I Could Have Been Among Prime Minister Theresa May’s Disinherited (Part 1): A Guest Post from Professor Bernard Headley


I am honored and pleased to share the first part in a two-part article, submitted by my friend Professor Bernard Headley, who has remained steadfastly focused on the plight of immigrants, including deportees, over the years. This is a personal story, as they all are: stories about people, families, fathers and sons and daughters. I wrote a piece about local reactions to the “Windrush Scandal” for Global Voices. Your thoughts and comments are welcome; please send feedback to Professor Headley at the email address below.

Young Caribbean men arrive in the UK. (AP Photo/Staff/Worth)

I could have been among Prime Minister Theresa May’s disinherited (Part 1)

Bernard Headley

(assisted by Kamal Headley)

Bernard Headley Ph.D.,  is a retired professor of Criminology, the University of the West Indies (U.W.I), Mona and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Justice Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Illinois. Author of several scholarly books and articles on crime and migration, he is a co-founder of the National Organisation of Deported Migrants (NODM), a Kingston-based NGO and social business enterprise.

Feedback: bernardheadley1@gmail.com.

If you, like me, were born or grew up in rural Jamaica in the immediate post World War II years, you would have in some way been close to the history of the male-led Great Migration to Great Britain from the island’s peasantry.

Your own life story, like mine, could perhaps have intersected with the stories of these brave, pioneering men. If so, the memory of those times makes it easy to connect vicariously with a now dispossessed Caribbean immigrant population. They are offspring of a generation—the so-called Windrush generation—of mostly Jamaicans who migrated en masse to Britain in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. They had migrated involuntarily with parents who had correctly believed that, as then citizens of Britain’s historical empire-colonial project, they and their families had the right to live and work in the British “mother country” as enduring citizens.  Presently, though, under two successive conservative Tory governments, these Windrush offspring, numbering several thousands, have been administratively subject to removal and deportation.

Looking back, had it not been for the seeming hard-headed obedience of my father to a central command of his newfound religion, my siblings and/or I could have been among these upended and near-stateless people.

Leaving Mount Carey

Everyone in my Mount Carey, St. James, the village of the late 1940s through early 1950s knew everyone else in the thirty or so long-standing, and extended, families that made up the base of the community.

The district at the time was being emptied of its able-bodied men. Practically every month one, two or even three males were leaving for England. Our small landmark Mount Carey Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA) was not immune from this exodus. Several of the Church’s dominant men—elders, deacons and youth leaders—said goodbye to their families.

I remember distinctly as a small child seeing the men from the Church stopping by our house in the early morning hours on their way to the Anchovy railway station. They were on their way to catch the morning train to Kingston, walking the near two miles to Anchovy. The departing men, sometimes in groups of two, clutching firmly their dulciminas∗, would stop to say sad goodbyes and have my mother offer a word of prayer for divine guidance and protection. On their way out, Mama would surreptitiously tuck into each man’s jacket pocket a five-shilling note. She would also hand them a bag filled with her homemade pastries for their back-to-back journeys ahead.

From Anchovy the men would travel on the train through the Jamaican countryside, taking in what would be for most of them the last sweeping view of their majestic island home. They would get off the train at the end of the line in downtown Kingston, and the next day walk the bruising, sun-hot distance over to the Queen Victoria Pier and board a ship for their near month-long journey, which usually was up to Birmingham.

Talk of migration would fill Mount Carey families with nervous apprehension. There certainly was not much to look for economically in the district. Small farm cultivation did not offer much for jobless men, and the meager incomes that they may have brought were not enough to feed growing children, and definitely not enough to give the children a shot at a good education. Going to Britain would be a tough, hard decision, but it would be a way out of persistent hardship and poverty.

Colour him love

On February 27, 1952, my father reached the age of forty-one years old. He had up to that point fathered five children. I was his firstborn of three boys in a well-guarded marriage to my mother, a devout, second-generation Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) woman who directed the choir and played the organ at the Mount Carey Church. She had insisted on my father’s conversion and baptism in her faith before marrying him.

Despite our hardships, Mama would entertain no talk of my father wanting to migrate to Britain. If he brought up the subject she would quickly, even angrily, cut him off. She was seeing what migration to Britain was doing to families. Only a few of the men had actually sent for their wives and children, which they had promised to do. A small number from within the Church had even gone over and started new families. More than anything else though my Mama felt deeply that our soft, gentle father could not handle the perils of England. As things got more desperate, she pledged to work even harder at turning her hands to things she did inside the home to bring in some sustainable income.

