Illustration by Hannah Buckman

Back to My Own Country: An essay by Andrea Levy

In this reflective essay, Andrea Levy delves deep into notions of racism and pinpoints events which compelled her to use writing as a tool to explore and understand her Caribbean heritage.

I remember a journey I took on a London bus when I was a young girl. It was in the early 1960s. The bus was full of people and one of them was a black man. That was not a common sight in those days. I could tell from his accent that, like my parents, he was from somewhere in the Caribbean. He was talkative, smiling politely at people and trying to engage them in chat. But all the other people on the bus were white and they were looking at him askance. Nobody would be drawn into conversation; they clearly wanted nothing to do with him. But he carried on trying anyway.

I was embarrassed by him, but also overcome with pity for his hopeless attempt to be friendly on a London bus. I was sure that he was a nice man and that if those people on the bus could just get to know him then they would like him. My family also came from the Caribbean. I identified with him. He somehow became my mum and dad, my sisters, me. But to the other people on the bus he was more than a stranger, he was an alien. I felt a longing to make some introductions. I could sense the misunderstandings that were taking place, but I didn't know why, or what I could do. The man was different. He looked different and he sounded different. But how come people in England did not know him? Why was he, and why were all black people from Britain's old empire, so completely alien to them? This encounter is something I will never forget.

The same thing would not happen today in quite that way. Everyone is used to a mix of cultures and London buses are full of Londoners from all over the world. But still there are silences and gaps in our knowledge and understanding. What are the links that made Britain a natural destination for that Caribbean man on the bus, 50 years ago? How and why did Britain forge those links in the first place? These are questions that have come to fascinate me, because they reveal what amounts to a lost history for many of us. It was certainly lost to me for much of my early life, and it was a loss that caused me some problems.

At the time of my bus ride I lived on a council estate in north London. I went to a local school. Spoke like a good cockney. I played outside with all the white kids who lived around my way – rounders, skipping and hide and seek. I ate a lot of sweets. Watched a lot of television: Coronation Street, Emergency Ward 10. Loved the Arsenal. Hated Tottenham Hotspur. I lived the life of an ordinary London working-class girl.

But my parents had come to this country from Jamaica. And in the area of London where we lived, that made my family very odd. We were immigrants. Outsiders. My dad had been a passenger on the Empire Windrush ship when it famously sailed into Tilbury in June 1948 and, according to many, changed the face of Britain for ever. My mum came to England on a Jamaica Banana Producer's boat. It sailed into West India dock on Guy Fawkes Night in the same year, under a shower of fireworks that my mum believed were to welcome her.

Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased by Winston Levy whilst on board

Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased on board ship by Winston Levy

Andrea Levy’s father, Winston Levy, purchased this postcard whilst on board the Empire Windrush. He kept it as a souvenir of his journey from Jamaica to Britain.

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Winston Levy’s Jamaica shirt

Photograph of the front of Winston Levy's 'Jamaica' shirt

On his journey to England Winston Levy brought with him this shirt to remind him of Jamaica.

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My dad was an accounting clerk in Jamaica for, among other companies, Tate & Lyle. My mum was a teacher. They were middle class. They grew up in large houses. They even had servants. They came to Britain on British Empire passports in order to find more opportunities for work and advancement. But once here they struggled to find good housing. They had to live in one room for many years. They had a period of being homeless and then living in half-way housing where my dad was not allowed to stay with his wife and his three children. Eventually they were housed in the council flat in Highbury where I was born, and where I grew up.

My dad did not have trouble finding work. He was employed by the Post Office. But my mum was not allowed to use her Jamaican teaching qualification to teach in England. She needed to re-train. So she took in sewing throughout my childhood. But she still nursed her dream of becoming a teacher again.

Photograph of Andrea Levy and her family on holiday at the British seaside, 1970s

Photograph of the Levy family on holiday.

This photograph shows Andrea Levy with her parents on holiday at Brean Sands, Somerset in the early 1970s.

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In England, the fabled Mother Country that they had learned so much about at school in Jamaica, my parents were poor and working class.

