Danny Keen: ‘My only burning desire was to become an artist’

Danny Keen did his share of low-paid jobs and faced racism at work. But now he's doing what he was born to do. This is his Windrush story

The British Empire was founded on the strong backs of West Indians.

My grandfather and thousands like him volunteered for service in World War 1. When we were called we came with good humour to serve the mother country.

After World War 2 they came on the Empire Windrush, former British servicemen and women returning to England to rebuild this country.

It’s hard to hate people when you’re dancing to their music and eating their food.

Alongside them stepped calypso, reggae, ska, salsa, rumba, mamba, modern jazz, curried goat and jerked chicken. It’s hard to hate people when you’re dancing to their music and eating their food.

My mother arrived in 1950 and I soon followed. She was a single mother of two children who were left in the care of her sisters in Jamaica. There were no systems of support waiting for her in this cold country, no benefits, no council accommodation.

She was unskilled and did factory work, and yet she was a pioneer who paved the way for others who trained as nurses and built the NHS from the ground up. Strong black women like my mother set down roots in spite of the adversities and prejudices that greeted them.

Women are the heroes of the Windrush story. White English women who defied every cultural taboo and prejudice to fall in love with and marry black men from the West Indies.

They are the quiet, unsung heroes of equality and diversity. My own wife and partner of over 50 years will testify to this.  

They said that we came to take their jobs and their women. In reality we only did the work that they wouldn’t do for the low pay. I’ve worked in the catering industry all my life.

Racism was common in the workplace back then. In the 1960s I joined the team of washer-uppers and pot scrubbers in Harrods.

We were all West Indians led by a foreman from Trinidad – none of us were allowed to eat in the staff restaurant. Whites only. We had to eat sitting on boxes by the back door of the kitchen.

My lifelong friend John Bird was a member of London’s colourful street community. He would come to the back door and share my food.

John and I share the privilege of having been kicked out of the same art school. Race and class prejudice went side by side in the British establishment back then.

John eventually became one of the most erudite scholars of art history (and founder of The Big Issue), and is a successful portrait painter. And I have had my portraits of forces personnel displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue is a multi award-winning magazine, edited by the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) current Editor of the Year.

Becoming an artist was my only burning ambition.

I eventually graduated from the Central School of Art but went straight back to working in kitchens and stayed there for the next 40 years.

I didn’t bother to knock on the doors of the establishment as I knew that they were shut to the likes of me and my generation.

We came here to do the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. Our generation took the opportunities that arose.

We became a property-owning generation. We worked hard and raised our families to be law-abiding and decent people. Yet it seems that we are disposable.

They have short memories. They deprive us of citizenship. They kick us in the teeth and tell us ‘back to where you came from’.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

The last Labour government created a hostile environment for immigrants and ordered the records of our arrival to be destroyed.

Their policies were enthusiastically pursued by Theresa May until the Commonwealth prime ministers confronted her in 2018, and at last the illegal persecution stopped.

It is a crying shame that so many of those who suffered most are still waiting for compensation.

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