We’re all at least fleetingly aware of Windrush and the scandal that unfolded in the last year or so. Devastating stories about people being denied re-entry to the UK – the country they’ve called home for 50 years – were propelled into the news and the lasting impact of the mass migration of people from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1971 continues to unfold.
Needless to say, there’s so much that we as a society are still learning. The same goes for the children and grandchildren of the generation who were shipped over here. It’s these people who are the focus of journalist and gal-dem deputy editor Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff’s new book, Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children.
"One of the things I was really keen not to do with this project was sugar-coat the experiences," she tells Refinery29. "There is not a single story in this book which has not got some element of hardship and it’s the same for a lot of immigrant communities. The very unique difference was that this was the first immigration en masse to a white country that had such historic connections to the slave trade. That’s not an experience that’s been replicated in a similar way, in my opinion, anywhere else."
The breadth of interviews in the book is incredibly wide. Brinkhurst-Cuff spoke with people as familiar as MP David Lammy, Lenny Henry, BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Jamz Supernova and Corinne Bailey Rae, but also drew attention to the stories of colleagues and friends whose experiences might have otherwise been overlooked amid our turbulent news cycle.
In putting the book together, Brinkhurst-Cuff knew there were themes she wanted to cover in order to present a wide view of what the British Caribbean community looks like now, and how that cultural influence is (and will continue to be) connected to the life-changing events of the mid to late '90s. "There are lots of complex issues that are touched upon in the basis of the interviews, such as colourism, such as mixed race identity and what that means, such as the fact for some you’re never or it's rare that you’ll know your full 'ethnic makeup' as a person of colour from the Caribbean," she explains.
"Natasha Gordon, who wrote the brilliant play Nine Night – it’s all about Caribbean funeral traditions and death in the Caribbean community – she gave a lovely interview talking about our propensity towards morbidity, why we’re like that, and that was really good. I wanted to talk about that because I see it in my own family. When my aunties talk about death it’s so morbid and I’m like, 'Why are you like this?!'" she jokes. "I mean, I know that it’s a Jamaican, or beyond that, Caribbean stereotype but also in Nine Night. So we came to the conclusion that it’s good that we talk about it in a more open way than our white British counterparts."
Whenever you're talking about Windrush, it needs to be a marker to look backwards and to look forwards
Speaking to Jamz Supernova, she discovered that, like many others, her dad was directly impacted by the Windrush scandal. "He doesn’t have a passport and he hasn’t been able to get one because he changed his name in the '80s. He changed it from his Caribbean slave master's name but when he applied for his passport, the name that he had taken wasn’t registered in the correct way and so the government were like, 'you aren’t who you say you are' and wouldn’t give him a passport."
Brinkhurst-Cuff adds that the effect on our generation and younger is resounding. There are people who still don’t have passports for the same reasons, "or get to university to find that the Home Office thinks they’re not meant to be here," she explains. It’s easy for something of this scale, which happened just out of reach of our own and some of our parents’ memories, to feel distant. But it’s important to remember that Windrush continues to resonate with us all these years later.
"It's also worth bearing in mind that they weren’t the first black and brown people who came over here, the Windrush generation," Brinkhurst-Cuff says. "We did have communities before and I think whenever you're talking about Windrush, it needs to be a marker to look backwards and to look forwards rather than just being like, this thing happened and all these black people came – it wasn’t as simple as that."
It's difficult when things like colonisation, mass migration of an ethnic community and, when it boils down to it, the implications of race, aren't always readily spoken about in education or wider society, but Brinkhurst-Cuff hopes that the book will encourage a generation of young people who perhaps can't trace their heritage back beyond that trip from the Caribbean to the UK, or who don't know what life was really like for their families when they first arrived here, to ask about it. Though the stories that have come out are often sad and difficult and frustrating, it's a history that we can (and should) feel invested in. "It's more than the thing itself," she adds. "It's about what we bring to this country, what we are going to continue to bring to this country."