Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land

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Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land sidesteps reductionistic or didactic discourse, instead offering viewers concrete and politically engaged routes into a complex history. The British Library brings us a commendably detailed account of the history of what has become known as the Windrush Generation. It is an account which acknowledges this history as one defined by oppression, racism and resistance.

The exhibition begins, rightly, with a discussion of slavery and colonialism. Slavery in the Caribbean is key to contextualising the British state’s treatment of the Windrush Generation since the 1940s, and to understanding the racism that enabled British capitalism’s birth and facilitates its continuation.

A variety of media is instrumentalised to examine Caribbean slavery, including 1773 documentation of a slave auction in Tobago, and a copy of an English liberal publication criticising the British state’s brutal suppression of the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in post-slavery Jamaica. The finely engraved Robert Morden map invites a historical, cartographic exploration of ever-shifting imperialistic, geopolitical hegemonies as sites of domination and trade.

The second section skims over the British West Indian labour unrest of 1934-39, which consisted of radical strikes and protests, strengthening burgeoning anti-colonial movements. This is followed by visual, textual, and audio-visual accounts of Caribbean presence in the Second World War. This sequence presents a naive, quasi-nationalistic conception of black people’s presence in the British war effort, inherently a site of exploitation and imperialism, as a movement towards racial equality. However, this is mitigated by more radical discussion of the League of Coloured People, whose journal, “The Keys”, is displayed.

Also on display is the original 1948 “Here to work” broadcast script from the day of the Empire Windrush’s arrival, in which the newsreader expresses concerns about the arrival of immigrants. This document, among a grouping of artefacts, illustrates the way the British establishment has always treated the Windrush Generation as though it was not explicitly invited by the British government (following the 1948 Nationality Act).

Despite having had their indigenous histories, identities, and traditions systematically replaced with colonial notions of Britishness, Caribbean migrants in Britain were never allowed to be British.

We view the famous footage of calypsonian Lord Kitchener singing “London is the Place for Me”. Having just disembarked from the Empire Windrush, he sings of Britain as his “lovely…mother country”. Perhaps he is being sarcastic, or perhaps he has yet to witness the systemic racism that faces Black British people.

The use of video in the exhibition works well as a departure from the non-durational media shown. The silent footage of 1959 racist murder victim Kelso Cochrane’s funeral shows the 1,200 working class people who attended it, both black and white, uniting against fascism and institutional police racism.

The poetic works of Black British people are well represented. A handwritten copy of Benjamin Zephaniah’s seminal poem “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us” is on display, demonstrating that decades after Cochrane’s murder, state endorsed racism still kills.

The final display contains two photographs from the 1977 Battle of Lewisham, a historic victory of anti-fascists against the National Front, where a strong united front consisting of the SWP, the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism, trade unionists, anarchists, and members of the local black community arrested the passage of the fascists through Lewisham.

Opposite is footage surrounding the recent Windrush scandal. The positioning of this video alongside documentation of traditions of fighting systemic racism helps to contextualise the recent scandal as part of deep, historical, hegemonic state racism, which must be fought today as it was in 1977.