In the name of truly interspersing our tales of traversing the Atlantic in the opposite direction as British Caribbean black women in 1958 and 2012 respectively, I thought I’d share some of my adventures before revisiting her experiences. But I think it’s about time for Granny P (aka my maternal grandmother) part 2. If you missed part one, head to it here.
So how did she even end up in England is one of my favourite questions. When she emigrated from Barbados to start afresh on the other side of the Atlantic she was the first person in the family to emigrate by choice for a while as far as we know. Both her mother and grandmother (my great- and great-great grandmothers respectively) had been born and died in the same parish that we believe the family had lived in since we arrived in bondage from Africa.
Granny’s mum (my great-granny, known simply as ‘Mama’) had a corner shop and her mum, Elvira Clarke, had been a cane cutter (back when job descriptions were self-explanatory). Granny told me once that all she remembers of her own grandmother was a red headscarf she always wore, and the cutlass slung over her shoulder as she walked to and from the cane field daily. One of those times I harrassed her for info which she didn’t mind sharing, taking her back to her memories of her own childhood.
Granny P’s formative years were spent in 1930s Barbados, in the small but lovely parish of St. Phillip. (I imagine. I know 1990s onwards St. Phillip but I’m sure it’s always been the pleasant place it is now…and no one’s ever told me otherwise). Sugar production was big business in Granny P’s youth; surprisingly for me, she remembers when every parish had seven or eight sugar mills and everyone had a job. My surprise was that rather than associate sugar mills with the legacy of slavery, she remembers full employment in post-slavery pre-independence colonial Barbados. But old people can be unpredictable like that and Granny P is no different.
That said, under the colonial rule of the British, depression in the heart of empire resonated. Many of the Caribbean islands were in upheaval throughout the 1930s; strikes and increasingly militant trade unionism were common in response to generations of general neglect following the abolition of slavery. I imagine. Dismissed at the time for not being pure class revolts, this was the era of Jamaica’s Busta for exactly that reason; the plight of workers in the Caribbean also involved fighting racism and colonial rule. Granny isn’t into party politics, but she’s a sharp lady and would no doubt have overheard some interesting conversations as a child growing up at the end of empire.
And then came WWII. While the people weren’t virtually starved as they were in the French Caribbean (as food grown was export-only leaving the people with zilch), as with many of the increasingly troublesome colonies, ‘family’ squabbles were put to one side for the sake of defeating Hitler, fascism and…racism? Mind just pondered on that for a minute…stay with me, I’ll carry on. Caribbean men and women were deeply involved in the war effort, check out the Ministry of Defence’s We Were There exhibition if you don’t believe me. (And write to your secondary school’s history department, I know you did WW2 to death if you grew up in Britain.) I’d be lying if I said I knew what Granny P ‘did in the war’, but she was 17 in Barbados when it ended so I can cut her some slack.
When the SS Empire Windrush arrived in Southampton in 1948, bringing Lord Kitchener’s ‘London Is The Place For Me’ vibes and my granny’s peers, Granny P wasn’t on it. She was settling down in Barbados with my granddad. My oldest uncle had been born, and four more children would be born in the following decade. Granddad was quite a catch and the mile-wide grin in Granny’s wedding pic indicates she knew it when she married him. He was a star cricketer; people still talk about him, and still lament that he never played for the West Indies…if he hadn’t gone to England… An athletic six footer, he was also a warm, funny, and charming man. At least he was to his granddaughter, and his boss’ kids (that story is kinda random, read here). Granny and he worked on the same plantation; he was a driver for the manager, and my granny worked as a maid.
Granny doesn’t recall a Eureka! moment, or even having a burning desire to go to England. She emphatically told me repeatedly that she didn’t know anything, anything about England before she got there, except that they had jobs.But suddenly, ‘everybody’ seemed to be going, so granddad and Granny P went too. So they left. I really hate to state the obvious, but despite having no expectations of England, which she insists is true, it still managed to disappoint.
First off, there were no bright lights of London to gaze upon starstruck. Granny arrived in Birmingham. The second city. As underrated a place as I believe it to be, I think it’s fair to call it a distant second. And that’s now. The picture granny paints of the post-war Birmingham she arrived to was grim. A sort of hyper-industrialised Dickensian image of huge grey buildings, choking black smoke, and thick thick coats. Having seen Lionel Ngakane‘s Jemima + Johnny filmed in 1966, I can well imagine it. Despite my love of Brum’s chirpy and friendly inhabitants, the way granny tells it, the only thing colder than the people back then was the weather.
