Children of Windrush: Mica Paris, Jay Blades, Lenny Henry and more reflect on heritage and identity
To mark the 75th anniversary of Windrush, we revisit interviews with prominent Black Britains from our Letter To My Younger Self series.
by: Jane Graham, Adrian Lobb, Steven MacKenzie, Andrew Burns
22 Jun 2023
On 22 June 1948, 492 Caribbean people were brought to Tilbury Docks, Essex, in the UK, on the Empire Windrush ship. Those Windrush immigrants helped rebuild the UK economy in the wake of World War II. Celebrated annually, Windrush Day recognises their contribution.
Each week we ask famous figures to reflect on how their upbringing shaped the people they are now. For those with connections to Windrush, how their heritage influenced their identity and ambitions is a subject that frequently comes up. To mark the 75th anniversary of the ship’s arrival, we’ve brought together what some of those interview subjects have had to say to us in recent times.
My grandparents were very proud Jamaicans. They came over to the UK on the Windrush. They raised me in South London and I grew up in the church. I went seven days a week, it was very intense. So my childhood was full of lots of music and lots of Jesus. Pentecostal churches are very much community-based, and as I could sing, I was the star of the church from a very early age.
My first experience of even thinking about race was when I saw the TV show Roots, when I was about nine. We were all glued to it. But as a child, I just didn’t think about it much at all. Our family was very mixed. Jamaican people are very, very multicultural normally, because Caribbean countries are very mixed. At school there was a big mixture – Indian, Scottish, Irish, everybody. That’s multicultural Britain. So as a kid, I didn’t experience racism. But I have experienced it in my whole career.
I grew up on a Cardiff council estate but if you’d asked the 16-year-old me where he was from, he would have said Jamaica. I was brought up as a Jamaican and I only associated with Jamaicans. To me exotic food was British food. It was only in my late teens, wearing a Welsh vest and having a Welsh pride about my racing that I recognised Welsh as my primary nationality.
I’m a child of Windrush. My parents were part of the Windrush generation. They came over here with their hopes and their dreams and their culture – most importantly – and basically got through by denying their roots, completely assimilating. They were invited here after the Second World War to help rebuild the country and us, their kids, saw this wasn’t working out; our parents were getting screwed. We were looking at America, the messages of black power, black and proud, the Black Panthers, who spoke so much to me. That, coupled with the growing reggae culture, made us mad as hell and we weren’t going to take it any more.
Where I grew up in Hackney we had black, white, Asian, everything. But I was one of the first wave of black kids at school and I got called loads of different names and I didn’t know what they meant. But I’ve always felt there was no point getting angry. Why should I return hate with hate? You return hate with what’s really inside you and what’s really inside you is love. You are a special person, and as soon as you start to believe that, no external force can influence it.
The only reason my name is Harewood is because of slavery. My great, great, great, great grandfather was enslaved by the Harewood family. That’s powerful and very deep. It is difficult history. But now my portrait will hang in Harewood House in York and something’s telling me that’s important. I’ve been on this journey about my identity and who I am.
The initiative Debbie and David Lascelles started at Harewood House stemmed from a comment in my documentary [1,000 Years A Slave] that every figure in every painting was either a horse or a posh white person. Trying to redress the artistic balance and create a conversation is brave, because it is uncomfortable. People get defensive when discussing that history because it brings up feelings of shame and grief. But this forces you to. We off-shored our racism and brutality to the Caribbean. So let’s have a national discussion.
I grew up in Jamaica with my two older sisters. It was a loving home, with my grandmother looking after us. I left when I was seven but I’ll always be Jamaican in my roots, as much as I feel very British now. My father came to Britain to work, my mother was a nurse. We had always been told the streets of England were paved with gold.
We arrived at Gatwick Airport and it wasn’t quite what we expected. We didn’t see any trees! It was summer when we arrived and playing outside was great. Until it snowed for the first time. We ran outside shouting. “Snow, snow, snow!” Then we picked it up and it was, “Woah.” Our fingers started to burn. That was a big shock. I got racism from my first day at school. I was one of the very few black pupils. Kids are cruel. But I was tough and I coped. I had a few fights. I learned to run home very fast at the end of the school day. I think I owe those people something for my future success!
