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jamaica, racial justice, windrush, british, united kingdom, black british

To Be Black British in a Country of Broken Promises

The intergenerational struggle to establish belonging. 

Words: Nia Copeland
Pictures: Alvin Balemesa
Date:

Get on the busy underground tube service at Victoria Station in the heart of central London and take the Victoria line five stops until you get to the end of the line: Brixton. Turn left out of Brixton station and you will walk directly into Brixton Market.

On a warm summer’s day, you can often expect to be met with the distinct Caribbean Island sound of a steel pan drum. Brixton Market is where people from an array of cultural backgrounds converge in search of their native foods, plantain, yam, green banana, salt fish oxtail, and spices. While it is the perfect picture of the rich diversity that London has to offer, looming gentrification colors the edges of this picture. Being a Black British, second-generation grandchild of Jamaican, Ghanaian, and Irish immigrants is full of complexity, mixed emotions, and, most importantly, admiration and pride for those who came before me.

AN ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR FAMILY HISTORY

My maternal grandparents are part of what is called the Windrush Generation: A generation of young Caribbean men, women, and children full of potential, wanderlust, and the promise of a better life. They immigrated to the United Kingdom between 1948-1971, in the wake of the British Nationality act of 1948, which effectively gave commonwealth citizens the same rights of residency as British subjects. The British government sent out the call for citizens of the commonwealth to help rebuild a war-torn England after the Second World War. A report of their arrival in the “mother country” in the London Evening Standard carried the headline: “Welcome Home.” The promise of opportunity and resources was for many, worth leaving behind generations of their loved ones and islands abundantly rich with culture.

Many of those arriving from these commonwealth countries made their trade in the growing workforce as railway workers, moving north to Manchester, the hub of the rail industry, or as naval workers, traveling west to Bristol a port city, or as nurses, midwives, and auxiliary aids in the National Health Service. Many like my grandfather formed the backbone of the building trade all over London. Despite this invitation for a new workforce, Britain fell short of providing a welcoming environment. Instead, newcomers were met with hostility and even resentment. Political campaigns for them to leave were rampant all over the country. Degrading signs stating “No Blacks, no dogs and no Irish” on homes for rent were seen across England. The lack of available housing frequently forced multiple families to live in one home until one by one they were able to save enough money to buy or rent their own.

As I speak with family members about what it means to be Black British, I begin to understand that being Black British is to experience a quagmire of complex emotions.

My grandmother recalled how she sobbed for what felt like a whole month when she was hit with the reality that she had left behind her beautiful, lush green island of Jamaica for life in a grey, smoggy, rainy, and hostile one. Her only consolation was her sister joking that “once yuh mek yuh likkle money and meet yuh likkle man, you’ll be alright.” My father’s mother’s life was characterized by the same grim reality. She was a white Irish woman born in County Cork, who in the early 1960s surrendered my father and his siblings to a foster care system that would separate all three children. Societal pressures meant she would never be accepted by her family with three small children fathered by a Ghanaian man, my paternal grandfather.

Despite these hardships, immigrants from the Caribbean settled all over Britain, laying foundations and creating legacies. Unfortunately, however, recent years have seen a surge in deportations of members of the Windrush Generation. British citizens who have “lived, loved, parented and paid tax in the UK for decades” now receive threatening letters from the government that tell them that they are illegal immigrants. Many of those that were deported traveled as children on their parents’ passports and have lived in Britain their entire lives, working, paying taxes, and raising their families. Nonetheless, the government proclaimed that persons who cannot provide proof of their legality must leave.

Under the 1971 Immigration Act, all Commonwealth citizens already residing in Britain were given indefinite leave to remain. However, the Home Office did not keep a record of those granted leave to remain or issue paperwork confirming it. Consequently, it is virtually impossible for many individuals to prove that they are in the UK legally. Too many families are now left devastated, whilst the media continues to fuel divisive rhetoric. Adding salt to the wound, as of yet, schemes to compensate the victims of the Windrush generation have received little to no support from members of Parliament. The Home Affairs Committee says that the vast majority of those affected have yet to receive “any compensation for being wrongly classed as illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation.”

DEFINITIONS AND FORGOTTEN GENERATIONS

All too often British culture is viewed through an ethnocentric lens that has idealized the Monarchy and Eurocentricity. It is seen in the way the media and politicians like Boris Johnson praise Winston Churchill as the man who single-handedly defeated Hitler all while simultaneously perpetuating racism in his own country. Churchill even suggested his campaign slogan in 1955 be “Keep England White.” Sadly, Winston Churchill was not alone in believing that people of color coming to the UK would threaten the very idea of the nation and undermine Britons’ standard of living by taking jobs and housing. White British society only viewed these Black immigrants as non-threatening when they were enriching the country in a capitalist capacity.

As I speak with family members about what it means to be Black British, I begin to understand that being Black British is to experience a quagmire of complex emotions. It is the knot in your stomach when you realize that the word Black is a prerequisite to your Britishness, a disclaimer of your potential treatment as a second-class citizen. It is the realization that acceptance was not and is not present in British society. It is the feeling of having to prove your Britishness to a country that is constantly rejecting you. It is the look on people’s faces when they are deported after 60 years when the same country that they came to fix says that they aren’t British. It is to have your mere existence be controversial, a talking point for policymakers at hearings.

More importantly, it is to be proud of and to respect the challenges our forefathers and mothers overcame to pave the way for our very existence. The appreciation for those who won’t soon be forgotten. To be Black British is to rejoice in the fruitful culture that we bring with us, the food, the music, and the worldwide influence of a small island.

Nia Copeland is a UEA Law School graduate from London with a focus on international law and public relations. She lives in the DMV and works as an in-house legal and compliance professional.

Nia Copeland

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