Windrush commemoration: A time to reflect and rethink its significance

A British passport
A British passport (Photo credit: Ethan Wilkinson)

Although the large-scale presence of Black people in Britain goes back some two thousand years, there have not been too many occasions where this has been officially celebrated within the country. Last week, on 22 June, however, there were a number of programmes and events across the country to mark, what has been called, ‘Windrush Day’.  Despite the widespread mood of jollification focused on Caribbean migrants who came to Britain in 1948 and their subsequent generations, perhaps we need to take time to reflect on what is being celebrated and question why the earlier presence of Black people in Britain receives little or no recognition and celebration.

June 22 is now recognised as Windrush Day to mark the seventieth anniversary of the day when the ship Empire Windrush brought some 500 people from the British Caribbean to work and settle in Britain. Since 2018, therefore, although the day is not a Bank holiday in the UK, it is nonetheless an ‘observed day’. One of the standout commemorative activities of this year’s activities was the unveiling of the Windrush Monument in London on 22 June 2022. The monument seeks to celebrate the lives, contributions and legacies of those who came to the UK from the Caribbean (1948-1971). The Windrush Monument is designed to pay tribute to the dreams, ambitions and resilience of the Windrush pioneers who arrived in Britain in 1948 to help rebuild the country after World War 2. It also seeks to recognise the contributions of subsequent Black people who were descendants of this immediate post-war generation.

Indeed, the Black communities in Britain, since the 1940s, have contributed significantly to British society. In areas like the national health service, the transport systems, especially the buses and the railways, education, sports, music and culture, Black people continue to serve effectively throughout the country. Notwithstanding these achievements, however, for many Black people in Britain, their existence continues to be one struggle after another in the face of racial discrimination. Within the first ten years of their arrival in Britain, Blacks and Whites were engaged in street fights. In 1958, London was the scene of some of the worst racial violence Britain had ever seen when trouble flared in the Notting Hill area between Whites and Caribbean Blacks.

There were numerous fights on the streets and in the courts between Blacks and Whites. By July of 1981, riots erupted in Liverpool’s Toxteth area, followed in the same week by a wave of disturbances in London, Leeds and other cities. Summer riots became almost the norm in the early 1980s as race riots flared in Bristol, Birmingham and Bradford, culminating in 1985 rioting at north London’s Broadwater Farm in which Police Constable Keith Blakelock was killed. The Stephen Lawrence murder of 1993 and the subsequent official enquiry five years later found the Metropolitan Police Force to be institutionally racist. Of course, there were nation-wide demonstrations in 2020 over the killing of George Floyd in America.

To add insult to injury, the recent Windrush Scandal in which many descendants of Caribbean people were threatened with deportation from the UK after having lived in the country for decades occurred. The roots of the Windrush Scandal can be traced back to 1971 when the Immigration Act was passed under conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, to limit immigration. Those Caribbean migrants who had arrived between 1948-1971 would be unaffected by the 1971 Act, but the Caribbean children who came to join their parents, as well as some adults, would make up the bulk of the Windrush scandal victims and could, theoretically, find themselves at risk of being deported.

This helps to underscore why some, like Professor Gus John, has famously condemned ‘the entire Windrush construct as a sham and as a gross distortion of the relationship between the African diaspora, from the Caribbean and the African continent, and Britain.’ He further opines that the Windrush monument represents a complete falsification of the historical and contemporaneous relationship between the Caribbean community and Britain. What is important is not the singling out of one period or episode in history but rather a need to recognise the most significant contributions of Black people in Britain. Windrush was not the first time Black people arrived in large numbers to help Britain. The Roman army that invaded England in the second century A.D. did so, partly, to help England against attacks from the Scots north of the border. We need not discuss the forced labour of Africans in the country and the Americas during the slavery era. While some celebrate the Windrush events, these need to be seen within a wider context of the reasons behind the Black presence in Britain in the past and the present and the continued struggle for appreciation and recognition and respect.

Tony Talburt is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University in the UK.


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