Author Roy Francis chronicles the ambition that drove thousands of Caribbeans to migrate to Britain, and asks what the future holds for their descendants
On 22nd June 1948, a boatful of Caribbean people arrived in Britain on an old Second World War carrier, The Empire Windrush. They came to start a new life and on this, the 75th Anniversary of its landing, it’s perhaps a good time to take stock, think about their legacy, and look at some of the difficulties we as Caribbean people are facing in Britain today.
It was ambition that drove West Indians, which forced them to work hard, save their money, buy their homes, care for their families, and enrol in night schools to improve their lot. Ambition is a desire to do and achieve more than that which is thought possible, and West Indians had this in abundance. It is not a passive imperative but an active one, and this mirrors my own family story and that of many West Indians who borrowed the money to come to Britain, paid it back in no time, and bought a home for the family to live in. In my case, if you know where we come from — way up in the hills of Smithville in Clarendon, Jamaica — you will know how remarkable the journey my parents made to Britain was.
Buying a house was essential to most West Indians, and obtaining one was an outstanding achievement, especially when you think most came here with literally nothing. We don’t know how many people bought their homes, but it must have been substantial, for West Indianswere generally excluded from the banking and financial systems of the day. They therefore had to rely on their own efforts to provide for themselves somewhere to live. What we do know, however, is that owning a house was high on their list of priorities, and today, as a result, 37% of Caribbeans own their homes. The Resolution Foundation 2020 report confirms this, showing that Caribbean households have an ‘approximate median wealth’ of £120,000, mostly inherited. By contrast, the Indians (£144,000) and the British as ethnic groups (£166,000) have more per household.
Besides buying their homes, Caribbeans also bought their churches, and if the value of these are included, the wealth in the community is not to be scoffed at. For example, excluding all the other Black Pentecostal churches, the two main ones alone — namely, the Church of God of Prophecy and the New Testament Church of God — have fixed assets of over £36 million.
Education was a priority for the first-generation Caribbeans and, anecdotally, they have done well. However, today there are areas of concern within the Caribbean community, which, if not addressed, will see the legacy handed down by the Windrush Generation wiped out in no time.
‘THINGS FALL APART; THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD’
One primary concern is that the Caribbean family unit — where children used to learn the values of life, their race, their culture; how to face the world with confidence; and where they were equipped with the tools to navigate their way through life — is essentially now broken and dysfunctional. The once-traditional family arrangement has been replaced by various versions, including single parents, lone parents, families with one or more parents, divorcees, and families cohabiting. The result is that the Caribbean family is now disproportionally represented on all the leading social deprivation indices, and the former ties, bonds, kinship and community that supported and held it together have largely disappeared. They haven’t been replaced either, meaning the Caribbean family is increasingly single and alone. It makes up 1.1% of the UK population (594,825) yet accounts for 16% of single lone parents with dependent children, 45% of which are in social housing. The state steps in where it can, but the long-term effect is that it can breed a culture of dependency, sapping ambition and drive.
Today, the Caribbean family suffers high levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug abuse, mental illness and low motivation. The legacy of slavery, colonialism, empire and Commonwealth migration are often cited as responsible, and any denial, so the argument goes, misses the point, is myopic, and lacks historical reality. It is as if fear, uncertainty and hopelessness abound; ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ (Yeats).
Undeniably, migration, adjustments, modernisation, new values and secularisation have all played a part and have adversely affected the family. However, this begs the question: how is it that the Windrush Generation, despite all the difficulties they faced, was able to achieve so much with so little, yet hardly displayed any of the deprivations many Caribbeans now demonstrate? And how is it that a generation of people with such a strong sense of ambition, work ethic and purpose has yet to see its legacy fully fulfilled as it should be?
Perhaps the Windrush Generation was slow to recognise the changes taking place in British society, and therefore was slow to implement plans to bolster itself and support the family. Maybe it didn’t fully appreciate the effect racism, the environment and the decline of religion would have on it. As a result, the bonds that once held it together have begun to loosen, fragment and fall apart.
Now the Caribbean family displays high levels of depression, mental illnesses, suicidal behaviour, and drug and alcohol abuse at a time of relative prosperity. Statistically, these maladies were once negligible or unheard of within the West Indian community; somehow the Windrush Generation was able to cope. Maybe their expectations were low, or perhaps, because they didn’t see themselves remaining in Britain and making it a home, they didn’t look too far into the future, leaving a vacuum and a crisis of confidence.
THE BLACK PENTECOSTAL CHURCH
Our churches must take some share of the responsibility, for the Black Church was once the pillar of our community. It does spiritual care well but doesn’t look outward enough into the community to its members’ social and welfare needs. Perhaps it’s because of the changing nature of British society or the perceived legal restraints it feels imposed on it. Or could it be that its members, who are now self-contained and relatively well off, don’t need the Church as much as they once did?
Whatever it is, the Caribbean Church now seems to be on the back foot regarding the community it serves. What is it saying about the great issues of the day? What guidance is it giving on relationships within the family or the gender war within it? What is it saying about marriage as a covenant — a promise to protect — and not simply a contract or a legally binding agreement that anyone can walk away from? How often, for example, do we hear our churches speak out about the Black community’s social deprivations? How often do we hear direct appeals from the platform/pulpit on the virtues of education, as we once did? What plans do churches have to support the Caribbean single, lone-parent families with dependent children? What practical steps is it taking to help Caribbean males and females escape poverty?
These are the big issues and, as the oldest, most structured and wealthiest institution in our community, it has a duty and a moral obligation to take the lead.
WILL WE STILL BE HERE?
There is an even bigger crisis facing the Caribbean community, however, and it may be an existential threat. Not too long ago, if you referred to a ‘person of Caribbean origin’, you’d be talking about a person with two Black parents. Today, most Caribbean people either have a White parent or a White grandparent. The statistic is startling: 1.2% (677,000) people in the UK already define themselves as mixed race. This is 14.6% of the ethnic minority population — a larger group than Black Caribbean, Black African or Chinese and Bangladeshi. The projection is that in a few years the mixed race group will become the largest ethnic minority group in Britain, which is quite significant. Are we prepared for this? What are the implications for the Caribbean family, and where will it leave it as a distinct racial group?
Who we are and what we do are part of a continuum of those who came, sacrificed and paved the way for us. We need to tell our story — from slavery to the present day — and let our children know they are part of a beautiful and powerful legacy. There is an urgency for, as our members increasingly fall into poverty and social deprivation, we need to arrest this development and chart a new course, because this one isn’t working.
Roy N Francis is a former BBC TV producer, founder of Roy Francis Productions and is the author of ‘Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain’. For more details, visit www.royfrancis.co.uk
Written by: Roy Francis