I Pity the Poor Immigrant

You may wonder at the title, unless you are a fan of Bob Dylan, as I am. This is the title of a lament. Dylan’s song is a harsh view of immigrants (or anyone else) who may have aspirations that turn into ashes. There are many interpretations to this song;  listen to it and figure it out for yourself. It comes from the John Wesley Harding album of 1967, a collection of rather bleak songs. When he recorded it, Dylan reportedly had all the lyrics in his head; no lyric sheets were used.

Bob Dylan in 1967. (Photo: internetmonk.com)

Does the singer and writer of this song feel compassion or resentment towards the “poor immigrant” – or a mixture of both? Does he wish the immigrant had never set foot in his country? Is there a bit of Old Testament judgment in there? It’s as if Dylan is saying: “Well, serves you right for wanting too much…” There is a quiet, almost resigned bitterness in almost every line. Dylan – himself the grandson of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants – describes a lonely, unlovable and unloved figure, whose desperate hopes will be crushed:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass

Immigrants may be disappointed. They may be the source of disappointment and anger. Nevertheless, they make their lives.

This song came to mind as I considered (and wrote about) the “Windrush Generation” story. It has shaken the unstable soil on which pre-Brexit British politics currently rests. The story developed piece by piece, gathered momentum, and resulted in the resignation of British Home Secretary Amber Rudd over the weekend. Now Prime Minister Theresa May, who was behind most of the manoeuvrings and constant tinkering with immigration rules over the years, is being described as “beleaguered.” 

Whichever way you look at it, British Prime Minister Theresa May had a lot to do with changes in immigration rules, resulting in the Windrush crisis. (Photo: Getty Images)

As the political bickering continues, we are mesmerised by a fearful peeling back of layer after layer of institutionally pinned racism (let’s call it for what it is). Actually, it’s more like the slow, but steady unpicking of a piece of complex embroidery. Disturbing details have emerged, of the subtle manipulation of laws and policies developed to bolster this mindset: For example, attempts to differentiate the treatment of “old” Commonwealth citizens (of “British stock”) and the “new,” less desirable ones. The destruction of the Windrush landing cards. Some of the revelations in the British media are relatively new developments. Others – anecdotes, declarations, speeches – are half-forgotten, hitherto unknown, or just floating gently to the surface. That is the way with British politics and society though. The veils are lifted, cautiously, once in a while – and fall again.

As William Faulkner said:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

We are living with it now, forever. Immigration (legal or illegal) is the incessant movement to and fro of human beings: scrambling over walls, pulling each other up; wading across wide rivers with their possessions held high over their heads; jumping through the surf into inflatable dinghies on lonely beaches; trudging across deserts; strapping themselves nervously into an airplane seat; standing in line while an official shuffles papers, processing human lives. Somewhere in the world, it is happening, every minute of every day. Whether they are called immigrants, migrants or refugees, it is all about movement, from one place to another. At one time in our lives, we, or our ancestors, have all been immigrants.

Syrian immigrants, almost all young males, line up to board a cruise ship in Greece that will accommodate them while their papers are processed, in 2015. (Photo: Getty Images)

And what of their lives, once the journey is over? Are the streets paved with gold? Is the grass greener? No one knows the answer to this question better than a Jamaican immigrant.

I am a native of that colonial power that now presides, benignly, over the Commonwealth. I married an immigrant thirty years ago. Over the years, I have heard so many immigrant stories. My mother-in-law, one of the Windrush Generation along with her late husband, during the fifties and sixties, took in arrivals from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. They were mostly single men. Every room in her tall, rambling North London house was rented out. The family always had to find space for one more weary, disoriented new arrival, anxious to find his feet. I have learned how hard it was – and how hard it remains, for that generation, now suffering insults and humiliation all over again in their later years. For the generations that followed, I sense the struggle for identity, purpose, recognition, understanding. As they say, the half has never been told: a hundred, thousand stories.

The perfect Oxford gentleman: but Enoch Powell set fears swirling among immigrants with his “Rivers of Blood” speech on April 20, 1968.

It is not only the 70th anniversary of the Windrush arrival (which might have been a reason for celebration as well as reflection, but is now clouded). 20th April, 2018 was the fiftieth anniversary of a speech made by British Conservative Member of Parliament Enoch Powell, called the Rivers of Blood speech. You can actually hear the recording of this speech – an ugly, fierce, fear-mongering diatribe that predicted hell and powder house if the black man was allowed to take over Britain:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

Very few younger Jamaicans would know of Enoch Powell; but those who were already living in and adjusting to life in the UK in 1968 – the Windrush Generation – building families, finding work, signing up for the National Health Service – must have felt chills when they heard it. Powell was actually very brainy; a fiery speaker, a classical scholar and a devout Anglican. Powell, a former Government minister, made the speech in opposition to the Labour Government’s Race Relations Act of 1968 at the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre. He was Shadow Minister for Defence at the time. He was fired from that position the following day by then Conservative leader Edward Heath. He remained an MP until 1974, however. A Gallup poll showed that three quarters of respondents sympathised with his position; there were protests against his sacking.

For some reason, on its 50th anniversary, the BBC – paid for by British taxpayers, including those same immigrants – decided to broadcast the Rivers of Blood speech, read by a well-known actor. What timing. What breathtaking timing.

But then, you see, this illustrates the point: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. It’s living with us, right now, nice and cosy.

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry was powered by producer and musician Dennis Bovell’s amazing dub sounds. (left in this picture).

I think this son of the Windrush Generation (who like my husband went to join his mother in England at a young age) should have the last word. He is the “father of dub poetry” Linton Kwesi Johnson. Now aged 65, he still has the acerbic tongue and a deep voice full of foreboding, as in Sonny’s Letter and Dread, Beat An Blood, with just a touch of quirky Jamaican humour thrown in.

The blood. The knife fights LKJ wrote about back in the 1970s still take place. In fact, London’s murder rate this year has reportedly been higher than New York’s. In his usual blunt manner, LKJ noted in a recent interview:

“But, right now, we are living through a time of reaction; the rise of Conservative populism. And some things simply won’t go away. I’m sure I’ll be crucified for saying this, but I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times. And, in spite of the progress that we have made, it’s there. It is something we have to contend with in our everyday lives.”

Nevertheless, the immigrant makes his life. As he must.

Young immigrants stand in line everywhere. Here they are at Chicago’s Navy Pier, waiting for guidance on a new federal program that would help them work legally in the United States and avoid deportation. This was in 2012. No doubt the rules have changed since then. (Photo: Associated Press)





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