On 20 June 2018, I boarded a shuttle bus in New York, where I live, bound for the airport to catch a flight to London. The first official commemoration of Windrush Day was in two days. Seated opposite me was a jolly older couple who immediately struck up a conversation with me. They were headed home to Yorkshire following a week of sightseeing in New York, and cheerily recounted highlights of their trip. Then they asked: “What takes you to the UK?”
“Well!” I piped up, expecting to match their enthusiasm for the Empire State Building and giant pretzels. “I’ve been invited to give a talk at the Port of Tilbury as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of the Empire Windrush.”
Their faces fell.
“Those poor people,” the husband said. “We never even heard the word ‘Windrush’ before that horrendous scandal happened.” The expression on his wife’s face was one I was fated to see repeatedly for years to come when the name “Windrush” was uttered: pity.
As a sociologist, I have researched lesser-known and underappreciated truths about the HMT Empire Windrush, the wartime ship that disembarked nearly 500 reverse-colonial settlers from the Caribbean (plus 535 other passengers) at Tilbury docks on 22 June 1948. I have travelled to locations in Britain, the USA and the EU, met and spoken with surviving Windrush passengers and their descendants, pored over archives pertaining to the ship’s journey, and read contradictory accounts of that journey. Altogether, Windrush is a fascinating case study in how events get remembered, by whom, and how history gets written.
But since news of the scandal, which some prefer to call “betrayal”, broke in April 2018, I have seen another phenomenon materialise, not in records and recollections, but real time. To many minds first introduced to the terminology of Windrush through media coverage of elders in the black Caribbean community enduring suffering and loss in the system, Windrush is synonymous with the scandal itself. Hence, the mention of Windrush very often evokes sympathy, shame and righteous indignation, if at times tinged with paternalism, against the government (“How could we let this happen to them?”).
Yes, all these reactions should be felt, expressed and acted upon. The battles of Windrush warriors such as Paulette Wilson, Hubert Howard and Sarah O'Connor, to name only three, to prove their Britishness ended in sudden death shortly after they finally won their fight. Their loss – and the causes of it – must never be forgotten. The Windrush Lessons Learned review shows the work still to be done.
And yet, Windrush is not the sum total of government action or inaction.
This month, Bafta and Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen premieres Small Axe, his five-film anthology honouring the Windrush generation and its Britain-born progeny. Pictured in separate but interlocking storylines taking place between 1968 and the early 1980s, these representations are not likely to make faces drop with pity.
The Small Axe films show how black people have for generations been organising and protesting for their rights as British citizens. At the present moment, when the word “victim” often follows “Windrush” in the media, these representations are greatly needed.
The lives depicted in Small Axe are true stories about actual people, some of whom are still alive and served as consultants on the productions. In Red, White and Blue, we see a slice of the biography of London-born Leroy Logan (played by John Boyega), who was one of the first black members of the Metropolitan Police force. Logan’s best friend, Leee John, who as an openly gay youth co-founded the 1970s soul trio Imagination, is a character in the film, his presence allowing a rare on-screen depiction of attitudes towards homosexuality amongst Windrush-generation parents.
In Mangrove, we are told the story of the Mangrove Nine, intersecting with the British Black Panther movement. The Nine were arrested during a demonstration on 9 August 1970 to protest persistent police raids of The Mangrove cafe in Ladbroke Grove, owned by Trinidad-born Frank Crichlow. Among the charges for which they were eventually acquitted was “inciting a riot”. The two women in the collective, Barbara Beese (played by Rochenda Sandall) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (played by Letitia Wright), remain prominent elders in the community.
“Have some respect for an old West Indian Negro!” were the admonitory words of Darcus Howe, journalist and social justice campaigner, to a BBC presenter who suggested on live television during the 2011 London riots that he himself had formerly taken part in riots.
“I’ve been on demonstrations that ended up in a conflict,” Howe, who later passed in 2017, clarified before serving up spicier language.
In Mangrove, Howe’s electrifying rhetorical delivery is at the heart of the courtroom drama of the 1971 trial that reserved him, Crichlow, Beese, Jones-LeCointe and their five comrades a place in history.
“Mangrove cafe is now a private dining joint, with one of the few remaining reggae shops in London bang opposite it,” Dr Kenny Monrose, author of the book, Black Men in Britain: An Ethnographic Portrait of the Post-Windrush Generation, recently told me, noting how the passage of time and changes to the environment from gentrification can smudge memory. He said the last time he was browsing the reggae shop’s stacks, an older West Indian patron struck up a spontaneous conversation with him. “The rich man dem want kill we off,” the man said. “But we a fight them with some heavy bassline!”
Small Axe bridges time periods. The title is taken from a Jamaican maxim: “Small axe chop down big tree.”
But it also echoes the title of a radical anti-slavery periodical published in London in 1817 called The Axe Laid to the Root. In one issue, its Jamaican-born publisher, Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/6), who was born of an enslaved African woman impregnated by her Scottish owner, wrote: “I am a West-Indian, a lover of liberty, and would dishonour human nature if I did not show myself a friend to the liberty of others.”
This newspaper had passages written in Jamaican patois, and was read in London more than 200 years before McQueen picked up the metaphoric axe to represent London’s black West Indian community (he says he prefers the term “West Indian” to “Caribbean”).
That experience is vividly depicted in Lovers Rock, about a budding romance between two young people at a house party in Notting Hill in 1980. Any viewer who grew up in a household where the parents left the former British West Indies any time between the Forties and Seventies will immediately recognise the set props in Lovers Rock. You’ve got the lace doilies, the kitchen utensils (“big knife” and “pot spoon”) and, unmistakably, the velveteen wall ornament in the form of a scroll with the map of your “home country” set in glitter on it – every West Indian home had one of those!
Lovers Rock is named after a genre of music created in London in the mid-1970s from a fusion of reggae and rhythm and blues. In 1979, singer Janet Kay, one of the genre’s most celebrated talents, reached the number two spot on the British pop charts with the crossover hit single, “Silly Games”.
One of the most transformative scenes of Small Axe is in Lovers Rock when the DJ – “selector” – stops this track midway and the party crowd takes over, belting out the lyrics a cappella for five long minutes of pure euphoria. Here, when ‘Windrush’ is invoked, joy, not pain, is evoked.
Which brings me back to my shuttle bus ride to the airport ahead of my flight to the UK two years ago. After we pulled into the airport terminal, I didn’t see my jolly companions who’d “never even heard the word ‘Windrush’” before the “scandal” again. But now I wish we’d kept in touch. At least then I could have told them about Small Axe.
Nicholas Boston, PhD, is associate professor of media studies at the City University of New York, Lehman College