Marina Salandy-Brown writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
In 1948 the MV Empire Windrush sailed from Jamaica to Britain, arriving on June 22 at Tilbury Docks with nearly 500 young West Indians, mostly men, on board. It marked the beginning of a wave of post-World War II migration of Caribbean people seeking work and opportunity in the motherland. By 1962 when independence was becoming a reality in the Caribbean, well over 200,000 men, women and children had migrated to Britain. They became known as the Windrush generation.
This year’s 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush generation has prompted wide and varied discussion and re-assessment amongst their descendants, the British people, international scholars and Caribbean critics about the significance of that migration for everyone concerned: the unsuspecting native Britons; the Caribbean islands, depleted of young energy and minds; the men and women who faced challenging times in a new and unwelcoming country. The music, art and literature that generation produced in Britain in the ensuing years helped shape much of the Caribbean’s early post-colonial notions of nationalism and culture and certainly influenced the British social and music scene. All that too is being put under the historical and cultural microscope.
The anniversary is also producing heated debate about identity and nationality, including a backlash against the framing of the Windrush arrival as the defining moment of the first presence of people of colour in Britain. It has suited many individuals, including Caribbean activists, for many different reasons to create, package and leverage the Windrush Generation but it has led to the erroneous belief that no people of African origin lived in Britain before the 1940s.
One could just go back a few years earlier, to West Indian men of the generation of our now-deceased war hero, Justice Ulric Cross, who offered themselves to defend Britain in WWII.
They mostly married English women and fathered children born in 1940s Britain. Similar relationships existed through centuries and abundant evidence exists to prove it, going back to Roman times and continuing through Tudor times, as we know from Shakespeare’s London and the complaints of Queen Elizabeth I to the Mayor of London that there were too many “blackamoors” and “negars” in the place. The transatlantic slave trade did nothing to distort the continued presence of people of colour, many of them of mixed ancestry, in the UK throughout the centuries.
Afua Hirsch’s new book Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging has heightened the current debate about what it is like being a person whose skin speaks of mixed or non-English origins in today’s Britain. Hirsch – a UK-born lawyer, TV presenter, writer – is accused of being indulgent for even raising the subject when she, albeit “Black British,” is a member of the middle class in a society in which class is still more important than ethnicity. The impact of migration on our islands and the challenges the region faces today are themes to be taken up at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, April 25-29, and as part of a broader focus, the author will address the experience of being constantly engaged in a discourse about identity, which is an abiding aspect of migration for many people.
The Windrush generation is famous for including the celebrated Caribbean writers of the last century who were published in England and broadcast on the BBC’s Overseas Services programme Caribbean Voices in the 1950s. Derek Walcott, VS Naipaul, George Lamming, Michael Anthony, John Hearne, Andrew Salkey, Roger Mais, Sam Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew and others achieved fame because Caribbean Voices provided a showcase for their writing and earned them some hard-to-get money.
The history of West Indian literature bulges with these touchstone names and sixty to seventy years later a re-examination of that narrative is underway. Some contemporary writers and critics argue that the canonisation of these post-war writers for nationalist political reasons has relegated many other writers, including female writers, to the footnotes of literary history and are at work reassessing the Windrush literary legacy.
I heard a BBC radio interview recently about the 15-year old Alabama schoolgirl who, just a month before Rosa Parks famously refused to sit at the back of the bus and became an international heroine, had been equally defiant. US civil rights activists, however, deemed Parks a stronger rallying point for their cause.
They were right, and it did the trick. The Windrush Generation of writers and artists embodied our post-colonial intellectual and cultural determination and today another generation of talented Caribbean writers is at work creating a new post-Independence literary narrative. Luckily for us, each year they attend TT’s literary festival.