Queen Victoria Pier in the Windrush era.

My father, with no means for a sustainable livelihood, anguished every day over the deprived circumstances of his family: over his long-suffering wife, at the long hours she spent, late into the night, working at her home-baking “business” in order to make ends meet; and over his inadequately cared for children, the firstborn of his threesome frequently having to barefoot it for some distance to government primary school. His frank assessment of the situation brought him to a chilling decision point: he’d leave his wife and children to seek work in England so he could send home funds to support them! He began hatching a secret plan that he discussed with no one except in letters to our Uncle Windsor (my mother’s brother-in-law), who had left for Britain in the original 1948-50 Empire Windrush migration.

Uncle Windsor was encouraging my father to come up to Britain, even though his letters did not exactly glow with praises. The tone of his letters could be summed up in words that predated by a decade émigré dub-poet Linton Kwesi Johnson: Inglan is a Bitch — a daunting, unwelcoming, gruesome country.

Hardened in his younger years by cutting sugarcane in Cuba, and as a laborer in Venezuela’s oilfields, Uncle Windsor worked outdoor in Britain. In the bone-chilling cold, he laid trestles for the British railroads. He was in his fifties. The work was hard, his letters said, but employment and the money were sure.

“All you need to do, Allan”, the senior Uncle Windsor counseled, “is make sure your [British] passport is current, and that you bring with you a reference letter, preferably from a past employer. Come up first, by yourself, and you can bring up Eleanor (my mother) and the children later”.

 

 ∗ A dulcimina is an old-fashioned suitcase, or “grip.”

[Conclusion to follow]

 


7 thoughts on “I Could Have Been Among Prime Minister Theresa May’s Disinherited (Part 1): A Guest Post from Professor Bernard Headley

  1. Great article, Doc! Looking forward to reading Part 2. I can identify with much of what you have written, in that my parents were among those who responded to the call of “riches” in the UK. Perhaps one of my best life’s decisions was not joining my parents in the UK when they wanted me to. If I had, I might possibly have ended up without a profession as a result of having been denied opportunities that were available in Jamaica but not in the UK because of my perceived class and my colour. Instead of going to the UK as a 12 year old in 1963, I was invited to work there by the world headquarters of my church as a 27 year old ordained pastor in 1978.

    About 25 years ago, I was invited to write an article for a magazine in the UK as to whether Caribbean people had lost more than they had gained by going to Britain. Sadly, my conclusion was that they had. They had not gained much in terms of wealth, but many had lost their robust health, their culture, their positive spirit, and, in many cases, their children (as a result of not being able to discipline their children in the manner that they were used to, and not being home to guide their children when those children came home from school). I need not go beyond my own family, as my only sibling, who was born in the UK, lacks much of the grit, discipline and drive that were the hallmark of Jamaican country “picknees.” Was it worth it? That’s a question that can be debated for decades.

    D

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    1. Thank you so much for responding, Don! I am going to share your feedback with Professor Headley and you can contact him directly also at the email address in this post. I understand your feelings regarding Caribbean immigrants to the UK. Several of my relatives are. I also wonder, “was it worth it?” and also… how did it affect those left behind? “Grit” – ah, now that is an interesting word to use. It took considerable grit to get there, but… I do know what you mean.

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  2. An intriguing read…eager for the second part.

    It is a shame that the Windrush generation who bore much of the development in England during that era should have themselves and their posterity treated in such a way.

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  3. Very good human interest account of the push and pull factors that impacted the Windrush generation. In this account I am seeing Nettleford,s “Battle for space’. The role of empire in its imperial majesty continued the skills and brain drain from the periphery to the core that started with Atlantic slavery and intensified during World War 2. The lack of knowledge by the immigrants of the real intent of the colonizer who took advantage of the colonial lead, slavery inflicted peasantry and abject poverty on the colonized. This made any offer of employment through migration a ‘disguised’ viable option. Many went to England not knowing what to expect. This was similar to the slaves on a ship in the Middle Passage heading to an unknown that may be the worse of man’s inhumanity towards man.
    We await Bernad’s part two!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you found the article engaging, as I did. You can also share your thoughts with Professor Headley directly via his email address. I see it as West Indians (and to some extent other nationalities) being “used” as there was a shortage of labour after World War 2 and they simply needed more hands to rebuild the country. Not sure whether the term “brain drain” applied during this era, but it was also spurred by rural poverty at home. Well, and of course immigrants in general take risks – they take a chance and the vast majority “don’t know what to expect.”

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