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The legacies of the Windrush Generation are threaded into the future of Britain

How ‘Windrush Futurism’ is empowering the descendants of Caribbean migrants to shape new identities.


June 22 2023, 13.10pm

When we talk about the Windrush Generation, we tend to look to the past. Today marks 75 years since the iconic ship docked at Tilbury, and there are still so many important conversations to be had about the legacies this generation has built over the last three-quarter century. The vast, integral societal contributions, the permanent imprint left on British culture, the foundational boulstering of British institutions including the fledgling NHS - many of these narratives are unreported and under-explored.  

Then there is the conversation about the hostility and racism the immigrants  faced then, and the ongoing Windrush Scandal that continues to impact the lives of their descendants now, two generations down the line. The government’s Windrush Compensation Scheme is failing victims of the government’s own abuse, adding insult to injury with belittling, long-winded processes; Human Rights Watch report revealed only 12.8% have been compensated so far. With so much unresolved injustice still to be reconciled, it can be hard to look forward. 

And yet, the narrative of Windrush is inextricably linked to the future - with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Windrush pioneers helping to shape a new British identity, carrying with them the lessons, learnings and legacies of those who came before them. 

Shouldering the responsibility

Menelik Shillingford is the chair of the National Windrush Museum’s Next Gen Development Council and a grandchild of Dominican migrants. He speaks frequently of the responsibility of the next generation, arguing that it is the job of the descendants to ensure that these legacies endure, that these histories are not forgotten footnotes, and that the cultural traditions of our elders - from music, to recipes, to rituals - are passed down. 

“If we don't pass these stories on, if we don’t learn the culture, learn the languages, the recipes, the dances, if we don’t understand all of that then it disappears and ends with us,” he says.

In return for helping to rebuild Britain in the wake of WWII, the Windrush pioneers were promised a better life, better opportunities, and a warm welcome. But we know that the actual welcome they received was unwaveringly hostile. As well as the racism and abuse, they were also blocked from renting safe and comfortable housing, prevented from taking jobs they were more than qualified for. This week alone, we learned that hundreds of people with chronic or mental illness were “unlawfully” returned to the Caribbean - often ripped from their families in the process. 

Decades later, migrants who had built their lives here are still being asked to jump through impossible hoops to prove their right to live in the UK. Most infamously, there was the cluster of abuse known collectively as the Windrush Scandal: Britons were unjustly deported, threatened with deportation, or barred from returning home after a holiday abroad. They were told there was no record of the landing cards that were collected when they first arrived, while evidence suggests the Home Office destroyed them.  

For the descendants, there is anger. Anger at the fractures in families caused by this hostile environment, anger at the neglected and forgotten histories, anger at the time lost in limbo with elderly family members falling ill or dying before their uncertain status was resolved. And then there are the intergenerational consequences, the trauma that is passed through bloodlines, woven into our DNA. These impacts are tangible and concrete, with social inequality showing up “in all life domains”, according to a 2022 study on the children of the Windrush Generation. Researchers found that this inequality is “pervasive, persistent, and strongly indicative of segmented adaptation.”  

“If you look back at the past and see how the Windrush Generation and the pioneers impacted this country in so many different ways, you also get a window into the future”

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Windrush pioneers are still grappling with the hurt experienced by the generations that came before them. It has the effect of making you feel stuck, unable to move forward while the injustices of the recent past still loom large over your family history. But there are practical attempts from younger Windrush descendants to redress the balance and finally move the conversation forward. 

Shillingford is an account manager at the London Chamber of Commerce. He dedicates much of his work to addressing racial inequalities in business and finance, including a recent report that resulted in millions of pounds worth of contracts being allocated specifically for diverse suppliers. He says it’s really important to celebrate these small wins.

“We can deal with the injustices of the past, in part, by being present, being determined, and having a voice uniting us,” Shillingford tells us. “But I think it is also really important not just to celebrate and to discuss, but also to look for tangible outcomes, real-world things that can be done to affect our economies, things that bring in capital to allow us to build infrastructure and pass it on to the next generation.”

The Next Gen Council has the opportunity to set its own agenda, and outline the issues that speak directly to the current and future descendants of Windrush. For Shillingford, it’s important to empower young people to speak about their own experiences of British and Caribbean culture with authenticity and honesty. He also wants to enthuse people about their history, reframing these narratives in a way that is more accessible.

“We want to tell those stories in a way that is palatable, understandable and relatable for the next generation,” says Shillingford. “The aim is to have them change their perception - rather than seeing the past as boring, or completely separate from their lives - so they can use that knowledge to better the community. My hope is that young people use those histories to allow him to understand what they need to do to carry on the story, to build within our community, to create bigger platforms, better infrastructure, and ultimately more influence in our futures.”

