by Jess Brough
This week we marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush to Tilbury Docks, Essex on June 22nd 1948. It coincides with a scandal that reached the headlines in April, in which members of the “Windrush Generation” were finding their status as British residents threatened by relenting efforts to detain and deport those who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971, from Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Caribbeans who came to the UK during this period, crucially helping to rebuild the country after World War II, were being told that they did not have the documentation to allow them to work here, or even to continue to live here anymore. Said documentation would have been hard for them to get their hands on, however, since they had been destroyed in 2010 by the Home Office.
Two months later, the Windrush scandal is not over and the Home Office has soldiered on with an immigration policy that fosters a “hostile environment” for Black and Asian people while simultaneously celebrating a fairy-tale of multiculturalism. At the same time, Donald Trump’s administration is ripping children from their parents’ arms at the border of Mexico and the US.
Immigration is a feminist issue. People move countries for numerous reasons, but everyone has the right to a safe and secure home, where they can raise families if they have them, pursue jobs they are good at or passionate about, or just live the kind of life that will bring them happiness. When children are separated from their primary caregivers or families are torn apart, you are left with long lasting psychological trauma. When families are fragmented, the stability of a support system is destroyed.
For the Windrush generation, the threat of deportation all these decades later is just another thing in a long line of historical struggles. Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ does an incredible job of depicting the transition from feelings of national pride for the “mother country” many Jamaicans had before even reaching Britain’s shores (the product of Commonwealth “God save the Queen” mentality that is still present today), to disappointment and horror at the cold weather and even colder reception from their new White neighbours. Their current treatment by the government proves that, while their experiences of overt racism may have decreased in number over time, the newer brand of covert and institutional racism hits just as hard.
Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall cites Levy’s book in ‘Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands’. In this, he critiques the romanticised national unity that followed the Second World War, and the overwhelming fear that the arrival of Black immigrants from the colonies would threaten the very fabric of Britain and Britishness, resulting in segregation, exclusion and extreme racism. Black immigrants were allowed to die for Britain, but they weren’t supposed to call it home.
Despite the vitriol, the Windrush Generation stayed put and provided Britain with a workforce desperately needed for the new welfare state. Public transport and a freshly founded NHS was staffed by Black immigrants, with Black nurses bearing the brunt of what is already a physically and mentally demanding job, but with an added strain of ingratitude and racism from white patients and colleagues.
Jackie Kay depicts this well in ‘Out of Hand’ – a short story of Black nurse Rose McGuire Roberts in the ‘Why Don’t You Stop Talking’ collection, who arrived at Tilbury on the Windrush on the 22nd June. Fifty years later, she’s left wondering how she ever came to consider Britain as a place that would take her in and accept her as one of their own. Seventy years later, we are asking the same question.
Why Don’t You Stop Talking by Jackie Kay, Familiar Stranger by Stuart Hall and Andrea Levy’s Small Island are all available from the bookshop.