Article written by Jonathon Rhule
“It wasn’t easy, but we made it” Windrush, Progression and the Diaspora of Slavery
This year has ground down my soul… I am incredibly fortunate to lead the life I lead, but I have admittedly lost a certain joy de Vivre in these past eight months. My demeanour more serious, my tone more grave, my innocence laid bare. It’s been a tough year. This week, therefore, in honour of #BlackHistoryMonth, I wanted to tell a different story to the ones we are presented by the sadistic news cycle.
An underdog story. A story of inner strength, determination and unrelenting work ethic. A story that not only displays the worst of humankind but the best we can achieve given what we receive. The story of how I came to be, the story of my Grandmother (and don’t worry, it’s purpose will become clear.
St. Catherine, Jamaica, 1948. Every morning, Norma, aged 3, wakes up with her siblings to fetch water before school. The terrain was rough, especially on such young toes. Whilst her parents tend to the fields, Norma, would babysit her brothers, David and Augusta. They were never starved, with a preponderance of yam, banana, peas, avocado, apples, cacao and even their own goat but even then, it was tough. Her Grandmother had to sell most of this product just to make ends meet. Even though she didn’t know it at the time, Norma was living in poverty.
Fast forward to 1959. Despite periods in which she was very unwell and could not attend, Norma excelled in school. Her parents prioritised education above all; it is the foundation upon which you succeed. They, therefore, took the difficult decision to send her away to live with her Auntie and her cousins so she could attend a better school. She was incredibly close to her cousin, Elroy and travelled to school with him every day – she to Kingston, him to Spanish Town. They were the oldest and therefore had to set an example to the others. He was extraordinarily bright and ended up winning one of Jamaica’s first scholarships when they got their independence, allowing him to go to school. Her grandmother told them “STAY TOGETHER YOU TOO!” every day, but as time passed, Elroy went to America to continue his education and Norma has never seen him since. Sixty years on, besides the death of her late husband Stan, there is nothing that upsets her more.
Elroy wasn’t the only one she lost; however – another cousin moved to America and died young from a brain tumour. Another, Noel, came to this country as a teacher but was denied any and all opportunities, forcing him to work on the buses and she has heard little of him. Her Grandfather migrated to Cuba and wasn’t heard from for many years. Although he did return over a decade later, upon finding his wife had remarried, he fled the county and was not heard from hence after. Only in the last six months did Norma and her relatives finally find his grave, within a small forest in St. Mary’s. Upon trying to improve themselves and achieve all they could, many of her family left Jamaica and regrettably, many have not been heard from since.
Whilst others moved to America and Canada, her parents and eventually Norma moved to the UK as part of the Windrush generation. She was taught in school that England was the mother country, that it was their patriotic duty to come and refurbish the country after the war; propaganda instilled before they gained independence. The power of these words, in combination with not being taught about slavery in any way, meant many bought into this concept, making the journey to Derby. Upon arrival, things were very different to how they had been presented; “NO BLACKS, NO IRISH, NO DOGS!” They were denied rent everywhere they searched. They adapted; they all lived in one small house in the village, working in a “sweatshop like” environment for their landlord. They created a rota system in which half worked the night and the other half the day; the shared bed, never empty. Thankfully as time went on, they spread across Molineux street, buying separate houses of their own, which couldn’t have come at a better time. 18-year-old Norma gave birth to Caulton, aka my father. Confused? He kind of came out of nowhere a bit, didn’t he? Let me rewind.
Norma lived in the backwater – an impoverished area of town. They had very little, blissfully unaware of those that had a lot. The first four-wheel thing that came through the village, therefore was a spectacle, something entirely out of the ordinary. This sci-fi marvel as it turns out was the car Caulton’s dad drove. In those times, especially within Jamaica, this man was undoubtedly very rich. “People take advantage of the underling,” Norma recalls cryptically, staring into space as she does so. “I was a young teenager who my cousin told me was absolutely beautiful, and therefore I fell into something I couldn’t handle.” Though she didn’t tell me his name, she stated “He didn’t come from our village… I think he died in America.” For a man who is, biologically, my Grandfather, the fact that this is all we know is saddening. The crazy thing is, though, that my dad, who is now 57, never knew any of this before my interview with Norma. Imagine having a family of your own, creating a life out of nothing to find-out your own dad had so much and shared so little. My dad is a very emotionally reserved man, so I don’t truly know how he feels about this situation, but Norma’s thoughts are clear. This man, who had more money than she could have ever dreamt of, though he left her with nothing, but in fact, as Norma cradled her child, who unbeknownst to her she ferried to this country, in a room no bigger than a bedding cupboard, she knew that she had got her “compensation”; a family of her own. For that, she is eternally grateful.
