Celebrating Windrush @70

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HMT Empire Windrush FL9448This reflection comes from the Revd Dr Michael N Jaggesar, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries, for the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush later this week.

Just very recently a very good colleague of mine shared with me a conversation her daughter’s friend had with a group of her White British colleagues. The White British colleagues wanted to know from their Black British friend why Black people have to see everything as related to race. Her daughter’s response when she heard this from her friend was: ‘that’s interesting’. My colleague went to say she wished her daughter could have said: ‘because for the White British context race matters in everything related to us Black people’! It does. We must remember this as we celebrate 70 years of joys, afflictions, anguish, despair, rising-up, contributing to wealth of putting ‘great’ back into Britain, and much more of this group of people. The struggle as Milan Kundera observed is one of ‘memory against forgetting’. And contrary to the wishful-thinking of some of us, we are not living in a post-racial Britain. The progeny of the Windrush generation and succeeding inheritors continue to battle with the status quo over the nature of reality as experienced by them. This is reflected in that small example of my friend’s daughter and the recent debacle around the treatment of some from the Caribbean.

It is seventy years since Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury with all those proud citizens of Great Britain’s Commonwealth leaning over to catch a glimpse of the imagined mother-land they were schooled about through their Royal Readers. That imagination soon experienced shock and had to work overtime to deploy resilience, creativity, and faith in the hostile environment in which they found themselves. Hostile environment may be a newly coined term from our current PM but from the reality of the Caribbean, Windrush experience – it is not new!

For example, consider the observation of E R Brathwaithe (writer of To Sir with Love) about his experience in 1949. Brathwaite, with his service record fighting for Britain and degrees in Physics, sought employment and was denied numerous times with what he termed: “with elaborate casualness and courtesy, for reasons which seemed to have nothing to do with my abilities or qualifications”. He surmised: “I was forced to confront the simple fact that, relieved of the threat of German invasion, the British had abandoned all pretence of hand-in-hand brotherliness and had reverted to type, demonstrating the same racism they had so roundly condemned in the Germans”.

Or consider the example of the late Philip Potter (first Black General Secretary of the World Council of Churches also celebrating 70 years this year). His experience working with the Methodist Missionary Society (1961-1966) relates to the recent Windrush debacle. Though well-known and employed by the Methodist Church, he had to suffer the humiliation of being reminded that he was a black stranger in an exclusive white society. The Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 meant that his passport and Commonwealth status were constantly challenged and questioned at British airports even though he was a resident of the UK and carried a British Passport (coming from Dominica). Responding to the interpretation of the Immigration Act as offered by a prominent lawyer, Potter wrote: “I quite understand that I am at the mercy of the British Government, being both a British subject and undesirable alien. Therefore, I, with thousands of others, must bear whatever humiliations are inflicted with such fortitude as one can muster”.

Let’s not fool ourselves; some things may have changed, but Britain has always been ‘a hostile environment’ for the ‘other’ of the Caribbean and what is happening today in a wider and ongoing struggle around ‘brexit, borders and belonging’ has its roots in Britain’s history and role in ‘empire’. Whether we own it not, this is the reality. We are all implicated, including the Church.

David Dabydeen once described the experience of newcomers from the former colonies to that of Dorothy arriving at the Castle of the Wizard of Oz. People came in awe and in search of a missing part of themselves journeying to that which they had imagined as this perfect place, only to discover that they had themselves changed beyond recognition. And peering further and closer come to realise that they have journeyed all this way only to find themselves. If, as is suggested, it is in contact with the stranger, someone different from you (who may even despise you), that we are released to find the treasure we embody, I hope that this can be a reciprocal encounter. And, that all can discover that treasure within themselves. Oppressed and oppressors, privileged and marginalised, together must imagine a different world for all, otherwise we will continue to live impoverished lives and transformation will not happen. We are all in need.

Saul Bellow, writing in The Dean’s December imagines Corde (the Chicago Dean) hearing a dog barking wildly. He imagines that the dog is protesting against the limit of the dog experience as if saying: ‘for God’s sake open the universe a little more’. Bellow’s deploying of this imagery may have in mind our own restrictive tendencies as if saying: “for goodness sake, let’s broaden our world-view, widen the circle, transcend the boundaries – we all belong here”.

And, history as John Agard pictures it will continue to be “a weight to break a back”, unless we can “create a crick or a crack”, that is a “crick of light – crack of hope”. I have no option, but to be hopeful.

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