They believed that in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could. Clean the front step every week. Go to church on Sundays. Keep their children well dressed and scrubbed behind the ears.

On one occasion my mum did not have money to buy food for our dinner. None at all. She worried that she might be forced into the humiliation of asking someone, a neighbour perhaps, for a loan. She walked out into the street praying for a solution, and found a one-pound note lying on the pavement. In my mum's eyes that was not a stroke of luck, that was a strategy.

My parents believed that, with no real entitlement to anything, they must accept what this country was willing to give. They were, after all, immigrants. As long as they didn't do anything too unusual that might upset the people of England, then they could get on. My mum was desperate for my dad to lose his accent and stop saying ‘nah man' and ‘cha' in every sentence. They never discussed Jamaica with anyone. My mum would get embarrassed if she saw a black person drawing attention to themselves. It drew attention to her as well, and she hated that.

My family is fair-skinned. In Jamaica this had had a big effect on my parents' upbringing, because of the class system, inherited from British colonial times, people took the colour of your skin very seriously. My parents had grown up to believe themselves to be of a higher class than any darker-skinned person. This isolated them from other black Caribbeans who came to live here – they wanted nothing to do with them.

My mum once told me how, back in Jamaica, her father would not let her play with children darker than her. She said wistfully, ‘But I had to, or I would have had no one to play with'. So when she came to England she was pleased to be bringing her children up amongst white children. We would always have lighter-skinned children to play with. I was expected to isolate myself from darker-skinned people too, and it seemed perfectly normal to me that the colour of your skin was one of the most important things about you. White people of course never had to think about it. But if you were not white, well then, how black were you? I accepted all of this as logical. That was how I would be judged.

Light-skinned or not, still we were asked, 'When are you going back to your own country?', 'Why are you here?', 'Why is your food so funny?', 'Why does your hair stick up?', 'Why do you smell?' The clear message was that our family was foreign and had no right to be here. When a member of the far-right group the National Front waved one of their leaflets in my face and started laughing, I felt I owed them some sort of apology. I wanted them to like me. It would be years before I realised I could be angry with them.

The racism I encountered was rarely violent, or extreme, but it was insidious and ever present and it had a profound effect on me. I hated myself. I was ashamed of my family, and embarrassed that they came from the Caribbean.

In my efforts to be as British as I could be, I was completely indifferent to Jamaica. None of my friends knew anything about the Caribbean. They didn't know where it was, or who lived there, or why. And they had no curiosity about it beyond asking why black people were in this country. It was too foreign and therefore not worth knowing.

As I got older my feeling of outsiderness became more marked, as did the feeling that nothing in my background – my class or my ethnicity – was really worth having. At art college I encountered middle-class people for the first time. Proper middle class – debutantes with ponies, that sort of thing. Keeping those origins of mine a secret became paramount. Few people at my college knew I lived on a council estate. Once, when given a lift home, I got my friends to drop me at the gate of a proper house. I walked up the path waving them off. Then as soon as they were out of view I walked back to my flat.

I got a degree in textile design and worked as a designer for about ten minutes before I realised it was not for me. After that I worked for a brief while as a shop assistant, a dresser at the BBC and the Royal Opera House, and a receptionist at a family-planning clinic.

Then something happened. I was working part-time for a sex-education project for young people in Islington. One day the staff had to take part in a racism awareness course. We were asked to split into two groups, black and white. I walked over to the white side of the room. It was, ironically, where I felt most at home – all my friends, my boyfriend, my flatmates, were white. But my fellow workers had other ideas and I found myself being beckoned over by people on the black side. With some hesitation I crossed the floor. It was a rude awakening. It sent me to bed for a week.

By this time I was scared to call myself a black person. I didn't feel I had the right qualifications. Didn't you have to have grown up in a 'black community'? Didn't you need to go to the Caribbean a lot? Didn't your parents need to be proud of being black? Didn’t my friends need to be black? My upbringing was so far removed from all of that, I felt sure I would be found out as an imposter. I was not part of the black experience, surely?

It was a life-changing moment.

Illustration by Hannah Buckman

Fortunately I had recently enrolled on an afternoon-a-week writing course at the City Lit in London, just as a hobby. Writing came to my rescue. The course had an emphasis on writing about what you know. So, nervously I began to explore what I knew – my family upbringing and background, and my complicated relationship with colour. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up for me as never before. I soon came to realise that my experience of growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. All those agonies over skin shade. Those silences about where we had come from. The shame. The denial. In fact I came to see that every black person's life, no matter what it is, is part of the black experience. Because being black in a majority white country comes with a myriad of complications and contradictions. It was writing that helped me to understand that.

A few months into the course I had the urge to visit Jamaica for the very first time and stay with the family I had never met. I went for Christmas. It was an amazing experience. I discovered a family I had never really known I had. I realised that I meant something to people who lived on the other side of the world. I met my aunt and cousins and saw where my mum grew up. I realised for the first time that I had a background and an ancestry that was fascinating and worth exploring. Not only that, but I had the means to do it – through writing.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer, and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another. It is a very rich seam for a writer and it is, quite simply, the reason that I write. Toni Morrison was once asked if she felt constrained by her being seen as a black writer. She replied: ‘being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination; it expands it.’ That is how I feel.

Manuscript drafts of Andrea Levy’s Small Island

 Drafts of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island (3 pages)

These are Andrea Levy’s working drafts for Small Island showing the evolution of the chapter in which qualified teacher Hortense sets out for a job interview.

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Held by © Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy

The more I began to delve into my Caribbean heritage the more interesting Britain's Caribbean story became for me. The story of the Caribbean is a white story too and one that goes back a long way. The region was right at the very heart of Europe's early experiments in colonising the world. In the 1500s it was the Spanish who first exploited those newly found islands, displacing the indigenous people. The Dutch, the French and the British came soon after. The island claimed earliest for Britain was Barbados, in 1625. But soon Britain was a major coloniser in the region. A whole string of islands became 'British’. Islands that for a long time were seen as our most lucrative overseas possessions. Sugar was the main crop, as important to Britain then as oil is today. It was planted, harvested and processed by the slave labour of black Africans. That slave trade from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas was the largest forced migration in human history. Those islands soon became brutal island-factories helping to fuel and to fund the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Huge family fortunes were made. Major cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London grew wealthy on the proceeds. The money that slavery in the Caribbean generated was reinvested in Britain's industry and infrastructure. Britain's empire grew as a result.

When British slavery finally ended in 1833, compensation was paid by the British government. It amounted to 20 million pounds (many billions in today's money). It was paid to the slave owners for the loss of their property. They were seen as the injured party.

But there is more to those Caribbean islands than just the history of slavery. Many white people went, if not in chains, then under duress: indentured servants and poor people from all corners of Britain who were trying to escape hardship at home or to build a new life. Many were press-ganged sailors, or convict labour. There were Sephardic Jews from Iberia, merchants from the Middle East and, later, indentured labourers from India and China. A social mix was created like in no other place on earth. Creole cultures developed with a wide range of skin colours that were elaborately classified (mulatto, quadroon, octoroon and so on) as a divide-and-rule tactic by the British plantocracy. Racial difference and racial value developed into a 'science'. After the end of slavery in the Caribbean the British continued to rule their islands through a policy of racial apartheid right up until they finally left in the 1960s.

But all this happened 3,000 miles away from Britain, and as a result it has been possible for it to quietly disappear from British mainstream history. This is the absence, the gap in knowledge, the amnesia of the British that made the black man on the bus such an alien. It is unthinkable that a book on American history could leave out plantation slavery in the southern states. But in British history books the equivalent is the case, or at least the importance of those centuries of British slavery in the Caribbean is underplayed. That British plantation slavery has no lasting legacy for this country is absurd, but it is a claim that is made implicitly by this silence. It was so very long ago, it seems to say, we don't need to dredge it up.

