Review: Windrush Women: Past and Present

Of the 1,000 or so passengers that were on board the Empire Windrush, 257 were women and 188 of them travelled alone, but curiously their presence are mostly missing from the Windrush narrative.

To celebrate those women who left everything behind for a better life for themselves and their families, literary magazine Wasafiri, in association with the British Library hosted an evening of poetry and discussion to explore the meaning and legacy of Windrush.

Introduced by Susheila Nasta, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wasafiri, the evening began with an excerpt from an interview with Guyanese writer, Beryl Gilroy in 1986, discussing literature,  diversity and the importance of literature for children, to mark the launch of the Heinemann African and Caribbean series. The first black headteacher of a North London school, Gilroy’s career as a writer was one marked by determination and tenacity. While her male contemporaries Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V.S Naipaul saw their careers flourish, as their work was published to critical acclaim, Gilroy had her work rejected by publishing houses who saw no need to recognise a woman’s voice in post-colonial literature. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when publishing opportunities began to open up for women, that Gilroy began to receive the recognition she deserved.

The poetry readings were led by contemporary poets, Jay Bernard, Hannah Lowe, and Valerie Bloom. Jay Bernard gave a evocative and powerful performance of poems from their poetry collection Surge: Side A. One of the poems, inspired by the New Cross fire in 1981, as much a defining moment in Black British history as Windrush, was lyrically haunting in content as well as delivery, and made even more poignant in the light of the recent Grenfell Tower fire. Hannah Lowe’s memoir like poems about her Chinese-Jamaican father, English mother and “racist nan” brought a humorous touch to the evening even as she spoke of the experience of being in an interracial relationship from her mother’s perspective. Valerie Bloom also delivered an amusing performance of Colonization in Reverse by Jamaican poet Louise Bennett.

panel discussion
Left to right: Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Hannah Lowe, Catherine Ross and Alison Donnell

But it was the the panel discussion with Hannah Lowe, academic Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and Catherine Ross, founder of the National Caribbean Heritage Museum, that would bring into focus the meaning and legacy that Windrush has left us.

The panel discussed how Windrush is a word with many connotations: From a ship carrying hundreds of immigrants to Britain to a ‘catch-all’ euphemism for immigration, as well as a reference point for the Black presence and contribution in Britain. But it would be the Pathe News reel of suited young men gazing into the distance with hope and destiny in their eyes that would become the primary image of Windrush. The true diversity (i.e. women, children, as well as people of other ethnicities) of the migration to Britain via Windrush and other ships was largely erased mainstream narratives about the period.

And the reason for this was a determination that was rooted in racism, to present Caribbean immigrants as an invading force, which would be more persuasive with images of young men entering the nation en masse, playing on the fears of the British public. Twenty years after Windrush, Enoch Powell would allude to this in his now infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and as recent as the Brexit referendum, the mainly negative image of Britain being flooded with (mostly) male immigrants is one that remains.

But it wasn’t just women who were rendered invisible by the Windrush narrative, of other nationalities were also ignored. Windrush is largely seen as a story of migrants from the Caribbean, Jamaica in particular. This gave me pause to wonder about the other ‘hidden stories of migration’ from that period. For example, the several Indians and Chinese people from the West Indies also arrived during this time. Not to mention the thousands of Africans who came to Britain for work and study. Why we don’t have an ‘African Windrush’ narrative celebrating the contributions of many Africans from nations formerly of the British empire, probably lies within the idea of Windrush being used a catch-all reference for all Black people whether from the West Indies or not.

Highlighting the issue of the ‘invisible passengers’, to quote Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and discussing the gendered narrative of Windrush, shows how much is lost through when we rely on the mainstream versions of history. Much of our stories are hidden within our own families and family legacies. Catherine Ross referred to ‘stories in a suitcase’ as she talked about finding most of her material from things people had left behind after they had passed away. Unearthing the hidden stories and legacies from our collective history, enables to better recognise and celebrate the diverse contribution we have made and continue to make to Britain.

© Photos by Jalaikon

One thought on “Review: Windrush Women: Past and Present

  1. It was just two weeks ago I finished reading Hannah Lowe’s book Long Time No See. Initially I had mixed feelings about the book and was about to put it to the one side as I found it a little offensive but something told me to continue, and I’m so glad that I did.
    Hannah’s father initially emigrated to the States, then left for Jamaica before leaving again for the UK. I loved the fact that Lowe gave a sort of context to her father’s life. Like a lot of men of our father’s generation, they had a few skills but a lot of drive and ambition, especially after they arrived in their new home. Our mother’s likewise were the ‘rock’ behind their husbands and stuck it through as much as they could.
    The writer Chimamanda Ngozi said that ‘post-colonial theory’ was something contrived by professors just out to make money!! Post-colonial theory can make us, especially those of us who were born in the diaspora, understand why our fathers, our mothers were not able to become professors or academics (like Ngozi’s parents), why they were denied choices in terms of determining their own destiny. Hannah Lowe’s book in particular makes it clear that our parents, no matter what their status was, had a right for their experiences to be validated and therefore a right for their stories to be told.
    I also wondered about those who emigrated from West Africa, and the writer who comes to mind is Buchi Emecheta. Her early books: In the Ditch and Second Class Citizen were such an inspiration to me. I remember my lecturer at Uni not particularly rating her writing (nothing like Chinua Achebe he would say), my partner and others, also didn’t rate her as they did not like her ‘feminism. But I went on to read The Bride Price, The Slave Girl and The Joys of Motherhood which I thoroughly enjoyed. The two early books which I feel are semi biographical are about her arrival to London in the early 60s and all what she went through: the racism and her husband.
    There is also the writer Jacqueline Walker, her book Pilgrim State. She writes of her beautiful mother, a headstrong woman who was unfortunately sectioned in a mental institution in New York State in the early 50s. Given all that is happening, she still fights to hold onto her sanity and her children (including Jacqueline). They manage to leave the States for Jamaica and once again and similar to Hannah Lowes’ father, the family leave for Britain. This will be around the early 60s when reach London. They still face the racism but the mother fights like crazy to keep her children constantly close. The book is moving and haunting, so much so that when my own mother died, this memoir played very much on my mind that I referred to it in an exercise memoir I had to do for a creative writing class.
    I agree that more needs to be said about our mothers, and having them dismissed like Gilroy or Emecheta is not acceptable. But I hope more will be written of mother’s stories. A great article.

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