A 2018 crackdown on the UK migration system brought again into question the citizenship rights of thousands of Afro-Caribbean migrants that arrived in Britain more than 60 years ago 1. Named the Windrush generation after the “Empire Windrush” — one of the first ships that carried West Indians across the Atlantic in the post-war period — the history of these colonial migrant’s quest for recognition as Black Britons goes back to the very moment they arrived at Tilbury Docks with firm convictions of attachment to the “Mother Country” (p. 4) and making assertions as the popular “London is the place for me”. The historian Kennetta Hammond Perry has found in the lyrics by the Trinidadian singer and Windrush passenger Lord Kitchener, the title for a book that recovers the symbolism of the Windrush moment to examine post-war race politics and the transformation of notions of citizenship in Britain as a consequence of the new arrivals’ claims for “belonging within the imperial body politic” (p.4).
In London is the place for me, Hammond Perry “unearths alternative narratives” (p. 3) about the migrants’ travels by analysing the newcomers’ perceptions upon arrival, the challenges they faced while trying to settle in a hostile and racially divided society as well as their political mobilization against racial discrimination. While following the struggle of Black Britons for recognition, the author does not lose sight of the political debates around race and citizenship that unfolded in post-war Britain, which also resonated across other European empires on the brink of decolonization. Drawing on a wide range of sources —parliamentary records, periodicals, documents published by Black political movements and campaigners, private correspondence, poems or songs —Hammond shows how tensions unfolded in the British society around racial questions through particular anecdotes and actor-centred approaches.
Throughout the six chapters, the author takes heed of the events and circumstances that made of the Windrush generation a turning point in the history of Black politics in Britain. The book starts looking for the historical genealogies of Black Britons’ claims for citizenship as early as the end of the 18th century. The first chapter examines ideas of subjecthood and discourses of belonging that aroused with the abolition of slavery (1833) in the British West Indies. The author provides several examples showing that the dialectics of inclusion and exclusion 2, were also in place when it came to imperial constructions of emancipation and freedom. The shared but differentiated discourses of colonial authorities and metropolitan policy-makers were reappropriated and reshaped in the Caribbean colonies in an attempt to bolster their own newly recognized prerogatives.
Hammond Perry devotes the second chapter of the book to analysing the meanings attributed to the very act of migrating, defined as another claim-making channel, which allowed Afro-Caribbean travellers to keep “reimagining the conditions of subjecthood, reordering boundaries of the imperial body politic, and reconfiguring the racial contours of the British citizenship” (p. 49). Besides individual choices informed by collective visions of imperial belonging, pull and push factors such as employment constraints in the Caribbean economies and the post-war shortage labour in Britain are pointed as the major causes for the mobility of significant numbers of West Indians across the Atlantic. Siding with previous literature that tends to mystify the uniqueness of the Windrush episode 3, the author acclaims the singularity of this “unprecedented movement of choice by self-selected individuals” (p. 59), what inevitably raises questions about earlier migration movements of West Indians to Britain as well as to other destinations like Florida (US) or comparisons with the arrival of other migrant communities to the UK in the same period.
However, what did indeed distinguish West Indian migrants was the paradox they were confronted with, an argument the author explores in detail. As full citizens of the Commonwealth — status recognized to anyone born in the empire by the 1948 British Nationality Act— they were theoretically entitled to move and settle in the UK, however the realities they faced upon arrival did greatly differ from legal provisions. Discriminatory housing restrictions, poor living conditions or limited access to employment opportunities evinced domestic political and social incongruity and posed a challenge to the ideal of a unitary and egalitarian Commonwealth that underpinned the transformation of the British Empire into a sort of morally superior global player in the context of decolonization and Cold War.
It is precisely this evocation of a praiseworthy multiracial society that constitutes the thread for a third chapter focused on the national and international reactions to the 1958 race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill that called into question the “mystique of British anti-racism” (p. 100). Media outlets, telegrams from foreign offices and discourses from Caribbean officials show how different actors casted serious doubts on Britain’s racially liberal values while the British establishment struggled to portray the events as isolated episodes conducted by a gang of thugs.
Although court ruling on this particular issue served to boil down international criticism and preserved the mystique for some months, societal and political tensions increasingly escalated at the end of 1950s and early 1960s, hence triggering a period of intense contestation that mobilized grassroots organizations as well as renowned figures of a broader African and Black transnational diaspora.
The running theme of activism is analysed in different cases and periods in the second half of the book. In chapter four, Hammond’s reading of the arrangements leading to the funeral services for Kelso Cochrane on June 6, 1959 reflects the unfolding of “public and collective politics of mourning” (p. 150), which raised awareness and encouraged a more direct and coordinated political action among the black community. Digging deeper into this particular driver of contentious mobilization, the author puts flesh on the debates about the emergence of ethnic consciousness 4, proving that it did not simply result from a daily encounter with racist structures or manifestations but was animated and carefully articulated by experienced activists who transformed Cochrane’s death into “a requiem to other violated, disenfranchised, objectified, and oppressed Black populations across the African Diaspora” (p. 152).
The transnational ties of Black/African activism figure also prominently in the opposition towards the racial politics of immigration controls, as featured in chapter five through the examples of the Afro Asian Caribbean Conference (AACC) and the Committee of Afro-Asian Caribbean Organizations (CAACO). Adding to the dissenting voices of officials and parliamentarians, Hammond pays special attention to the endeavours of grassroots organizations and renowned figures in the struggle against imperialism and White supremacy — like the communist activist Claudia Jones — which contributed to unveiling the implications of a bill aimed at curbing migration flows that threatened thousands with deportation. Although activists’ achievements are a central part of this book, Hammond makes also room for a critical analysis of the contradictions and ruptures that emerged within collective movements. Thus, chapter 6 reconstructs in detail the competing agendas and clashing political manoeuvres within the Black leadership of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), a prominent pressure group lobbying for policy reform in the mid 1960s. Hammond brilliantly traces the organization’s debates around intra-racial dynamics, a feature that elucidates “a broader ongoing struggle to actualize a vision of citizenship for Black Britons, one that extended well beyond campaigning against racial discrimination” (p. 228).
By placing metropolitan London at the centre of her narrative — as migrants’ destination or main setting for racial riots and advocacy campaigns — and assuming the extension of such an analysis to the British nation as a homogeneous whole, the author overlooks local nuances and the particularities of domestic connections in other cities and regions exposed to the same migration wave in the very same period 5. Furthermore, despite touching upon the issue of black feminities vis à vis black masculinities further elaboration on the position of women in the black migrant communities referred in the book as well as in processes of collective advocacy would have enriched an already brilliant account on the transnational and multi-faceted perspective of race politics. London is the place for me contributes from a historical point of view to an interdisciplinary debate that stretches beyond academia and still reverberates in contemporary societies.
1 Amelia Gentleman, Immigration scandal expected to spread beyond Windrush group, in: The Guardian online, 25.04.2018.
2 Frederick Cooper / Ann Laura Stoler (eds.), Tensions of Empire. Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, Berkeley 1997.
3 Trevor Phillips / Mike Phillips, Windrush. The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. Harper Collins, London 1998.
4 Winston James, Migration, Racism and Identity. The Caribbean Experience in Britain, in: New Left Review 1 (1992) 193, p. 15–55, p. 27; Clive Harris / Winston James (eds.), Inside Babylon. The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain, London 1993.
5 John Belchem, Before the Windrush. Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool, Liverpool 2014.