How acknowledging the past is a vital component in moving forward into the present.
Words by Libby Mills
In 1926 historian and co-founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Carter Godwin Woodson, started a week in February dedicated solely to black history. By 1970, Kent State University celebrated what was recognised as the first Black History Month in February. As for the UK, it was Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo who in 1987 was the catalyst for the UK’s first Black History Month, which has gone on to be celebrated now for over 30 years. Catherine Ross, the National Caribbean Heritage Museum Editor of Black History Month 2020 describes the month as, ‘a time to look forward and celebrate the here and now’ but that it ‘isn’t just a month to be ticked off a calendar dominated by a white-washed version of history’. In order to move forward, we first have to look back, learn and acknowledge history that hasn’t always been the basis of the mainstream UK curriculum.
2020 has been a year where spotlights on the reality of modern-day racism have been shone, and any myths of us living in a post-racial society have been fully distinguished. In fact, in the UK we only have to look to 2012 to the introduction of the ‘Hostile Environment’ policies and to its devastating and cruel repercussions on the Windrush generation. Amelia Gentleman’s investigation into the scandal, with her book The Windrush Betrayal, uncovered the extent of the thousands of law-abiding British citizens that were facing deportation due to their inaccurate illegal immigrant status. Gentleman writes, ‘In their new determination to be tough on illegal immigration, officials refused to see what was unfolding in front of them.’ The whole scandal seemed to reveal out-of touch politicians, who were unaware of the reality of their new ‘Hostile Environment’ policies, with this likely being due to the lack of representation and diversity amongst the individuals making such policies in the first place.
In order to understand the significance of the Windrush generation’s betrayal by their own government, it is necessary to acknowledge why by 1958 around 115,000 men and women from the West Indies had traveled over to England. After the Second World War, England was in desperate need of labourers, around 1,346,000 to be precise. Countries within the West Indies that had been colonised by the British empire were encouraged to refer to England as the ‘Mother Country’, with over 10,000 West Indian men and women volunteering to serve. To achieve the necessary labour increase, England recruited workers under the European Voluntary Workers scheme, while in Jamaica, Empire Windrush tickets were advertised in newspapers. Individuals were given British passports claiming them as a ‘British subject: Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ with the statement: ‘Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him/her every assistance and protection of which he/she may stand in need.’ The Windrush generation were fulfilling the needs of their ‘Mother Country’ just as they had dutifully done in the Second World War. Men and women who were eager to find work and start a life in England were encouraged to do so and yet were met with a racist reality. Their white european counterparts found work easier, were not charged extortionate rent by landlords and did not face segregation, while Winston Churchill’s colleague Harold Macmillan in 1955 wrote ‘PM thinks “Keep England White” a good slogan.’
Fast forward to 2012 and these very same individuals who had been encouraged to legally migrate to their ‘Mother Country’ as members of the Commonwealth to offer labour, were then only decades later faced with £20,000 fines and deportation. Gentleman’s book saw the untold stories of so many different individuals of whom for the first time in their lives, had a question mark over their citizen status. The undeniable dots of the slave trade, to the Windrush scandal are connected with the Runnymede Trust’s analysis: ‘“Black Caribbean” people are in Britain not only because the ship Empire Windrush arrived in June 1948. There are only “Black Caribbean” people because British slave ships transported people from Africa to the Caribbean.’ Just as Ross reminds us of the importance of history not being white-washed, Gentleman poignantly describes this, in the case of the Windrush scandal, as ministers having ‘a total amnesia about Britain’s colonial past’. With politicians often eager to ‘clamp down’ on immigration, it is also important to acknowledge the truth behind the contributions of migrants, with a 2013 study estimating a net contribution of £25 billion since 2000. This is part of many Black British individuals’ history, and something that needs to be realised and remembered beyond Black History Month.