I came to England when I was 11, a peasant boy from Jamaica. My sister and I had been looked after by my maternal grandmother in Jamaica. That was the happiest time of my life. She was a darling, a God-fearing woman. She treated me with so much love. I learned all my folk culture from her ghost stories, folk songs, riddles and the spirituals she sang to herself. She was key to my upbringing. It was sad leaving. But I was looking forward to being with my mother. I adjusted as young people do. I made friends with English guys at school, I was trying to fit into British society. It wasn’t easy for the Windrush generation. The atmosphere was quite hostile. I come from a very poor family, and it was drilled into us from an early age that the only way to improve yourself is through education.
I was always aware of my parents’ roots. I remember in cold snowy Bolton, we would always have the cricket on the radio listening to West Indies games. And whenever Dr No came on TV, and it came to the famous scene when Ursula Andress came out of the sea, my mum would say they filmed that on the beaches of Negril, in the same parish that my family are from.
I first went there when I was about seven, on a family trip. My parents were going back for the first time to the village in Westmoreland, in the south-western tip of Jamaica. I remember really missing my friends and really missing football. I was really hot and sweaty and was getting eaten by mosquitoes. But the flight and experience of travel I remember enjoying. And the idea that my parents came from a place that was far away, yes, maybe that did sort of subliminally sink into my consciousness and make me feel like I wanted to get out there and see the world, experience different foods and cultures and all that kind of stuff. And as a result, that sense of feeling part of Britain, but at the same time, feeling slightly different – particularly being black of course – perhaps meant that my horizons were always going to be a little bit broader, a little bit wider.
My mother left me in Jamaica when I was quite young, so until I came here when I was nine, I was brought up by my grandmother, who I was very close to. After she died, I came to England, but because I’d been so young when my mother left it was like meeting her for the first time. And meeting my younger siblings, who were much, much younger than me. That was all very strange. As the eldest of four in our household, a lot of responsibility for my younger siblings fell on my shoulders. So I was always worrying about what my mother thought, making sure I didn’t get myself into trouble. I was always trying to do the right thing.
I’m a black man, how can you not be politically engaged? From day one asking questions – how and why? As a young child, you are asking that question from a very early age. I think a lot of people are politicised very early, because you have certain questions about your existence. So of course, I was engaged and I am engaged. It evolves over time. But even the people who are apparently on your side, you often end up very disappointed with in terms of politics and politicians.
The only thing the British offered to build in Jamaica was a prison. They didn’t offer to build a university, they offered to build a prison. The irony of that! At certain points one has to talk about compensation. So let’s be moral, let’s be correct. People have to be compensated for slave labour that was never paid for.
My family came to Manchester from Barbados in the late ’60s. Their working-class values made me who I am today. We never had much money. Before I was a DJ, I learned my trade as a scaffolder, before that as a painter and decorator, and I stacked tins of beans before that. I was a wedding DJ for 10 years. I knew I had to work hard if I wanted to buy records. I’ve never owed anyone any money. My first exposure to music came from my father. Like many West Indian or Barbadian families, we had a lot of parties at home. My dad religiously bought singles and shared his love of music with everyone. It was anything from funk to reggae to country, from James Brown to Dolly Parton to Marc Bolan. I think it’s natural that I took such an avid interest.
The recent treatment of Windrush-era immigrants doesn’t surprise me. People are not taught about the contribution these people made or the enthusiasm with which they came. Those people to my mind are heroic. They put up with so much but maintained an affection for this country. They became invisible because their contribution was never acknowledged in the first place. The Windrush generation came, in the main, as adults who had grown up in the Caribbean. There is a difference between that and children who were brought here by their parents. I was one of them. One of the things that is frightening as a child is that you see that the people you took to understand the world actually don’t – because they have come to somewhere strange too. That is scary for a child because the adults become children within the new environment.
I was a working-class kid from a big family. And the ways out of that environment were very clear if you were black and poor. It is sport or it’s showbusiness or it’s music, or it’s crime, you know? My way out was showbusiness. I somehow knew that if I could be funny and make my friends laugh, that could be my way out and I should cling to this life raft with all my might. But the kind of comedy I was doing for my friends was very overt and loud, but in a Jamaican household, the humour was very different. My family had a very dry, deadpan humour.
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