Windrush Day 2020 marks the 72nd anniversary of the Windrush migration.
Today is a chance to celebrate and pay tribute to the contributions of the Windrush generation to British society – and also a moment to remember and reflect on the challenges they have faced, both then and in more recent times.
Empire Windrush docked in Britain on 22 June 1948, carrying 492 migrants from the Caribbean. It was the beginning of a post-war immigration boom encouraged by the British government as a way of helping the country get back on its feet following the devastating loss of life in the Second World War, which resulted in a severe shortage of labour.
Around 500,000 people subsequently made the same journey between 1948 and 1971. They arrived not only seeking work, but also the promise of a better life in Britain. However, whilst jobs were plentiful, for many the experience of assimilating was fraught with hostility, intolerance and racism.
More recently, the Windrush Scandal – which saw the Home Office wrongly detain and, in some cases, deport many British citizens from the Windrush Generation – has only added further hurt, anger and outrage to their story.
Below we revisit the powerful personal stories of four famous faces whose families were part of the Windrush Generation. Taken from our regular Letter to my Younger Self feature, their words give voice to the challenges and injustices faced by many…
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Film director Steve McQueen: ‘The Windrush Generation have to be compensated’
“The only thing the British offered to build in Jamaica was a prison. They didn’t offer to build a university, they offered to build a prison. The irony of that! At certain points one has to talk about compensation. So let’s be moral, let’s be correct. People have to be compensated for slave labour that was never paid for. I won’t get too much into the deportation flights but this stuff just has to stop. Windrush has to stop.”
Olympic gold medalist Linford Christie: ‘I got racism from the first day I went to school’
“I grew up in Jamaica with my two older sisters. I remember a lot about my early life there. I grew up in a loving home, with my grandmother looking after us. We were taught about respect. I loved my grandmother very much. She was firm, she was my first teacher. I left when I was seven but… you can take the man from the country but you can’t take the country from the man. I’ll always be Jamaican in my roots, as much as I feel very British now. Jamaicans are among the most creative people in the world, they just need more opportunities to show it. Of course I loved watching Usain Bolt run as a great Jamaican runner but I’m not going to lie, I also wished I could have competed against him running for Britain.
“My father came to Britain first, then my mum, then we followed, me and my sisters. I had always been told by my grandmother that we’d be going to join my parents in Britain one day. We didn’t really know them. My father came to Britain to work, my mother was a nurse. They came here by invitation – the government was asking people from the Commonwealth to come and help make Britain great again. And those people, including my parents, came to make a better life.
I didn’t realise I was black until someone told me
“We had always been told the streets of England were paved with gold. ‘The houses are made of bricks and they have paper on the walls.’ We arrived at Gatwick Airport and it wasn’t quite what we expected. We didn’t see any trees! We moved to Loftus Road, home of QPR, at the edge of White City [in West London]. We had two rooms for the seven of us. But there were lots of things to do. We played a lot on the streets and in the little local park. It was summer when we arrived and playing outside was great. Until it snowed for the first time. We were excited when we saw it and we ran outside shouting ‘Snow snow snow!’ Then we picked it up and it was ‘Woah.’ Our fingers started to burn. That was a big shock.
“I got racism from the first day I went to school. I was one of a very few black pupils. Kids are cruel. I didn’t realise I was black until someone told me. I told my parents, who said I would have to learn to ignore people and I’d just have to cope with it. Which I thought was great. They didn’t tell me to retaliate or hit anyone or behave in a bad way. But I was quite tough and I coped quite well. I had a few fights. I learned to run home very fast at the end of the school day. I think I owe those people something for my future success!”
Director, DJ and musician Don Letts: ‘My parents’ generation got screwed by Windrush’
“My parents were part of the Windrush generation. I’m a child of Windrush. They came over here with their hopes and their dreams and their culture – most important – and basically got through by denying their roots, completely assimilating. They were invited here after the Second World War to help rebuild the country and us, their kids, saw this wasn’t working out; our parents were getting screwed. We were looking at America, the messages of black power, black and proud, the Black Panthers, who spoke so much to me. That, coupled with the growing reggae culture, made us mad as hell and we weren’t going to take it any more.”
Actor Don Warrington: ‘We were promised something utterly glorious, but the reality was terrible’
“Being uprooted from Trinidad to Newcastle as a young child is an extraordinary experience to have. In some ways you spend the rest of your life coming to terms with the shock of it. But the upside is that at a very young age one is still very flexible, which helps you to adjust to arriving somewhere you thought you knew about but didn’t, because you discover the information you were given is wrong. It is propaganda. We were told about somewhere that seemed utterly glorious. The reality was terrible.
“I was shocked at how dull England was. Coming from such a vivid, tropical island, it was rather a dank, damp and dark place. It was scary, your whole system is shocked physically and emotionally. And you become aware that you are different to everybody else. When I was first taken to Newcastle, there was nobody apart from my immediate family who looked like me or sounded like me.
You give up things which, later in life, you rather regret
“As a child you just want to fit in. You assimilate as fast as you can. I had to make this new environment mine. It is survival. At school, everything – everything – is against you, so you have to be as flexible as you can. And that means there are things you give up which, later in life, you rather regret. You forget where you are from.
“I didn’t go back to Trinidad for a long while because I felt one has to go forward. So there were bits one left unattended. But eventually I did go back and I felt the release, the sense of really being able to breathe in and out properly. Until you experience it, you don’t realise the tension that one lives with. It is so nice to experience something that is in your bones. The physicality of being there, the recognition one sees in the people – they do things you do instinctively – that gives you a feeling of ease.
The recent treatment of Windrush-era immigrants doesn’t surprise me. People are very careless about that kind of thing. People don’t realise the history. They are not taught about the contribution these people made or the enthusiasm with which they came. Those people to my mind are heroic. They put up with so much but maintained an affection for this country – and to this day you can still see that in them. And you have a government that is so interested in plugging into what appears to be the popular appeal.
The fact is that those people were never considered – they became invisible because their contribution was never acknowledged in the first place. The Windrush generation came, in the main, as adults who had grown up in the Caribbean. There is a difference between that and children who were brought here by their parents. I was one of them. One of the things that is frightening as a child is you see that the people you took to be confident and understand the world actually don’t – because they have come to somewhere strange too. That is scary for a child because the adults become children within the new environment.”
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