I was invited to speak at a #Windrush70 event and this is the text of my talk…
Greetings! I begin with two African proverbs and averse of Scripture. ‘When the roots of a tree begin to decay, it spreads death to the branches’ (Nigerian). ‘Where you will sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth’ (Yoruba). ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22.6).
In just under a week’s time, on Friday 22 June 2018, across Britain we will mark the 70th Anniversary of the arrival of MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks, London on 22 June 1948. The official number on board was 492, but we know there were over 500, mainly Jamaicans. They were responding to a call for help to rebuild Britain after the War, and were pushed by their own challenging economic circumstances. Those that paid, paid £28.10s (estimated £600 – £1000 today).
Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary in the Labour government at the time, responded to the tide of concern that swept across the political landscape at the prospect of so many black people coming to darken this fair land, by telling his political colleagues who were minded to send the ship and its cargo back from whence they came, ‘These people have British passports and they must be allowed to land.’ Adding that they would not last one winter in England anyway, so there was nothing to worry about! 70 years on, and in the words of Mayo Angelo, ‘And still we rise!’
The Empire Windrush was not the first, or last, ship to bring people from Africa and the Caribbean to British shores, before and during the age of the airplane that brought many of us – I still recall my flight on the BOAC that landed at Heathrow on a cold September’s morning in 1968.
How long Africans have lived in Britain is demonstrated by the historic site of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, part of the Roman province of Britannia two thousand years ago. It is known to have had a 500-strong unit of Moors stationed near the town of Carlisle in the 3rd century AD.
For centuries during the sad and murderous second millennia AD, the European Transatlantic Slave Trade and Plantation Slavery, followed by colonialism and now some argue neo-colonialism, the blood, sweat and tears become part of the foundation upon which this country has been built. Thousands of African and Caribbean servicemen and women served, many paying the ultimate sacrifice, in World Wars 1 and 2; with some survivors making Britain home. We, my brothers and sisters, are no Johnny Come Lately. Windrush is part of a continuing story, not the beginning.
But who could have guessed that those brave, pioneering young people, with hope and determination in their souls and grips in their hands, stepping off the MV Empire Windrush in 1948 would be marking a 70th anniversary in 2018.
Mike and Trevor Phillips in their book ‘Windrush – the irresistible rise of multi-cultural Britain’ say Black people faced a ‘mixed reception’ in Britain. A mixed reception in which glimpses of the Christian country they expected to find were buried under racist attitudes, words and actions. You don’t easily forget how suddenly ‘vacancy’ signs became ‘no vacancy’, how ‘rooms to let’ signs became ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. And if you dared to attend church the cold attitude of the worshippers might be followed by the vicar whispering in your ear as you left without a handshake, ‘We’d prefer if you didn’t come back, your people meet in a hall over there’.
But the Phillips brothers again reminds us, ‘most of them thought they would be back in Jamaica in a few years with money in their pockets’, and so our pioneers largely adopted a ‘grin and bear it’ attitude. They worked hard, looked after family back home and here, worshipped their God, and kept hope alive. And yes, there were times when the response to racist hostility over spilled into angry confrontation, even riots.
It is easy to forget that 1948 was a mere 114 years since the abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies. By the time the Windrush Generation started coming to Britain our social and cultural norms were not normal. Violently removed from Africa, social and cultural practices beaten out of us in the face of stubborn resistance including death, white hegemony held up as the norm, we were a people out of love with ourselves and desperate to please our oppressors. As Frantz Fanon so well illustrate in Black Skin White Mask, we were a people in socio-cultural formation trying to make sense of the racialised polyglot of cultures in the Caribbean, often seeing emulating whiteness as a way out.
Nowhere is this socio-cultural complexity more evident than in the area of faith. Here in Jesus we find a figure with whom we easily identify because of the similarity between our recent history of suffering and the suffering Jesus. But scratch beneath the surface and the Jesus Black people identified with was a white European man who resembled Michelangelo. We need to redeem the image of Jesus in our minds, as the late James Cone told us.
