door.
Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was…
‘Better opportunity’ – that’s why Angela’s dad sailed to England from America in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. Six months later her mum joined him in his one room in Earl’s Court…
…Twenty years and four children later, Mr Jacob has become seriously ill and starts to move unsteadily through the care of the National Health Service. As Angela, his youngest, tries to help her mother through this ordeal, she finds herself reliving her childhood years, spent on a council estate in Highbury.
In 1945, Rick Braithwaite, a smart, highly educated ex-RAF pilot, looks for a job in British engineering. He is deeply shocked to realise that, as a black man from British Guiana, no one will employ him because of the colour of his skin. In desperation he turns to teaching, taking a job in a tough East End school, and left to govern a class of unruly teenagers. With no experience or guidance, Braithwaite attempts to instill discipline, confound prejudice and ultimately, to teach.
At Waterloo Station, hopeful new arrivals from the West Indies step off the boat train, ready to start afresh in 1950s London. There, homesick Moses Aloetta, who has already lived in the city for years, meets Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and shows him the ropes. In this strange, cold and foggy city where the natives can be less than friendly at the sight of a black face, has Galahad met his Waterloo? But the irrepressible newcomer cannot be cast down. He and all the other lonely new Londoners – from shiftless Cap to Tolroy, whose family has descended on him from Jamaica – must try to create a new life for themselves. As pessimistic ‘old veteran’ Moses watches their attempts, they gradually learn to survive and come to love the heady excitements of London.
Set in London in the 1960’s, when the UK encouraged its Commonwealth citizens to emigrate as a result of the post-war labor shortage, The Housing Lark explores the Caribbean migrant experience in the “Mother Country” by following a group of friends as they attempt to buy a home together. Despite encountering a racist and predatory rental market, the friends scheme, often comically, to find a literal and figurative place of their own. Will these motley folks, male and female, Black and Indian, from Trinidad and Jamaica, dreamers, hustlers, and artists, be able to achieve this milestone of upward mobility? Unique and wonderful, comic and serious, cynical and tenderhearted, The Housing Lark poses the question of whether their “lark,” or quixotic idea of finding a home, can ever become a reality.
Caryl Phillips’s first novel tells the story of Leila, a nineteen-year-old woman living on a small Caribbean island in the 1950s. Unsatisfied with life on the island, Leila decides to leave her friends and follow her mother overseas, taking her restless husband Michael and her young son with her. Her subsequent passage to England brings her face to face with the consequences of the decisions she has made to determine her life on her own terms.
Barrington Jedidiah Walker is seventy-four and leads a double life. Born and bred in Antigua, he’s lived in Hackney since the sixties. A flamboyant, wise-cracking local character with a dapper taste in retro suits and a fondness for quoting Shakespeare, Barrington is a husband, father and grandfather – but he is also secretly homosexual, lovers with his great childhood friend, Morris.
His deeply religious and disappointed wife, Carmel, thinks he sleeps with other women. When their marriage goes into meltdown, Barrington wants to divorce Carmel and live with Morris, but after a lifetime of fear and deception, will he manage to break away?
Voices of the Windrush Generation is a powerful collection of stories from the men, women and children of the Windrush generation – West Indians who emigrated to Britain between 1948 and 1971 in response to labour shortages, and in search of a better life.
Edited by journalist and bestselling author David Matthews, this book paints a vivid portrait of what it meant for those who left the Caribbean for Britain during the early days of mass migration.
Through his own, and many other stories, Matthews explores: why and how so many people came to Britain after World War II, their hopes and dreams, the communities they formed and the difficulties they faced being separated from family and friends while integrating into an often hostile society. We hear how lives were transformed, and what became of the generations that followed, taking the reader right up to the present day, and the impact of the current Windrush deportation scandal upon everyday people.
A leading new exploration of the Windrush generation featuring David Lammy, Lenny Henry, Corinne Bailey Rae, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Hannah Lowe, Jamz Supernova, Natasha Gordon and Rikki Beadle-Blair.
For the pioneers of the Windrush generation, Britain was ‘the Mother Country’. They made the long journey across the sea, expecting to find a place where they would be be welcomed with open arms; a land in which you were free to build a new life, eight thousand miles away from home.
This remarkable book explores the reality of their experiences, and those of their children and grandchildren, through 22 unique real-life stories spanning more than 70 years.
The battered and exhausted Britain of 1945 was desperate for workers – to rebuild, to fill the factories, to make the new NHS work. From all over the world and with many motives, thousands of individuals took the plunge. Most assumed they would spend just three or four years here, sending most of their pay back home, but instead large numbers stayed – and transformed the country.
Drawing on an amazing array of unusual and surprising sources, Clair Wills’ wonderful new book brings to life the incredible diversity and strangeness of the migrant experience. She introduces us to lovers, scroungers, dancers, homeowners, teachers, drinkers, carers and many more to show the opportunities and excitement as much as the humiliation and poverty that could be part of the new arrivals’ experience. Irish, Bengalis, West Indians, Poles, Maltese, Punjabis and Cypriots battled to fit into an often shocked Britain and, to their own surprise, found themselves making permanent homes. As Britain picked itself up again in the 1950s migrants set about changing life in their own image, through music, clothing, food, religion, but also fighting racism and casual and not so casual violence.
Broadcaster Trevor Phillips and his novelist brother Mike retell the very human story of Britain’s first West Indian immigrants and their descendants from the first wave of immigration in 1948 to the present day. Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain opens with the memories and impressions of the survivors of the voyage of the Windrush, the troop ship which brought the first West Indian immigrants to Great Britain in 1948. Fifty years on, the migrants tell an epic tale of British life in the twentieth century, through the witness of their descendants, friends, neighbours and colleagues and the testimonies of politicians who made the key decisions alongside those who were then opposed to the presence of the black settlers. Windrush moves through the crucial events of British social history in the second half of the twentieth century: the great riots of the late fifties and early sixties, the hysteria of Powellism, the remodelling of England’s inner cities and the current passionate debates about the meaning of Englishness. Concluding with a portrait of multi-racial Britain in the present day, Windrush is a celebration of the black British and of the new heritage Britain will carry forward into the twenty-first century.
In this vital re-examination of a shared history, historian and broadcaster David Olusoga tells the rich and revealing story of the long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa and the Caribbean.
Drawing on new genealogical research, original records, and expert testimony, Black and British reaches back to Roman Britain, the medieval imagination, Elizabethan ‘blackamoors’ and the global slave-trading empire. It shows that the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery, and that black Britons fought at Trafalgar and in the trenches of both World Wars. Black British history is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation. It is not a singular history, but one that belongs to us all.
Unflinching, confronting taboos and revealing hitherto unknown scandals, Olusoga describes how the lives of black and white Britons have been entwined for centuries.