Looking to the future

Despite there being around 2,500 museums in the UK, there is currently no permanent space dedicated to the stories of Windrush. Dr Les Johnson is an academic and the founder of the National Windrush Museum, a campaign advocating for a fixed, physical home to celebrate and preserve the histories of this generation and their descendants. Dr Johnson coined the term ‘Windrush futurism’ after identifying the innovation and forward-thinking that characterised the attitudes of the first Windrush pioneers. He says the legacy of Windrush is a continuum that stretches forwards, as well as back. 

“If you look back at the past and see how the Windrush Generation and the pioneers impacted this country in so many different ways, you also get a window into the future,” Dr Johnson explains. “You will see how the current generation is having an impact as well, and the generations to come.” 

Dr Johnson describes the first Windrush arrivals as possessing a level of “cultural entrepreneurship” that brought about pioneering thinking and proactive change. He believes this generation was galvanised by the need to overcome. They had to innovate, create, and build a future for themselves in order to survive the hostility they found when they docked in Britain.  

“Take sound systems,” says Dr Johnson, referring to the super-amplified mobile collections of speakers, turntables and generators that are an integral part of Jamaican culture - transplanted to the UK and featured heavily at Caribbean festivals like Notting Hill Carnival. “Sound systems developed as a result of the innovation that primarily Caribbean migrants had to build in order to develop their music, their own songs, and their own sense of being in the world,” says Dr Johnson. “They couldn’t get into the regular music industry, so they created something entirely new. 

“Through hybridity, through technology, through travel, through social media, the descendants of Windrush will be able to reform and reshape these new identities in the future” 

Another example Dr Johnson points to is pardner schemes. Pardner is an informal, community-based savings scheme that functions as a type of rotating savings club. In a pardner, a group of people pay into a common fund over several weeks or months and at regular intervals, one person from the group receives the full payout - a rota lets you know when to expect your payment. Many Caribbean migrants relied on this kind of scheme after being turned away from UK banks, blocked from opening accounts, depositing savings or taking out loans. Being shut out of traditional banking systems stifled growth for the Windrush generation, and made life riskier as people had to keep their cash hidden in mattresses. 

“My parents used this scheme, they ‘dropped pardners’ in order to save the money to send for me so I could join them in England when I was a little boy. We had to be entrepreneurial, we had to be innovative. And we did that within our communities. We have developed all of these forward-thinking branches of self expression in order to literally survive.” 

While innovation is about creating something new or improved to address a need, Dr Johnson explains that futurism is about envisioning and anticipating the future, exploring potential scenarios and trends. Beyond a focus on practical applications, futurism is more about conceptualising and imagining possibilities. Dr Johnson sees evidence of this kind of futurism in the visual identities of Caribbean migrants and their descendants. Within the many varied and creative expressions of self found within Caribbean British communities, Dr Johnson says there are links that thread past and future generations together.

“I call it cultural visualisation. We use visual identities - from our hairstyles, to our dress, to the way we flex - as a way of expressing our culture, in so many unique ways,” he says. “Take the various machinations and expressions of Black hair, for example, the Afro, plaiting or braiding, locs, and so on. Those styles have now been appropriated by the wider culture, in fact, the global culture, in a way that is really indicative of the type of innovations that loop. 

“I’m not only interested in the tangible expressions of culture and heritage, but also the intangibles. What I mean by this is the way we use our words, and the ways in which those words have been taken up into mainstream culture, our movement, the way that we ‘style it out’. The ways in which we have constantly had to invent, on the fly.”

When it comes to Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, Dr Johnson is excited to see how these latter generations will adopt and interpret these cultural expressions: “Through hybridity, through technology, through travel, through social media, the descendants of Windrush will be able to reform and reshape these new identities in the future.” 

Specifically, Dr Johnson explains that young descendants demonstrate futurism through embracing new technology, such as digital media and AI: "They showcase digital savviness through game tech and adaptability to emerging technologies like VR," he says. "They also exhibit an entrepreneurial mindset, exploring innovative startups and disruptive ideas.

"These generations may actively engage in social and cultural activism, advocating for equality, sustainability, and climate action. Moreover, they celebrate diversity and promote inclusivity, recognising the value of multiculturalism and striving to create an accepting future for different ethnicities, cultures, and identities."

The preservation of historical narratives is one part of the equation, but equally important is the ability and willingness to interpret those stories and apply them to current and future realities. Dr Johnson believes in pluralism, meaning everybody has their own sense of future determination. 

“I think it’s fair to say that Millennials and Gen Z have a substantially different mindset to that of previous generations,” suggests Dr Johnson. “There is so much more freedom in terms of where they might want to live, how they want to live their lives.”

The question for Dr Johnson is to what extent the cultural cues transmitted through a reflection of our past matter to younger generations: “Do they think these things are important?” he asks. “And if they do, to what extent are these generations making inroads to take action on that? Do they think that it's important to pass those things on to their children, for example?

“It's very difficult to say whether they should have a sense of responsibility to the past or not, however, I do believe that by reflecting and learning from the past, we can learn to move into the future.”

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