Growing up in the UK, I didn’t see or read a lot about British Caribbeans. As a kid, we only studied the West Indies once in my 14 years at school – and I remember going to the cinema to watch Pirates of the Caribbean, but feeling disappointed and misled when I didn’t spot many people who looked like me in it at all.
But in April this year, that all changed.
When the Windrush scandal broke, it exposed that many British Caribbeans who arrived here during the post-war call for workers in the 1950s and 1960s had been denied healthcare and benefits, and in some cases, had been detained or deported. The government was found to have been wrongly classing some British Caribbeans who had been in the country for decades as illegal immigrants, as part of its “hostile environment” policy.
There was suddenly an avalanche of coverage. One journalist, Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian, won prestigious awards for her coverage on the topic; the government published a report on the Home Office’s conduct; and Google searches on the “Windrush generation” spiked as the MPs David Lammy and Diane Abbott spoke out about the mistreatment of Caribbean people.
But there was one question that many us, often younger, were afraid to ask out loud: “What is the Windrush Generation?”
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Perhaps the strangest part of all this was that I too found myself asking the question. Before this year, I’d never heard of the term “Windrush”, even though it referred to families like mine. Had I not been paying attention to my Caribbean family? Or perhaps in history lessons? It made me wonder if the term, “Windrush generation”, was a concept that came from within the community, or one that was popularised by historians, or politicians – people talking about us.
In historical terms, the term refers to people who came to Britain on the Windrush boat, and the many more that followed between 1948 and 1971. Around 500,000 people arrived, and many are now in their 50s and 60s. They settled in areas like Brixton, Hackney, Lewisham, Tottenham and Peckham in London, with a large concentration also moving to Birmingham.
Patrick Vernon, a Windrush activist who set up one of the first black history websites in the UK in 2002, says many people have been confused about the concept. “I used to frequently do mentoring in schools. Lots of young black people didn’t know about Windrush,” he said.
Esther, 24, grew up in the Peak District. She was the only black girl in her year at school. Her grandparents came over from Jamaica. “I think I was aware of it in a vague kind of way,” she said, but the term wasn’t one that would ever be used within her family. “I knew that it could apply to my Grandma, but we’d never say ‘Windrush generation’ at home.”
With very political grandparents who came over from Grenada in the 1950s, Brianna, 26, feels differently. All of her family are staunchly dedicated to studying black history, and as a result, she’s always known about Windrush – but has still rarely heard public conversations using the word. “I don’t think people used to mention Windrush unless they were talking about carnival.”
My own auntie, Sharon, said she had heard of the name of the boat, but not of a “generation” of people. Another migrant from the same generation, Sherry, 62, said she felt the same. “Apart from the past few months, I would not have used the term ‘Windrush Generation’ to describe myself,” she said. She also questioned how a single ship could come to be used as shorthand for the experience of 500,000 people across many decades in the UK.
Almost everyone I spoke for this story, who had already known about the term before the scandal, had studied Caribbean history at a degree-level. But neither myself, nor the people of Caribbean or West Indian heritage I asked, had learned about this part of British history and the Commonwealth at school.
“The education system in the West Indies is so much more advanced than what we have. In the UK you just study what makes England look good,” Brianna, who is now studying at King’s College London, told me. Frustrated, she now spends a lot of her time studying it independently, watching footage of Windrush-era migrants making calypso music as they stepped onto the docks. “You can see that on YouTube,” she said.
My brief moment to learn about Caribbean history was in Year 6. We read Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which is about Windrush, but I don’t think that word was ever used. Antigua itself even got a mention in the book, even though my teacher pronounced it incorrectly as she read it out slowly: “An-tig-you-aah”.
Both Brianna and Esther, who, like me, are descendants of the Windrush “generation” and grew up in the UK, had their own Coming to England moments. Brianna’s was reading Small Island by Andrea Levy. Esther’s was the BBC period drama, Call the Midwife. “That was the first time I saw anything in the media to do with that generation,” Esther scoffed. “It’s a bit of a joke.”
But the scandal has changed things. Suddenly journalists, politicians, and mainstream media are interested in the stories of people like my Nanny – who, hearing rumours that life in England was so luxurious that the streets here were “paved with gold”, was enticed to come over from Antigua with a two-year-old in 1957. I’ve also learnt that there’s a huge network of families like mine, and it’s validating to see our role in history being acknowledged.
Esther says she has warmed to the term. “It’s in my consciousness more since the scandal. I’m starting to feel kind of attached to it.”
So it appears the current government inadvertently helped cement the concept of Windrush in the public imagination. National Windrush Day, which Patrick Vernon has been campaigning for since 2013, was established by the Theresa May this year. It was announced just after the scandal.
But Esther, having grown up hearing about her Jamaican grandparents’ mistreatment over the years, said she sees it as a gimmick. “I think it’s obviously really reactionary and insincere, like yes, now you’re interested... Now everyone knows how badly you’ve treated this generation,” she says. “If we speak to our grandparents, we know how badly they were treated at the time. They were ignored for the past 30 to 40 years. It’s just way too little, too late.”
My own sister, who followed the scandal closely, agrees that the term isn’t one that came organically from within the community. She thinks the word has been popularised by politicians, and that using it risks buying into a whole host of narratives that we didn’t create, and don’t have control over.
She told me that she once received a book on Windrush as a gift from a relative – it was thin, the pages were falling out, and she wondered if it was self-published when she noticed our own Auntie was mentioned in it. “It didn’t seem legitimate.” She says it felt like “fringe history”, not “real history”.
But there is also a feeling that the “Windrush generation” narrative has also fortified the idea of the “good immigrant”. Many Caribbean victims interviewed on the news about their experience at the hands of the hostile environment policy have told their story from a cosy armchair in their living room, wearing a flat cap or surrounded by net curtains. Esther said: “People see it that they’re not threatening anymore, they’re ‘good blacks,’ they’ve assimilated”.
The historical underrepresentation likely has played a large part in allowing the errors of the “hostile environment” policy – the detentions and deportations – to go uncovered in the mainstream media for so long.
For Sherry, the change in awareness has been revolutionary. She says that the publicity around the scandal led her to realise she is part of a unique collective.
“I was amazed at how information was distributed through Caribbean groups on social media, for those like myself, who did not have our immigration status in place,” she said. Like me, she’s proud to be part of Windrush.