Coming from where he did
He was turned away from every door like Joseph
He didn’t know what it was to be Black
‘Till they gave him his change
But didn’t want to touch his hand
The secret of their fear and their suspicion
Standing there looking like an angel
In his brown shoes, his short suit
His white shirt and his cuffs a little frayed
He was such a dignified child
To even the toughest among us
That would be too much
Excerpt from the song “Immigrant”, by Sade (Folasade Adu), released November 14, 2000.
October is Black History Month in Britain (since 1987) and during this month the history of African/Black people in Britain is given some exposure in that country.
It is estimated that there were some 4,700 Black History Month events across the country during October, 2011. Although there are African immigrants in Britain (whether from the African continent, the Caribbean or elsewhere), many are British-born.
The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, reportedly said of Black History Month:
“In order to enrich the cultural diversity of the Greater London area, it is imperative that Londoners know more about African influences on medieval and Renaissance European music so that accepted ideas about European music (are) changed. Despite the significant role that Africa and its Diaspora have played in the world civilization since the beginning of time, Africa’s contribution has been omitted or distorted in most history books.”
There is documented evidence that Africans have lived in Britain for thousands of years, at least since the Roman occupation of Britain beginning in 43 A.D.
In the publication, Antiquity, which is a quarterly review of World Archaeology, an article was written by five archaeologists from Britain’s University of Reading entitled: “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain”, about an African woman who lived in York during the Roman occupation of Britain.
The archaeologists determined that this African woman, who was between 18 and 23 years old when she transitioned, was a member of a wealthy family and not a servant as has been assumed whenever Africans are mentioned from those ancient times. “The Ivory Bangle Lady” as she was christened by the archaeologists, was buried in a sarcophagus made of stone, which was a sign of immense wealth in Roman-occupied Britain.
Sade dedicated the song “Immigrant” to her Nigerian father’s memory. Sade was born in Ibadan, Nigeria’s capital city, where her father, Adebisi Adu, was an economics professor. However, at one point he was an immigrant student in the United Kingdom.
Sade’s inspiration for the song is based on her father’s experience as an African immigrant/student in Britain. The video for Sade’s song “Immigrant” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd-oomCioPY) includes scenes from the arrival in Britain of the ship, Empire Windrush.
On June 22, 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in Essex, carrying 493 passengers from the Caribbean. In the aftermath of the second European tribal conflict (1939 to 1945), representatives from Britain journeyed to the Caribbean to encourage young able-bodied Caribbean people to immigrate to Britain to swell the ranks of workers there.
These immigrants were told there was employment waiting since there was “an acute labour shortage” in Britain at the time. Many of the young people who answered the call to immigrate had been involved in defending the “mother country” during the armed conflict fought almost entirely in Europe from 1939 to 1945.
In 2008, the Imperial War Museum in Britain commemorated the 60th year of the arrival of the Windrush with the “From War to Windrush” exhibit.
Visitors to the exhibit were informed:
“Approximately 16,000 men from the West Indies volunteered to fight for Britain in the First World War, and over 10,000 servicemen and women answered the call of the ‘Mother Country’ during the Second World War.
“Thousands more served as merchant seamen. From War to Windrush explores how, despite facing discrimination during their service, many black West Indian servicemen and women and civilian war workers returned to settle in Britain after the Second World War.”
Louise Bennett-Coverley immortalized the departure of large numbers of Jamaicans for Britain with her poem “Colonizing in Reverse”. The poem can be viewed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQaHdi6ydyc.
The Caribbean immigrants and their descendants now make up the majority of the community now known as “Black British.” When the passengers of the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain, their welcome was not what they had expected.
The British agents who journeyed to the Caribbean to encourage immigration may not have deliberately misled their targets, but they did not educate them about the reality of the White supremacist culture they would encounter in Britain (www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbNH4JBQiSY).
Later generations verbalized their experience, including Linton Kwesi Johnson with his dub offerings like the “Great Insurrection” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpypYcMe16I), “Sonny’s Lettah” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ls9pSdVFaJU), and “Inglan is a Bitch” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq9OpJYck7Y).
Several books documenting the experience of the Black British, which includes the so-called Windrush generation, written by their descendants and some immigrants who came after the Windrush generation, include: Small Island, by Andrea Levy; London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (Literature, Culture, and Identity), by Mike Phillips; Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips; and My Black British Experience Aired and Shared, by Richard Anthony Todd. Additional books include author Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation; Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures; and The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 1970s Britain.
The lived reality of Black Britons, similar to Africans who live in North America, is a mixed bag. There is a vast majority who suffer in the various systems, including the education, justice, health care, prison industrial etc., while a minority “make it” and become the people who are held up as examples during African Heritage Month in North America and Black History Month in Britain.
Knowing our history is important, as Marcus Mosiah Garvey said:
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world.”
We should never allow our history to be relegated to one month of the year. We are African, Black (or however we choose to define ourselves) every day of our lives.
We have contributed and continue to contribute to the society in which we live in our various ways, we have a glorious history (notwithstanding the 400 years of enslavement and subsequent colonization) and we should celebrate and be proud of who we are every day.