I remember what I was taught at school about Britain in the Caribbean. I had one lesson on the transatlantic slave trade. We looked at illustrations of slaves in ships. But that was all. I learned much more about William Wilberforce and the campaign for the abolition of slavery than anything about the life of a slave. We know more about slavery in the American South than in the British Caribbean. We are familiar with the struggles of African Americans from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. But American slavery was different from Caribbean slavery. In the Caribbean, slaves far outnumbered the white owners, and that mix of isolation, fear and dependency produced very different societies from those of the American South. America's story will not do for us. Our legacy of slavery is unique, and we need to understand what it is.

I wrote a novel, The Long Song, set in the time of slavery in the Caribbean, and when I was promoting the book I had numerous media interviews. On two separate occasions the interviewers – bright, university-educated people in each case – admitted to me that they had not known that Britain had used slaves in the Caribbean. Slavery they thought had only been in America. Going around the country doing readings I was surprised at the ignorance of people about where the islands were, or of how many of them there were. Many people I met believed all people from the Caribbean came from Jamaica.

And what of the period after slavery? What about the century of ‘racial apartheid' that grew up in the colonial era, the time when my mum and dad learned to know their racial place and to keep themselves separate? The history of the black people of the Caribbean is missing.

Apart from being an exotic holiday destination the islands have now become an irrelevance here. They are no longer wealthy. They are not rich with natural resources. They no longer have the power they enjoyed when some of the most famous families in Britain were there. It is too easy to forget what happened and how it has affected our lives today. But it is as much a part of British history as the Norman Conquest, or the Tudors.

No one would claim that out of Britain's many stories of empire the Caribbean is the most important. But it is one of the earliest, one of the longest in duration, and certainly one of the most unusual in terms of population mix and the creation of unique societies. In other parts of Britain's old empire, such as India or Africa, we can debate what fading legacy the British have left, whether it is railways, bureaucracies or parliamentary systems. In the Caribbean the legacy is, in one sense, everything. Not just the towns, the cities and the landscape, but the very people themselves; their origins, their ethnic mix, their hybrid cultures, all result from what the British did on those islands before they finally left them. And conversely, Britain growing to become a world power, its attitudes to race, and even how it sees itself today, these things are in no small part the legacy that the British Caribbean has left for modern Britain. ‘The very notion of Great Britain's “greatness” is bound up with Empire’, the cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, once wrote: 'Euro-scepticism and little Englander nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood, and rotted English teeth’.

What this means of course is that I, and my family, are products of Britain just as much as the white kids I grew up with in Highbury. Given Britain’s history in the Caribbean it was almost inevitable that people like my dad and his fellow passengers on the Windrush would end up here. They belonged, whether Britain realised it or not. One of the consequences of having an empire, of being a cultural hub, is that the world ultimately comes to you. That's how hubs work.

Britons of Caribbean heritage have been in this country in significant numbers for 65 years now. We are three or four generations on from the man on the London bus. Immigration to Britain since the end of the Second World War has been a final, unexpected gift to Britain from its old empire. The benefits that the labour and the enterprise of immigrants, like those from the Caribbean, have brought to Britain are incalculable. Their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multi-culture. This windfall of talent and variety is one of the great unforeseen benefits to Britain.

But there are still countless young Britons today of Afro-Caribbean descent who have as little understanding of their ancestry and have as little evidence of their worth as I did when I was growing up. And there are countless white Britons who are unaware of the histories that bind us together. Britain made the Caribbean that my parents came from. It provided the people – black and white – who make up my ancestry. In return my ancestors, through their forced labour and their enterprise, contributed greatly to the development of modern Britain. My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.


Copyright © Andrea Levy
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Tinder Press 


Illustrations by Hannah Ekua Buckman

  • Andrea Levy
  • Andrea Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948. After attending writing workshops when she was in her mid-thirties, Levy began to write the novels that she, as a young woman, had always wanted to read – entertaining novels that reflect the experiences of black Britons, which look at Britain and its changing population and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean.

    She has written six books, including Small Island, which was the unique winner of both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread book of the Year, in addition to the Commonwealth Writer's Prize and the Orange Prize 'Best of the Best'. Her most recent novel, The Long Song, won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.