Friday, May 4, 2012

Dartington Residency - Day Two

Up until this point I had not really explored other mediums to tell the other stories for my Mum; not just for the Mother that she never knew, but also the fact that she was a brown skinned woman growing up in the 1960's UK, that her father had come here as an immigrant, a professional milliner, and was part of the Windrush era of migrant settlers 'belonging' to the  British colonies. This story is  all to often overlooked as the Black presence in the UK is so taken for granted by younger generations. The truth is the presence of our grandparents and great-grandparents and the  contribution they make to British history and culture is woven into the fabric of post world war Britain, just so we - the present and future generations -  can be quite so flippant. 
However, when the Summer riots of 2011 kicked off around the country, the news abroad distorted the facts, blaring it was the 'young blacks' who were 'running' the riot. In the settling ash of this insurrection, I was commissioned  by Film Africa Festival to write a piece on John Akomphra's film Handsworth Songs in reflection of the  the 80's Birmingham's riots. As the film unfurled, suddenly, my Grandpa's and my Mother's settler experience gained sharper focus. I was numbed by the harsh reality of what their lives/existence must have been like in cold and not so welcoming England. 

So, in my quest to find other mediums to tell their story I looked to iconic musicians in Caribbean history to tell the story better for me.
Lord Kitchener is one of the most famous Calypsonians in Caribbean history. His songs documented social issues with complex parody of political and social events that is steeped in the tradition of West African satirical storytelling. I use two of his songs in Travelling Light, to highlight the struggles of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents  generations, those who came to the UK seeking their fortune as professionals in their fields, only to be relegated to menial employment in construction, social and health care-taking, and in the cleaning and transport services. Some had stories to tell about the atrocious housing conditions in Notting Hill, for example, cornered and harassed into paying extortionate of rates  rent and the racism they faced on a daily basis. The phrase "No Blacks. No Irish. No dogs" was not unusual signage put up in windows of accommodation
and bars around the
country post the second world war, when there wasn't much decent paid work about for anyone.
Local British citizens were unhappy with the decision the labour government during the late 40's and 50's took to import this massive influx of cheap labour and took their frustration to the streets in protest and in random acts of racial violence. It was comprehensible.  But the colonial presence of Africans, Indians and Afri-Caribbeans  in the UK goes back way beyond what is known as the "Windrush Era" and this story is only part of a British legacy we can still to this day see echoed in the employment of migrant workers, we  might notice on a daily basis but often overlook.
However, those West Indians of those sunny Caribbean Isles were also British citizens, ripe from the colonies. They came with an attitude of an earned right to be there - to contribute to rebuilding the "Mother Country" and seek their fortune.
Welcome to the sounds and lyrical fire of Lord Kitchener.
So now this all said, the way this information fed into Travelling Light was a revelation to me. I had become not only a chronicler of a personal story but the responsibility fell upon me with even more gravitas to highlight how black women struggled in the UK, to be the earners, to be mothers, to feel worthy to themselves, how to juggle the bruised esteem of their partners who could not find work or had to face another day of discrimination, along with protecting their children and not losing their entire beings in the melee of racial and sexist noise of the 50's - 70's.

This also got me examining exactly HOW I stand on the shoulders of my Grandma's and Mother's life experiences and move the crumpled and distorted representation of us into a more truth-telling light. To do this, I have to be clearer on what that Truth is. I have to be clear where to stand so that the shine of that truth reveals the human story of triumph over hardship fueled by human desire for betterment, for evolution,  for growth in the human capacity to endure and contribute to understanding and positive change at the same time. And, in the 'HOW TO STAND', there is a rejoining of the fractured generational legacy, there is a reinforcing of a broken bloodline, a pulling together of fragments to reunite the full picture so that  the 'I, me' culture, in this time of forced individualism, becomes the 'We' again of community - a loss of which is often complained about when speaking of the Black presence in the UK.

1 comment:

Vot said...

These signs were supposed to be all over London, yet this is the only photograph from the UK that I've ever seen. I suspect it is a fake. It looks to me like the sign is stuck on the outside of the window by an enterprising reporter.