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Farewell to a generation of Caribbean pioneers

As the last of his family’s Windrush elders pass away, ROGER McKENZIE reflects on migration, courage and the ongoing struggle against racism in Britain, from the Rwanda plan to ‘stop the boats’

IT’S been a difficult few weeks. Firstly my lovely mother-in-law passed away followed just a few days later by my mother-in-law’s sister.

While I was out of the country recently I received word that my aunt — my dad’s sister — had taken the journey to join the ancestors.

My Aunt Daphne was, as far as I am aware, the last survivor of that generation who made the trip from Jamaica to England in search of a better life for themselves and, hopefully, for their children and subsequent descendants.

This is a real milestone moment. One that has its roots in that seemingly controversial thing called migration — forced or otherwise — and the importance, certainly in my culture, of ancestry.

I came across a quote from the US children’s author Dr Theodor Seuss recently that I read out at my dear mother-in-law Betty’s funeral. It was something along the lines of “you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

You are generally more likely to have me quote Lenin, Marx, Castro or June Jordan here than Dr Seuss, but the quote moved me greatly during this difficult time.

I have always admired and given total respect to that generation that made the journey across to England from Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands.

There is a lot of nonsense talked about how these pioneers expected to be welcomed with open arms and never expected the racism that many of them experienced.

It’s as if none of them ever had the experience of racism under what was often a brutal colonial rule in the countries they arrived from.

It is also as if none of them knew that the reason they were in countries such as Jamaica was because their ancestors were brutally snatched from their homes somewhere on the African continent and enslaved.

It is as if they were unaware of the struggles for both survival and then for emancipation from enslavement and then for freedom from colonialism.

This picture that is continually painted of wide-eyed innocents arriving in England expecting a hero’s welcome is just — on the whole — complete garbage.

I am sure that many did indeed believe that the streets of England were paved with gold and life on this island was going to be a breeze but there were plenty who knew exactly what they were getting into and took the journey anyway.

They knew that they were being called on to do the jobs that many in the white population did not want to do.

They knew that there would be an industrial struggle ahead for parity of wages and equal treatment. They knew because this was already their experience back home.

They were not blank pieces of paper that needed to be written on by white trade unionists or liberals in Britain.

I have always thought that it was an amazingly brave thing to do to make that journey. Not just because many would have never travelled outside their islands before but because it is a big ask for anyone to travel outside of their home to live and work — never mind the thousands of miles they were travelling to a strange land.

Most migration across the world is internal to a country. Not, as the racists would have everyone believe, across national borders.

The truth is that these racists object primarily to people from the “darker nations” migrating to what they see as “their land” although they never seem to have a problem migrating anywhere in the world that takes their fancy.

They even come up with terms such as “expats” to describe themselves and lament when they can’t get the food or drinks they like in their new abode but complain about this same desire when expressed by black people.

Apparently, we black folks should be doing much more to integrate in a way that never crosses the minds of these racists when they move abroad.

I know that when I left Walsall for the first time and moved to Manchester when I was in my early twenties without any friendship groups to look forward to — other than my new all-white work colleagues — I was really nervous and found the whole experience really difficult.

This was even more so when I soon became the target of one of my bosses and, with only isolated support from colleagues, was soon forced to remove myself from that toxic workplace.

The truth is though experiences like that leave scars and I still have mine. Imagine what it feels like when this experience is relived many years later — as it was with me. This can easily leave one in a truly dark place as it did with me.

Alongside the difficulties I faced, I have often reminded myself that I travelled less than 100 miles from my home for that experience while my family elders travelled more than 4,600 miles into the largely unknown with maybe only a few people to rely on when they got here.

We know that migration will continue to be a major issue under the new Labour government. I have no doubt that Labour will feel the need to be harder on immigration than that private business that now has seats in Parliament calling itself the Reform Party.

I am pleased that Labour has moved quickly to ditch that thoroughly racist Rwanda policy. But, not so pleasing, are the words from the new Home Secretary Yvette Cooper about the tough action that the new government intends to take to “stop the boats” of migrants reaching these shores through the English channel.

Even though my aunt force-fed my brother, sister and me cornmeal porridge as kids when we visited and she was ultra strict about the need to only leave the dining table with permission, I loved her dearly.

I regret not having done more to visit her or — for that matter — the other now-departed elders in my family.

But I have great memories of spending some very happy times — despite the cornmeal porridge — when we visited her in London. Often these visits were our only holidays as kids. We never had the money for trips abroad or a vacation in another part of England like many of my white childhood friends.

One memory I will treasure always is when my aunt travelled up from London to my dad’s funeral and how on the way out the church she grabbed my arm and walked out with me as my mom was escorted by my brother and sister. It was just what I needed.

I contrast this years later when my mom joined the ancestors and my aunt came to the funeral in the same church but didn’t even recognise me as dementia had long since set in.

Migration — whether internal to a country or across borders — is far from the numbers game many politicians are eager to play.

It is about people with real fears but mostly with great ambitions for themselves and their loved ones.

We miss something rather important if we don’t understand this point.

I take this opportunity to thank all of my ancestors without whose bravery and sacrifices I would not be here to annoy so many people. I carry out this annoyance on behalf of every one of my ancestors who endured racism, enslavement, colonialism, the colour bar and institutional racism.

All of the good things I do are because of them. Everything else is entirely down to me.


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