Her memories are so incredibly painful that I can’t help but wonder if for her the two became synonymous with England; cold place, cold people. For much of our chat, we returned to these themes. The weather she could talk about. With amazing clarity she remembered standing once at a bus stop in coat, hat, scarf and gloves; wrapped up super warm. And yet feeling freezing cold. And then, she felt something like a knife cut from under her right ear, down her neck to the middle of her back. So much pain. And it was just cold. She cited that as her worst memory of England when we talked about her migration experiences 50 years later.
The people she wouldn’t talk about this time. But in an earlier effort, I remember asking her about her co-workers in the ice cream factory. They didn’t talk to her. Like ever? (I could never let an answer be) No. And if they did, she leaned in and looked me straight in the eye, it would only be when no one was around or they couldn’t be seen. And it would only be about work. My widened eyes reflected my stunned silence. You doh know nothing, she said, and began a good long rant to herself. It involved ‘not easy’ and ‘you think’ and her kissing her teeth, her voice’s pitch and speed increasing rapidly as she asked rhetorical questions of me and herself while returning to her crotcheting.
I’d love to tell you what she’d said in detail but I missed most of it cos I was still processing having a job in England where all of your white colleagues ignore you. At the time I was in school, and I’d been one of three black and 6 non-white girls in a class of 23. I loved our class, but quickly worked out that if all the white girls stopped speaking to me one day, I would probably like it a lot less. Now I’m older and I’m usually the one black person in my team…that would definitely make for a very lonely time at work. It was hard enough having longstanding beef with my boss in a small team. Although it explains why the black woman she made friends with there is my auntie’s Godmother, and they’re still friends to this day.
Funnily enough, now that I’ve crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction, I’ve become the majority. All of my colleagues and most of my team are black, except for a white girl my age, Melissa, who I’ve befriended, and an older Welsh lady. As I gossip with Mel about work, it strikes me that people who are unfriendly to her, are nice to me; things she’s had to do on her own, colleagues bent over backwards to help me with. It could be that they took me under their wing because my French was nowhere near as good as hers and she could sort herself out. Or it could be my cheeky London charm. Or it could be that I’m black, English and therefore not a hated ‘metropolitain(e)’ i.e a white person from mainland France. She isn’t really, but her native speaker French betrays a close proximation which still generates suspicion rather than warmth.
My reflections reminded me my year in Thailand; my lovely colleague/housemate/bestie was blonde haired and blue eyed and was never entirely comfortable with the adulation she received on account of her straight nose. She also wasn’t delighted be to be considered sexually available by random men because ‘blonde hair means free sex’ as she discovered. Other than a rather painful incident, I had no idea I was on the receiving end of arguably less favourable treatment on account of my broader nose and non-blonde hair. But I digress…
And what of building a home? The now infamous ‘No Irish, No Niggers, No Dogs’ signs were prevalent in my Granny’s day and the perhaps equally infamous slum landlord Peter Rachmann was in his heyday when she got to England. She and my granddad managed to find lodgings which still put a tremor in Granny P’s voice to this day. The landlord was an Asian chap, offering one bedroom, in a house shared with 3 other couples, all also from Barbados. This last part I’m imagining was more ‘needs must’ than a question of choice. What with not being able to simply pick a place within budget like me and my young renting friends do (aforementioned signs on available lodgings preventing such a course of action), word of mouth would keep a new arrival off the street. Granny hated that house though. Sharing bathroom, and kitchen with people you don’t know, whose habits you don’t necessarily appreciate…she shook her head disapprovingly at the memory when she recalled it a whole half century later. Those ‘people’ became friends in time, but arrival at that house in Sparkhill, Birmingham was with a bump it was clear. So they saved. Fervently. And after 5 years, they were able to move out because they’d saved enough to buy a house.
Granny P’s arrival was hugely different from mine. While she left her family behind in 1958 with the promise of a job, I didn’t make any preparations to leave until I had a job to come to. While she travelled with her life partner, I made the move all on my J’s. Finally, while she received a thoroughly frosty reception from England, I was showered with warmth: there was literally a heatwave my first week here, and both my landlady and boss had offered to pick me up from the airport. I was made to feel welcome.
Given that I’m only 3 months into my new life on the other side of the Atlantic, I don’t know if in 50 years’ time I’ll have a curious granddaughter harrassing me about when I moved. I don’t know how my time here will impact my life, nor how I will feel about it as an experience in its own right. I don’t even really know how long I’ll be here for. But I do know that I’m not the first woman in my family to recreate her world and live to tell the tale. I can only hope it’s a fabulous one!