Molineux Street was a safe haven for Norma and Caulton. When times were hard and nasty things happened, you would “walk in, get some food, walk out and feel better!”. Luckily for Norma too, Caulton shared many of the traits she displayed in her youth; he was hard-working, inquisitive and exceptionally clever. He was also particularly close with his Grandfather, whom he learnt Patois to understand. He was so small in fact that she would call him a weasel (more endearing than it sounds) yet when she had four girls with Brucie, Caulton would look after them, just as Norma babysat her brothers. Confused? Let’s rewind again.
Mama and Papa were quiet, but when Brucie came around, Papa lost his temper: “I’ll send you to Canada if you don’t stop with him!” “He’s a bad breed!”, she remembers chuckling. But of course, that didn’t work; if anything it only encouraged her more. It only came back to bite her later though, however. She had four beautiful daughters with Brucie, yet he would say “see you in a bit” and leave for weeks at a time. Although she didn’t know it, Brucie had three other children, dotted around the midlands. She recalls “it was different: for many men, getting married, having kids and going through life together wasn’t big on the agenda! A lot of people got hurt by it. I got hurt by it.” Unfortunately for Caulton, this sentiment was more accurate than Norma ever knew.
To attend to her ever-growing family at such a young age, therefore, Norma became a nurse. She reasoned that if she worked at night, she could be home to feed them, look after them and give them a proper upbringing- a dramatic shift of her sleep cycle was a worthy price to pay. After working incredibly hard within this role, the hospital had told her “You’re too good to just be an auxiliary nurse- I’m going to recommend you for further training!”. Of course, this opportunity was incredibly rare for a nurse of colour, let alone for it to be presented to her. She recalls “ I had a lot of help along the way from the Caucasian! Matron Bates, bless her! She put me through my EN, and I came top of my class! Top of the list! I got the prize for the year! I got a BOOK! After all, that was going on around me; I actually got a BOOK!!! AND I had more than one baby to look after! I know what hard work is and determination.” She did face some difficulties along the way, though. Norma admits to only not facing racial abuse at work because she kept her mouth shut; she was calm and precise and did not allow herself to adhere to the stereotypes the “Caucasian” wanted her to fulfil.
In the coming years, life became easier for Norma. She met my grandpa Stan in her 30s, and though he may have appeared to have a harsh demeanour, his compassion and love of adventure emboldened her life. “We were like kids” Norma recalls, “when we were in France, he used to chase me around the garden and make me laugh, cackle!”. Stan acted as a father figure for Caulton- although they only met as he just went to university, Caulton would undoubtedly state that Stan was his true father. Anyone can have a child, but not everyone is fit to be a parent. The stability of this foundation allowed Caulton to achieve exactly what he hoped – as well as playing football at an incredibly high level, he graduated from the University of Liverpool, the first in his family to do so AND as the only black pupil on his course met my mother and became (at the time) the youngest person to become a qualified Structural Engineer in the history of this country. Norma’s hard work and determination had paid off, and within just two generations, she had raised herself and her family from poverty to prosperity.
Now, I bet you’re thinking to yourself- why are you telling me this? How is this at all relevant to colourism? Norma, and subsequently Caulton, did the best with the opportunities they were given and in turn, gave their respective families all they could, except one thing – Jamaica. Myself and my sisters have little to no awareness of any of our heritage- we don’t observe any Jamaican traditions, we don’t eat any Jamaican cuisine, and in fact, I had to research every Jamaican fact this series has featured. I didn’t even know any of my family’s history until I point-blank asked Norma. I knew so little about my heritage growing up, that when people asked which part of Jamaica I was from, I said Montego Bay because I went there on holiday a few times 15 years ago. When I asked my dad Caulton where his own mother was from in his interview, he said “Kingston? Or somewhere close… I’m not sure, that’s poor from me.”I posed the initial question in Article 1 as to why I feel a disconnect from the black community, and the answer is now clear- one could argue I am not an active part of it. This lack of cultural awareness is not the fault of Norma or Caulton in its entirety. Whilst they perhaps should have done more, there are several socio-political factors at play.
