Jamaica ‘celebrates’ the 75th anniversary of Windrush, but should it?

The National Windrush Monument at Waterloo Station in London, UK. Photo by Phil Beard on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

A version of this post first appeared at Petchary; it is republished below with permission.

The government of Jamaica is embarking on a “celebration” of the departure from Jamaican shores of the HMT Empire Windrush, which carried over 1,000 passengers bound for Britain. More than half of them were Jamaican, with the remainder hailing from Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and other Caribbean countries. As the ship dropped anchor in Tilbury, Essex, UK on June 21, 1948, the well-dressed passengers were full of hope for a better life; we have all seen the photographs of their eager, young faces.

The legacy of the Windrush, however, has been a painful one. The UK Guardian is to be commended for its persistent, in-depth coverage, which has helped keep the issue on the front burner, but there is still the question that needs answering: “What is ‘home'?”

Is it a foreign affairs question for diplomats? Is it an academic debate? A panel discussion on the issue will be live-streamed on YouTube on May 25, 1:00 p.m. local time (UTC-5), and may hold some answers, but for me, the endlessly unfolding Windrush saga, which the Guardian calls a “scandal,” seems much more personal — because it is about grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins and aunties.

The problem is that many Jamaicans consider this a diaspora issue, and set it aside, so how, exactly, to celebrate it? Five years ago, when the scandal began brewing, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith gave numerous interviews and met with then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May — but who were they speaking up for? Jamaicans at home? British citizens? Who? Our ambivalence seemed to linger then, and still does. Jamaicans on island are not particularly interested in issues affecting their compatriots overseas. Through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there have been state efforts to promote links between Jamaica and its diaspora for years, without great success. Somehow, Jamaicans who stayed never quite got on board the diaspora train; to them, Windrush still seems like something very far removed from their day-to-day experience.

Nevertheless, these are stories of senior citizens, confused and confounded by bureaucracy, disrespected by the “Mother Country” they had embraced, and where they worked so hard in menial jobs that no one else wanted (like my father-in-law, on the railways). The bitterness, the humiliation, and the actual physical and psychological suffering; all of this is real, and ongoing.

The problem is that, in some ways, the Windrush victims have fallen into a deep abyss, caught between two worlds: that of the cold, British bureaucrat, and that of the somewhat indifferent “home country” — Jamaica, in our case — which has since moved on and has its own problems to deal with. Neither of these worlds really cares anymore, do they? So, what to celebrate?

There are countless other immigration stories, of course: younger generations who have fallen victim, one way or the other, to fundamentally racist policies, which have been a decade or so in the making and are now the default policy in the UK’s right-wing government. The UK Home Office hides behind innocuous-sounding phrases like a “compliant environment” (a rebranding of its former “hostile environment” promulgated by former Prime Minister Theresa May over 10 years ago), but none of us is fooled. Institutional racism persists, and institutional racism affects people who find themselves trapped in the system. So, as I said, it’s personal.

A UK Home Office report in February this year revealed (surprise!) that people of colour were “disproportionately” affected by the UK’s immigration policies. Between 2014 and 2018, around 65,000 people were thought to be negatively impacted, with “the most common actions [being] having a UK driving licence revoked or a letter being sent to their employer advising them that they may not have the right to work in the UK,” the Guardian reported.

A 2020 think tank report concluded that these policies have helped to encourage racism (for example, in situations with landlords, tenants, employers and employees), and exacerbated poverty. At a meeting just a few days ago, Lord Simon Murray, the Home Office minister responsible for trying to sort out the Windrush mess in terms of compensation, did not receive a very friendly reception despite him saying that he was greatly looking forward to next month, “when we will celebrate the enormous contribution of the Windrush generation.” Does he mean the contribution of songs like Millie Small's huge 1960s hit “My Boy Lollipop” and the plethora of Jamaican/Caribbean restaurants in urban England? Sure. Immigrants bring their culture with them. Let’s kick up our heels, and eat some jerk chicken.

“Contribution”? I would rather His Lordship used the word “sacrifice.” So it was, I know, for my mother- and father-in-law who, with great expectations, went to what turned out to be an inhospitable UK to help fill its need for cheap labour to rebuild the Mother country after the war. They were used, and then they weren’t really needed any more. There are many, many family stories of their struggles.

So forgive me if I am not sure about the word “celebration.” The deep and persistent ripple effects of the trauma the Windrush generation suffered need to be acknowledged, apologised for, compensated, and respectfully observed. But celebrated? Certainly not.

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