Empire Windrush: 50 years of writing about black Britain edited by Onyekachi Wambu, Gollancz, pounds 10.99
This summer sees two important anniversaries for the black community in this country. In June 1948, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing the first 500 of the many thousands who would migrate from the Caribbean in the post-war period. But August also sees the anniversary of the 1958 Notting Hill race riot, when West Indians fought back against the humiliation, marginalisation and violence inflicted on them in the decade since their arrival.
The confused events of that summer weekend - the culmination of sporadic street warfare between teddy boys and blacks didn't change anything about the living conditions of the black British. But Mike and Trevor Phillips make out a strong case for it as a pivotal event in the history of black self-empowerment. The sense of collective purpose it imparted opened the door for the politicisation of the black community in the 1970s. That first Windrush generation, often moved on from lodging house to lodging house, were too isolated and vulnerable to do much more than survive in a hostile environment. Their gift was to subsequent generations, and the "irresistible rise" that both these books celebrate was built on the back of their unprotesting fortitude.
To recover that hidden history, as told by "ordinary people" as well as by intellectuals and community leaders, is the task Mike and Trevor Phillips have set themselves. They succeed brilliantly. The richly-detailed accounts published in Windrush resurrect that lost but not forgotten world where "No Coloureds" signs and casual beatings were a regular occurrence. This is history not as conventional "synthesis", but as the complication and modulation of prevailing myths. The excellent opening chapters, for example, make the point that the wartime experience of West Indian servicemen paved the way for mass migration, and that there was no such thing as a "typical" immigrant. In an area where emotive simplification is traditionally the order of the day, this insistence on historical particularity makes Windrush one of the most important books to have been published on the black British experience.
Onyekachi Wambu's anthology is less particular, and its wider, vaguer sweep is not lent any more focus by an introduction that elevates the funeral of Princess Diana to transcendental significance in the history of black people in Britain (the kind of piece that the author may look back on in a few years with a wince). But once you accept that this as a rattlebag of a "multi-cultural" anthology, there is much to savour. There is John "Dances with Words" Agard, a wonderful poet for adults and children. There are the cool, penetrating reflections of the sociologist Stuart Hall. And there are newer, lesser known voices such as that of Bernardine Evaristo. The witty extract from her verse novel Lara is a true discovery. There is no connecting thread but that is perhaps the point.Reuse content