The Windrush travellers’ grandfathers and grandmothers had not long been turned off the plantations in the Caribbean penniless while their oppressors were compensated for loss of property to the tune of £20 million – thought to be £20 billion in today’s money. Not every black person is poor of course, but as a people internationally, nationally and community we have not yet come out of the economic wilderness, with all the consequences of group poverty.
When the Windrush docket in 1948 the politics of those who disembarked were rooted in being a colonised people, with little or no influence on the system that ruled over them. So unused were they to exercising adult suffrage that we have tended to vote for whichever party seems to offer us the most promise. The Labour Party became the adopted political home of the overwhelming majority of the Windrush Generation. Politics for most of us remains a dirty word, yet politics exercise much control and influence over the quality of our lives.
Now 70 years since the docking of the Empire Windrush takes us to 184 years since the abolition of Slavery in the West Indies. This means that we the descendants of Africans in the Caribbean have spent a significant 40% of the post slavery period living in this country. This is a short time in the evolution of a people. We are still working out our cultural, economic and political identity. We are a people still in transition, trying to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
The black church movement in Britain is unquestionably one of the standout successes of Black life in Britain during the past 70 years. From a standing start when British mainstream church leaders called them sects, their pioneering leaders and congregations worked in the challenging contexts I have been describing, showing resolve, vision and a commitment to the spiritual, social, economic and political improvement of their community, and society at large.
Today the presence and influence of the Black church is pervasive. Were Marcus Garvey alive he would approve of the sense of self-determination and belief in the sanctity of the self, made in God’s image and likeness that has allowed black Christians in an often hostile environment to keep on keeping on.
70 years from now In 2088, not many, if any of us here today are likely to still be alive. But what might the Windrush Generation in Britain look like then? I close with three suggestions that could inspire us in the coming 70 years.
If the roots of a tree spread its essence to its branches, if it is possible to tell where you will sit in old age by where you stand in your youth, and if the training a child receives now will not desert them when they are old, then we better take stock of where we have come from, where we are and where we are going. I believe the church can have a key role in helping us to have a good future.
First, we need to commit to the restoration of The Family. One of the biggest casualty of capture, enslavement and colonialism was the family that was torn apart and kept apart. Healing of family starts healing of self, loving of self, love of the black self. Then love of the black family, love of the black community, love of Africa and Africans and things. As Maka B says, for a Black Caribbean to say they are not African is like a skellian saying its not an onion!
Only when you truly love self can you truly love others. Let’s do what is necessary to restore family as the bedrock a good society. Every boy that leaves home with a knife, every boy that shoots a gun, belong to a family and community. Every young man contorting themselves to walk in saggy pants with their backsides out a door, belong to a family and live in a home. We need to sit down together, eat together, pray together, talk together, carve out our future together as families.
Second, more of us need to get out of poverty. It is because so many of us are still poor and disproportionately live in deprived crime-ridden areas that so many of us are harassed by the police. Getting out of poverty requires us to ensure our community get good education, are ambitious in terms of the professions and jobs, are not afraid entrepreneurship, save and invest. In short spend less than you earn.
Third, we should strive to see ourselves proportionately in the political setup of the cities and country we live in. By this I mean if we are 3% of the population nationally, we should strive to be 3% of the political population. For example, if there are 650 MPs in Parliament there should be 20 Windrush Generation MPs. But is we hafi do it. We should ensure we register to vote, vote and more of us run for elected office. We should strive for similar representation in all strata of society, the professions and civic offices.
And if our churches see themselves as God’s agency for the salvation of the people of God, then churches must be less self-serving, willing to collaborate even merge where necessary, forge strategic ecumenical partnerships to leverage its people and wider community into a social, economic and political system that is often outside the gambit of our people in this class-ridden old boys network society.
Friends, there you have it, a basic three-point manifesto for the next 70 years building on the legacy of the Windrush Generation of the past 70. Racism isn’t going away, we have to become stronger than it. In God we put out trust.
Joe Aldred ©