Image Credit: BBC One
For Black History month, the BLM Book Club have split discussions into fortnightly segments, first examining modern Black British history and then delving into Black British history around the Tudor era.
For weeks two and three, we looked at the ‘Windrush Generation’ – the half a million people who migrated to the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. This originated from the 1948 British Nationality Act, introduced as a response to post-war labour shortages, which allowed all British Empire citizens to move freely within the Commonwealth. The HMT Empire Windrush, a captured German warship carrying Caribbean servicemen back home, became the eponym for a generation of British-Caribbean citizens almost by chance when its entrepreneurial master decided to offer passage to the UK starting at only £28 a cabin.
Despite the legal right of its 350 passengers to settle in the UK, Clement Attlee’s cabinet described it as an “incursion” and an “embarrassment”; their (supposedly liberal) policy was to encourage Commonwealth migration from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, rather than the vast majority of Commonwealth countries where people of colour were the majority. Thus began a long and fraught history of discrimination. This culminated in the ‘Windrush Scandal’ of 2013 and is yet to be fully resolved, with the vast majority of affected individuals still being owed compensation.
Sitting in Limbo (available on BBC iPlayer) delves into one such story, that of Anthony Bryan; a Jamaican-born British citizen who moved to the UK when he was only eight years old. After applying for a passport to visit his ageing mother in Jamaica, his workplace receives a letter saying that he has settled illegally in the UK and that they face a £10,000 fine for knowingly continuing to employ him.
From there, Anthony’s life devolves into a painstaking search for documents to prove he has lived in a country where he has paid taxes for over forty years. He is met with unsympathetic caseworkers and insensible bureaucracy, and while unable to work, he and his partner Janet lose their home and are forced to move in with their daughter. Things only get worse – he is placed in a detention centre twice, and only narrowly misses being deported back to Jamaica when last-minute intervention from an immigration lawyer leads to the cancellation of his flight.
Throughout, we witness the sheer frustration, humiliation, anger and dejection of this aging man. The psychological weight of living under constant threat of deportation and the trauma detention centres cause is captured in the noises of knocking and shouting that haunt him on his return.
Written by Anthony Bryan’s half-brother Stephen S. Thompson, Sitting in Limbo delves not only into the political horror of the Windrush Scandal and detention centres but the personal damage it causes – fraying relationships, deteriorating health, the shame of debt and dependence on your children. Even in the final scenes where Anthony finally receives his British passport, the sense of dejection and ambivalence remains, his relationship with the country that treated him so brutally, fraught and irrevocably damaged.
Of the 1275 applications to the Windrush compensation scheme, only 60 have received any compensation despite successive promises from the Home Office. Wendy Williams, who wrote the Independent Windrush Learned Lessons Report, identified racial discrimination as a principle factor leading to the mass detention and deportation of members of the Windrush generation.
Yet, little has been done to address it. There has been a continuous thread in time from Attlee’s first hostile response to the Empire Windrush to those of British-Caribbean descent being “silently illegalised”. In reinforcing the innate value of black lives against a system that repeatedly negates it, we need not just to examine the racial biases within policing, but also the racism inherent in our detention and immigration systems, fuelled by and fuelling the racist political rhetoric around immigration more generally.
In comparison to this incredibly harrowing part of recent history, we also examine the more joyous Black Curriculum’s podcast Sound System Culture. This is a great introduction to the grassroots Caribbean music genre that has revolutionised global music – informing garage, hip hop, house, drum and bass, ska, R & B, dubstep and Calypso to name just a few.
Based on technical as well as musical innovation, it originated in Jamaica in the 1940’s, originally consisting of DJ’s playing over American rhythm and blues but developing into custom built sound systems with large speakers blasting out complex base frequencies. Sound system culture was brought over to the UK with the migration of people from the Caribbean from the 1940’s onwards, and plays an integral part in the Notting Hill Carnival, as well as the politics and identity of the African and Caribbean diaspora more generally.
The music of sound system culture is ever changing, evolving alongside first, second and third generation Caribbean descendants in the UK. Not only is it musically impactful, but it also forms a dynamic cultural space for the exchange of ideas, memories and news between Caribbean countries and the UK, often with grassroots political statements being expressed such as opposition to the privatisation of beaches in Barbados. It is a lived, vibrant experience, something to dress up for and dance to, something to be experienced in person as an engagement with a wider community. The Black Curriculum is an amazing group of campaigners and educators that we would really recommend you take a look at.
Stay tuned for the next segment of the BLM Book Club where we will be delving into older black British history, and looking at the long legacy of the UK’s black population that is often left out of history textbooks.