Crop of Denis Williams illustrations for The Emigrants by George Lamming. One scene shows two seated Caribbean men against a backdrop of terrace houses, one scene shows three Caribbean men inside a room with a stove

'Why are people always banging on about racism?': Reflections on Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land

Colin Prescod, lead external advisor to Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, discusses the exhibition’s narrative and the need to acknowledge racism and Black resistance at the centre of this history. Many of the objects within the exhibition can now be viewed on Windrush Stories.

Banging on about racism

The British Library’s 2018 exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land (1 June–21 October) would not be a bad place to start in framing a response to the not uncommon next gen question – ‘why are people always banging on about racism?’

We (the British Library curators Elizabeth Cooper and Zoë Wilcox, with me as lead external advisor) took up the task of mounting a show to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the passenger-ship Empire Windrush, carrying a few hundred people mainly from the British West Indies. This 1948 arrival at Tilbury Docks on the Thames has come to be presented as one of the events marking the birth of modern multicultural (read non-racist) Britain. Windrush anniversaries have been used to tell a heartening modern multicultural story, celebrating the success, against the odds, of the people who came by sea and air from the West Indies (today more often referred to as the Caribbean) from the late 1940s to the 1960s. We decided to be forthright in using deep history, as distinct from mere geography, as the starting point for taking a hard look at where these people were coming from, and what they faced. Racism is centre stage in this history.

We’d been at it for some seven or eight months when a huge ‘Windrush scandal’ media story broke, just weeks before the exhibition was launched. The story (revealing what was already known by Caribbean communities in Britain) was broken by and through the serious investigative work of the Guardian journalist, Amelia Gentleman, supported by tenacious Channel 4 TV coverage. It centred on the obscene insult to tens, then hundreds and eventually as it turned out thousands of Black British citizens, who were being routinely and variously summoned, arrested, locked up and threatened with deportation – many were actually wrongfully deported – because they were unable to provide a suspicious and hostile government Home Office with paper-evidence of their right to reside in Britain.

As we came to our opening date, we were aware that this scandal shifted the frame of reference for our exhibition. But from the very first moment of our working together we had been developing a narrative line that was different to other Windrush anniversary events – it was no mere celebratory commemoration. Behind a deceptively playful sub-head, ‘Songs in a Strange Land’, is a bold telling of the Windrush story.

‘I am here, because you were there’ (A Sivanandan)

This brilliant quip-cum-aphorism hits back at an impertinent question – ‘why are you here?’ – that is often put to people who migrate to the UK. It also opens a can of worms, throwing up any number of other related questions and answers. Both ‘here’ and ‘there’ are always more than physical, geographical spaces. ‘Here’ turns out to be an uncomfortable place of consequences – a place of legacy; an experience of forgotten, unknown, hidden, covered-up beginnings. ‘There’ turns out to be a time and a history.

What about in the case of those who came on the Windrush and all of the other migrants to Britain in the two decades or so following the great historical watershed of World War Two? ‘Here’ was a place where the natives commonly asked their fellow British subjects arriving from abroad, ‘how do you come to be here?’ In truth this is a question that the migrant-settlers from the Caribbean would have put to themselves, rhetorically, knowing full well what the answer was; knowing full well what the literally ignorant natives did not. For they knew that they and Britain had come out of empire, out of a terrible violent history that in the short term had been wealth-making and profitable for a substantial few, and impoverishing and devastating for a vast majority. In the longer term this history would deliver something that would prove hard to shift, that would come to be called institutionalised racism. We, the curators of this exhibition, would have to tell a tough story – hard to tell and hard to take – a deeper and darker Caribbean story. This is the story that proved to be a timely complement to the Windrush scandal furore; connecting with the story of Black resistance to racism as a constant thread of British history.

I would recommend two texts especially above others for those who would like to examine more of the back story to Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land:

  1. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984), which tells the centuries-long story of Black presences in Britain and in British history, from the times of the Roman invasion to the mid-20th century;
  2. A Sivanandan’s seminal essay ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’ (1981), contained in his Catching History on the Wing collection of essays (2008), which tells the 20th-century story of how migrant-settlers from Britain’s colonial empire confronted injustice and unfair discrimination, in the process changing Britain in order to live more dignified lives and transforming the country for the better.

And yet – a coda

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land can therefore be read as a story of racism and resistance to racism. Running through the exhibition narrative is a kind of battle between oppression and liberation. And a paradox emerges. Out of the nightmare history of brutal enforced transportation, plantation slavery and racist-colonialism there is a striking back, expressed in an irrepressible imaginative, social, as well as intellectual flair that characterises these Caribbean people. These Blacks in British history gift to the culture, society and community of Britishness a liberated ‘imaginary’. By ‘imaginary’ I mean a collective picture of life and experience, created and represented by song, dance and literary expression – an ‘imaginary’ for all sufferers, all the marginalised, all oppressed spirits. Displaying this genius for survival is part and parcel of how these people get by in the face of dauntingly unfair odds. And this genius has resulted in any number of social, creative and intellectual contributions that have challenged, transformed and civilised Britain. There is considerably more on this theme that might be curated in future British Library explorations and expositions of what lies in its collections.

© Colin Prescod

Banner: Taken from frontispiece of The Emigrants by George Lamming. © Denis Williams Estate

  • Colin Prescod
  • Over four decades, Colin Prescod has been an academic, a documentary film and theatre maker, and TV commissioning editor. He served as a member and Vice-Chair of the (London) Mayor’s Commission on African and Asian Heritage, and as a member of the Greater London Authority’s Heritage Diversity Taskforce. He was advisor to the development of two ‘permanent’ galleries launched in November 2007 – London, Sugar and Slavery at the Museum of London Docklands, and Atlantic Worlds at the National Maritime Museum; more recently he was the Lead External Advisor for the British Library's Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition.