Heartbreaking And Powerful: Windrush Stories Come To Life In This Free Exhibition

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, British Library ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 34 months ago

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Heartbreaking And Powerful: Windrush Stories Come To Life In This Free Exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, British Library 5
A postcard of the Empire Windrush. Copyright Andrea Levy.

For those who arrived upon the Empire Windrush in 1948, what was coming to Britain like? What discrimination did they face? And what was daily life like for them?

The British Library has assembled songs, diaries, newspapers and audio accounts in this small yet insightful exhibition that tells the stories of the Windrush generation.

The experiences of black men in London were sometimes channelled through music. In the 'Black London Blues', Ram John Holder talks about 'still up and down Oxford Street, trying to make ends meet' and Lord Kitchener sings about the discrimination faced by those who were mixed race — 'if you're not white, you're considered black'.

One of several books telling the story of life in the Caribbean.

One of the scariest items on display is an edition of the Black and White news, a newspaper published by the White Defence League. Headlines such as 'Blacks invade Britain' and 'Kings of the drug trade' are so incendiary that it makes for pretty angry reading. Articles also refer to black men coming over to 'mate' with white women and it tries to link the black community to Communism. It's a shocking read but an important artefact to highlight how much discrimination these new arrivals in Britain faced — even though it was the British Government who had encouraged their immigration.

A harrowing audio account tells of 'police beating black boys in police stations and shoving their heads down lavatory bowls'. Despite all this discrimination there are stories where London is thought of as home by black immigrants, and 'Piccadilly Circus is my playground'.

While Windrush is the focus of the exhibition, the British Library also looks back at historical discrimination. There are accounts of the 1865 insurrection in Jamaica against colonial rule, resulting in hundreds being slaughtered by the British Governor in reprisals. There is a horrifying advert for a house for sale with slaves listed as if they are furnishings, and a look at unpaid 'apprenticeships' that were used by wealthy landowners to continue slavery.

A period map of the Caribbean. Copyright British Library.

The exhibition also brings us through to more recent history with Benjamin Zephaniah's powerful poem 'What Stephen Lawrence has taught us':

It is now an open secret
Black people do not have Chips on their shoulders,
They just have injustice on their backs
And justice on their minds,
And now we know that the road to liberty
Is as long as the road from slavery.  

It's a moving piece and we recommend every visitor read it in its entirety, either at the exhibition or at this link.

This exhibition is an emotional journey but it's hugely important and so relevant given what's happened recently to the Windrush generation, and with anti-immigration rhetoric on the rise.

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land is on at British Library until 21 October 2018. Entrance is free.

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Last Updated 04 June 2018