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Windrush and the Windies: A Guest Piece by Cheryl Diane Parkinson

A Celebration of Caribbean British Identity

The ship, HMT Empire Windrush, famous for bringing over a generation of Caribbean people to Britain in June 1948, made history. The ship, carrying 492 passengers, became a symbolic status of the Windrush generation - many of them veterans of the Second World War. Britain had encouraged immigration from the Commonwealth countries, largely to help rebuild Britain. The passengers were promised prosperity and employment in return. And as the Caribbean people disembarked, they brought with them a culture that would forever change the face of Britain.

Heritage, ancestry and roots are vital to the Caribbean community. And yet these were historically denied to us. Without these things it is harder to understand who we are; how we have evolved and how we have flourished. However, those that would seek to eradicate our connection to our past would have us believe that we do not belong and that we should ‘go home.’ At the same time, we are reminded that we are a stolen people, without a language or culture and in fact, belong nowhere.

The relationship between history and identity with the Caribbean has not been an easy one. For too long the British history books blurred black identity with the atrocities of slavery: images of the black body being abused were seen in texts, the downtrodden soul seen as the sum of all of our parts. Black people were treated as having no language, no culture and no home of their own.

Yet in recent years there has been an unveiling of Britain's hidden black history, and as we approach the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush, we are proud to redress the imbalance and celebrate the historic event which helped shape our modern Caribbean British identity.

The HMT Empire Windrush, originally a German ship, arrived at the port at Tilbury. The immigrants brought with them art, dance, music and language. Caribbean sounds and seasoning enriched and developed the palate of Britain’s growing multicultural society. Writers like Sam Selvon immortalised the lyrical language of creole and patois in his books. He wrote of colourful immigrants arriving to a cold, grey British reception. He celebrated the carnival dancing, music and the unique identity of a people that very much had a history and a culture contradicting the British history books. Selvon’s books were a celebration of Caribbeanness and all we had to offer Britain - and a major part of this was cricket.

‘The Windies’, a nickname for the West Indian Cricket team, were a multinational cricket team representing the territories of the Caribbean. They were considered amongst the strongest Test teams from the 1960s, during which they were undisputed champions of the late 1970s to the 1990s. This game, invented by the English, was dominated by the Caribbeans. Speak to any West Indian (especially of the Windrush generation and those in the first generation after) and they will explain with flamboyant fever the importance of the game and its integral links to identity, pride and culture.

In CLR James’ text Beyond a Boundary (1963), James, a West Indian born cultural historian and political activist, linked the mastery of cricket to Caribbean culture. For James, the game was used to help forge and facilitate a unique cutting edge style of playing. The feeling of dissatisfaction and anger with how Caribbeans were treated propelled two generations of young Caribbeans giving their best to the game. Racist attitudes associated with the Caribbeans from the context of colonialism and Empire could be found on the cricket field - it is the mastery of cricket that helped to subvert some of these negative world views and propelled the game of cricket to more than ‘just a game’. The Windies emerged from international circles as skilled professionals who brought new methods which secured their supremacy in the much loved sport.

The Caribbean community has long understood that in order to learn from and pass down our history to our young, we need to utilise practices from the Caribbean oral tradition as well as others. Grandparents are a fundamental part in teaching the young about the past. Where parents are often caught up with the problems of day to day living, grandparents have the time and the wisdom to educate and share their stories - stories that teach moralistic lessons which stay with us.

This close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is a naturally occurring one and is beneficial to both. Grandparents can provide patience, stability and wisdom, as well as that much needed link to our historical roots. For example, the multi-million Disney film The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey is making history. Released in May 2023, Halle Bailey is the first black actress to play the mermaid Ariel. Astonishingly, as her grandfather watches her make history, he also has memories of watching his own father pick cotton in South Carolina. Bailey’s grandmother is reported to have, in her lifetime, picked tobacco - long ago activities associated with slavery and plantations. Halle Bailey’s grandparents provide that vital link between history and the modern world.

Within the book Last Girl In by Cheryl Diane Parkinson, it is the grandfather which passes down not only his love of cricket, but the synonymous connection of cricket and national pride of the Caribbean people. It helps the protagonist Kerry-Ann, as cricket helped the Caribbean people, to develop confidence, a pride in who they were and a sense of belonging, adding something positive to the rich historical tapestry of our past.

It has been 75 years since the Windrush generation - some grandparents today are a direct link to this important historical event that shaped the cultural face of modern Britain. And as we remember the HMT Empire Windrush, we remember our grandparents, we remember cricket and we remember the strength of our roots. And like Kerry-Ann in Last Girl In, we remember that we belong.

Last Girl In! by Cheryl Diane Parkinson published by Dinosaur Books is out now.


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