The first and most apparent is the diaspora. Black is more than just a colour, it’s a culture, and this is primarily because of the repercussions of slavery. For many black and brown people, we cannot trace our family tree, we cannot discover the origin of our family name, and we do not, in all honesty, know where other branches of our clan may lie. I may have distant relatives still in the Caribbean, in America, in Canada, in West Africa and beyond – I just don’t know. Norma even stated in her interview that her cousin’s complexion was more Indian/Pakistani than black – distant ancestors may have been South Asian, not West African. Beyond just slavery, colonialism set the colonies so far back that there was no room for economic progress- those wishing for more, such as Norma, had to move to more developed countries, assimilate and in some cases, subsequently lose touch with their culture. Even now, when I asked Norma and Caulton whether they would repatriate, both said “No” instantaneously – their family is nowhere, and the murder rate of those that do repatriate to Jamaica is also uncommonly and unfortunately high. The route back to the homeland is, for now, is treacherous and not worth fairing.
Secondly, whilst I have friends that are deeply cultural and proud members of the black community, I do not share in our culture with them. When my older sisters Emma and Kate were growing up, they had my Godmother, Paulette, to keep them somewhat in touch. In her interview, my mother stated: “We have a very good base of black friends. They (Emma and Kate) had a good grasp of West Indian culture, food. They got fed by Paulette (when I worked late)”. As time went on, however, and my dad began his own business, my mum worked less and less and hence myself, and Charlotte did not have similar experiences. My mum, Suzanne, is a Liverpudlian and therefore served Sunday Roasts rather than Dumpling, rice and pea-like Mama used to make. In this sense, I would now consequently find it much easier to make you a Creme Brulee than even know where to start if I were given Yam or Plantain. Whilst Charlotte and I had, on average, more black friends than Emma or Kate did, due to the demographic of our respective schools, we never engaged in their culture. We never ate their food, understood their traditional dress nor knew which cities within their West African nations they hailed from. This lack of understanding is why I felt so unwelcome within my university’s Afro-Caribbean Society. From freshers week, I tried to engage but was often shunned and made to feel unwelcome. Even in my last year, when I created my own society for the advancement of black creatives and helped organise an event with ACS itself, I still felt unwelcome- an outsider looking in on a fountain of culture from which I sought to quench my thirst, yet was deemed ineligible to drink.
Black is not a colour; it’s a people. In order to thrive within such an environment, people often say to me, “you have to be really black”. A loaded statement I know, and whilst I used to think this was in reference to pigmentation; I now know this to be wrong. To myself and many others, it feels that to be allowed to engross yourself within such places; you have to be already engrossed within such places. You cannot go as a rookie/noob/ignoramus looking to learn more or to become more in touch with that culture- you have to be someone already so in-touch that such meeting places serve as a celebrative, exclusionary melting pot of young black and brown minds. Whilst society undoubtedly needs such spaces, is the role of these societies not also to allow members of the diaspora and secondary/tertiary generation migrants to discover more about their homeland? I therefore strongly feel that it is therefore not in my colouration that my voice has been nullified, but due to my naivety and lack of outward knowledge of my heritage. As if the power of my actions and words has been lost through and because of, a cultural vacuum.
These people are so deeply ingrained within this system that this issue and perspective may seem nonsensical, hypersensitive and irrational. As we learnt last week, however, just because you are an ethnic minority within the white populous, doesn’t mean that you understand nor fully comprehend the struggles of your diverse brothers and sisters. Our ancestors had the same struggles; our grandparents fought for us to have a future better than theirs, so why, just because Norma and Caulton were successful in their societal climb, does it mean than my voice carries less weight than yours? That because my Dad’s biological father did not pass his heritage onto his son that I now face obstacles to even engage within the very places meant to unite us? That because I was not given the secrets of my people in my youth, I cannot easily access them as a young adult?
Whilst these questions are by their nature rhetorical; I fear that I may not ever get nor want to hear the answers some would give. That unconscious fear is what drove me to start this series, and the discovery of that worry has afforded myself closure I did not previously know I needed.