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We can't forget our Windrush legacy

NEW BEGINNINGS: Jamaican immigrants arrive at Tilbury Docks in 1948 courtesy of Windrush

EVERY YEAR that ends in an ‘8’ is an anniversary year for black Britons. And this new year is no different,

Come June 22, we shall be reflecting on the 70 years since the good ship Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks with its human cargo of 492 paying passengers and one stowaway, who had come from all over the Caribbean, via Jamaica, with hope in their eyes that the mother country, Britain, would offer them jobs and prosperity and the adventure that their compatriots back in the tropics could only dream of.

I well remember the 40th anniversary. Indeed, I was working for this very newspaper then. At the time many of those who came over on the Windrush were still alive and it was possible to interview them.

Even then, after 40 years in this country, many of them didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about and why we were so fascinated by their story. As far as they were concerned they were simply regular folk. The likes of Sam King, who only died a year and a half ago at the age of 90, were all very matter-of-fact about their contribution to British and black British history.

I went on to interview Mr King 50 years on and indeed 60 years on. When I last interviewed him two years ago, I think he was starting to realise what a special and magni cent contribution he and his fellow passengers had made.

Without putting too ne a point on it, the arrival on these shores of these pioneering post-war immigrants was the black British equivalent of man landing on the moon. And we should remember that when we mark the 70th anniversary later this year.

Yes, WE landed on the moon 21 years before anyone else. Never mind Neil Armstrong. Never mind a small step for black man and a huge leap for black mankind, it was a quantum leap for Britain and Britons and the Windrush was Apollo 11.

Which, of course, makes the indigenous Brits the aliens. No, not like little green men, but the premise is the same. Because if we happened to stumble upon any form of life in outer space we would de- scribe it as alien life would we not?

Well, imagine what it was like for those passengers on the Windrush as the boat approached the shores of Britain. It really was like landing on another planet for them. And they had little idea what kind of life form they would encounter. But they must have feared that it might be alien. A life form that would be unlike what they were used to.

GOODWILL

Britain and Britons were as alien to these new migrants as the new migrants were to them in 1948. The Windrush pioneers may as well have come from a solar system far far away, bringing a message of peace, love and goodwill to Britain.

The misfortune of that initial ‘inter-galactical’ cultural exchange between Britain and the Windrushers was one-sided. The aliens of Britain were not culturally exchanging as such at the time.


PICTURED: The 492 passengers came from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean islands (Photo credit: Thurrock Council)

They weren’t in the market for culturally exchanging. Why should they be? Everything they had ever learned in school had told them that Britons ruled the waves and never, never, never would be enslaved. Unlike...

Once the initial curiosity and exoticism of seeing the calypsonian Lord Kitchener (arguably the greatest musician to come out of the Caribbean, if not Bob Marley) singing “London is the place for me” on disembarkation had worn off, Britain wasn’t really interested in what this generation of peo- ple had to offer the country that they so yearned to serve well.

This missed opportunity struck me as I buried my father a few weeks ago. He came to this country in the mid-1960s with hope in his eyes, but also with one of the finest intellectual minds of his generation.

But Britain wasn’t that bothered about his mind, but rather that he knew his place. As my siblings and I held our joint eulogy, I pointed out that the old man could talk for England, as they say.

Unfortunately, England wasn’t interested in an African talking on its behalf. Even though he was one of the most successful broadcasters of the fledgling NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation), the equivalent over there of the BBC.

That irony is not lost on me, his son, who speaks for England and Britain on the airwaves seven nights a week as one of the most successful broadcasters in the country. Things done changed. Things had to change once we started learning the system or, if you prefer, the game. For example, that Windrush generation still believed that Britain placed value in a good education when it hadn’t really done so since the war, if not since the Victorian times.

Once my generation started realising that, as important as a good education is in critical thinking and otherwise, the real value in this country is who is who and who knows who. The Windrush generation didn’t have a clue about who’s who and who knows who. How could they?

When you land on an alien planet, all you’re thinking about is survival and how you’re going to make it back (eventually) to your own solar system. Ultimately their talents were wasted here. Oh, they did their jobs and worked very hard and bettered themselves and made opportunities in this country for their children and us who came afterwards, no doubt.

But imagine how much more they could and should have achieved if they were not being treated as earthlings who peeled potatoes to the merriment of the martians in that classic “For mash get Smash” advert from the 1970s.

It is OUR loss, but it is also Britain and Britons’ loss that these great men and women were not given the opportunity to fully express themselves and what they could do for this country.

That is the somewhat awkward legacy of the Windrush. It is the foundation upon which our bittersweet relationship with this country is built upon. And we shouldn’t forget that when we celebrate 70 years on in six months time.

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