22 June 2020 marks the second ever Windrush Day, a commemoration of the Windrush Generation and their legacy. Here, writer Jenny McCall shares her story of growing up with parents from this generation.
The carousel of smells that ran through my parents’ home was one of the things that made my childhood and older years so precious, even though I took being the child of Caribbean parents for granted.
I thought everyone had family gatherings and Christmas dinners littered with sweet drinks from back home, such as Sorrel, a dark red beverage made with petals from the sorrel plant, or homemade ginger beer. My dad would often frequent the kitchen on a Sunday morning, making salt fish for breakfast. My mum was always the one preparing the feasts before Christmas and Easter when we would see other culinary delights hit our tables. From curry goat and chicken to roti, my upbringing was great.
But, until recently, I didn’t fully grasp the effort it had taken my parents and those of their generation to bring this amazing culture to the UK.
My parents came to the UK from the West Indies during the 60s; they were part of the Windrush generation, who came in response to post-war labour shortages in the UK, and were named for the MV Empire Windrush, the first ship from the Caribbean to arrive at Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22 June 1948.
My dad, one of eight children and the life and soul of the party, came from the island of St Kitts. In those days, people would send for their family one by one, so as my Kittitian granny got more money, she was able to send for each of her children. She worked several jobs in the UK and all of her children obtained a good education and went to university.
My aunts and uncles often tell me stories of life growing up in the UK during the 60s and 70s, where you had to struggle to make ends meet financially. But as a family unit they made it and managed to enjoy the fruits of their labour, purchase a home and create generational wealth that will far outweigh what they came to the UK with.
My mum came from Trinidad and Tobago and was the oldest of five children. She studied nursing and forged a life for herself in the UK that I have come to admire greatly. She left Trinidad and Tobago because she couldn’t wait to see what the world had to offer. My Trinidadian gran and granddad travelled to America with my aunts and settled in New York.
Growing up in the West Indies, my family pledged allegiance to the Mother Country on a weekly basis by singing the national anthem. My mum recalls the time the Queen came to visit Trinidad and Tobago; Mum was made to wait in the midday sun for hours for her to pass by and wave.
The general idea that the UK was paved with gold was often joked about, and while my parents were not naive enough to believe it, they still felt that the UK offered them a better way of living. Time, however, would end up telling a different story.
My family’s arrival in the UK was seen as monumental, not just for them and their generation, but also for the UK government and the future of the UK. After the Second World War, the UK was in desperate need of help to rebuild the country. So, as they had during the conflict itself, the Caribbean nations offered their services willingly. The Motherland needed them yet again and they obliged.
Some people think that the hostility towards the Windrush generation came about during former prime minister Theresa May’s time as home secretary, but in truth it began long before. Black people in the UK had a very difficult time from the moment they arrived; they had the chance to prosper, but were constantly reminded that they were not wanted. Nurses faced abuse in hospitals, many people were harassed, verbally and physically, and general day-to-day living was not easy. West Indians were told to “go back home” on a regular basis.
In 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered his infamous River of Blood speech, describing what he saw as the impending danger of mass immigration. The type of divisive rhetoric he peddled continued well into the new millennium.
In 2012, then home secretary May introduced a cruel new approach to immigration; a system that seemed designed to make life difficult for people in the UK who do not have the correct documents. This hostile environment denies people their basic needs, such as housing and healthcare, in the apparent hope that by doing so they would be deterred from coming to the UK. If they’re already here, it seems that the hope is that they will leave. Once May became prime minister, stories started to emerge that members of the Windrush generation were being forced back to the Caribbean. Many had arrived as children, they owned properties and were working – their life was in the UK.
My parents had arrived on the passports of their respective countries. Like so many others during that time, they were told that this allowed them to remain in the UK.
In 1973 the UK government passed the Immigration Act which put the onus on the individual to prove they were a legal resident of this country. In 1999 a clause was added which provided longstanding Commonwealth residents protection from enforced removal. This addition, however, was deleted from the Immigration Act in 2014. No announcements were made that this clause would be removed.
It was for this reason that the Home Office was then able to start forcibly removing people from the UK.
A member of my family fell victim to the Windrush scandal. They had no British passport, and had not left the UK since first arriving. We had to prove, using years of payslips, bank documents, mortgage deeds and more, that they had the right to remain in the UK.
The cruelty of this treatment is indescribable.
It was after this that I began to understand that all those years of servitude by my family seemed to count for nothing. I remember sitting in the waiting room of Lunar House, the HQ of UK Visas and Immigration, looking around at all the other Windrush survivors who had fallen victim to this divisive system. Not one person made a show, nobody protested, screamed or shouted. No one got angry or stormed off. They all waited patiently to be called. This, to me, summed up the nature of the Windrush generation.
My family are very close, and most summers my dad would take us away on a day trip to Margate or Ramsgate. My parents would take a few weeks off during the summer and spend time with us during our long six-week holiday, and we always had so much fun. I remember long drives to see other friends and family members, and we would sit and watch the West Indian barber shop comedy Desmond’s on a weekly basis.
The communication I had with my parents also illustrated our closeness. I told my mum everything, from the moment I started my period to when I was bullied in school because I didn’t know my seven times tables – I was never a maths genius, English was always my stronger subject. I felt I could be open with my parents about most things. Every day we would joke, laugh and engage in banter that cantered around none of us taking ourselves that seriously. We had upbringing of honesty and love. As children we respected our parents and elders, but we also knew what we could and could not discuss, so there were some conversations between my parents that were for their ears only.
In 2006 my father passed away, and my grandparents followed in the coming years. The death of this older generation of West Indians in my family was a hard one to deal with, but in some ways I am grateful they missed what came next.
Since the Windrush Scandal, which is still very much ongoing, I have visited the countries of my parents’ birth several times and plan to continue to ‘go back home’. I enjoy the Caribbean, and although I was born in the UK and have travelled to many countries around the world, the West Indies feels more like home then anywhere I have ever been before.
This year some of my family will travel back to St Kitts to celebrate one of my cousin’s birthdays, which everyone is excited about. But as we approach this new decade, what we have learnt cannot be forgotten. Through the ups and downs of life, being closely knitted with those you love has been one of the most important parts of my child and adulthood. Had it not been for my family’s faith and the strength of togetherness, surviving the UK’s hostile environment may have been impossible.
Images: courtesy of author, Getty