“It Seems I Test People”: Voices from Earlier Immigrants to Britain

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Centreprise’s Talking Blues brought many young writers together, sharing poems about the realities of Britain’s attitudes toward immigrants.

The past week has seen a depressing rise in racially- and ethnically-based incidents of hatred in Britain. Perhaps emboldened by the Brexit vote, perhaps fueled by fear, many British people have found it acceptable to shout at those who appear different in the streets, telling them to “go back where you came from”. The Polish embassy has reported leaflets, shoved through their letterbox of Polish people in the UK, which say “No more Polish vermin”. The Guardian reports on attacks on Muslims (“Racist incidents feared to be linked to Brexit result” 26 June 2016), and the former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, was told she was “not a true Brit” on Twitter. Social media and the immediacy of news reporting has made such events more visible, but it is useful to remember that they are not new, and that previous immigrant groups to Britain have withstood such attacks, and endured to become a part of the fabric of Britain. The writer and editor Leila Berg recorded such experiences in an article published on December 30 1963 in The Guardian entitled “We don’t mean you.” In the article, Berg compared her own experiences of anti-Semitism in WWII London to that of new West Indian immigrants experiencing racism. Berg would later go on to share stories of endurance, humor and racism surmounted with children in her early reader series, Nippers.

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Leila Berg sought out Black writers to tell stories about experiences with racism for children. Illustrated by Shyam Varma.

Another place to find a record of this endurance is in poetry. Seven Stories’ archival collections include the poetry of both children and adults from post-WWII migrants to Britain. People from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia all journeyed to Britain in the period between 1945 and 1970 (by which time new legislation was in place to restrict mass immigration from these groups). They were, in many cases, asked to come to fill post-war labour shortages, but they were met with fear and suspicion from members of the resident British population. The Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature, recorded some of this suspicion in a poem entitled “Telephone Conversation,” found in the collection How Strong the Roots: Poems of Exile collected by Howard Sergeant. Searching for housing upon his arrival to Britain, Soyinka’s speaker telephones a potential landlady. When he tells her he is African, she asks “Are you light/ Or very dark?” (32), something Soyinka labels as “public-hide-and-speak” (32). The poem ends without telling whether he was offered the flat, but the experience of thousands of non-white migrants during the time period suggests that he would have eventually been told that the flat was “already let”.

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Scene from British Pathe film that depicts the immigrants’ plight that Wole Soyinka discusses in “Telephone Conversation”.

 

The day-to-day racism experienced by new migrants extended to their children, born in Britain or not. The collection Talking Blues, published by the community organization Centreprise in 1976, included poems from young writers who formed part of a writers’ group at the centre. One of these poets, Donald Peters, wrote an eight-line poem called “Explain” in which he asks “someone” to explain to him “Why the world we live in today/ Has no hope for us to stay” (5). Sandra Agard—who as an adult continued to write poetry and perform as a storyteller throughout Britain—demanded that the white Briton see the Black Briton as “your brother” (13) while at the same time knowing that “You took my identity/ . . . [but] You don’t even know what I’m talking about!” (13). Talking Blues appeared in the very year that increases in racist incidents, including those that led to the Notting Hill Carnival riots and Eric Clapton’s rant about “stop[ping] Britain from becoming a black colony… the black wogs and coons and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here” (“Reggae: The sound that revolutionized Britain” Neil Spencer 30 January 2011 Observer), were causing the Black British population to fear that they would never be “allowed” by white Britons to belong in British society. While (as today) there were many who agreed with Clapton’s racist sentiments (and the racist actions of others, including the police), his words galvanized many British people—Black and white—to action. Membership in the Anti-Nazi League rose, and Rock Against Racism (which united punk and reggae bands at concerts focused on anti-racist messages and campaigns) was formed.

 

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Testing times for Berry–and for all of us.

For me, the point of all this is that the voices of newcomers (or those perceived as “Others”) in Britain matter, not simply as a record of their experience in Britain but as a call to action for everyone. James Berry wrote a poem, “It Seems I Test People,” which can be found in his 1988 collection When I Dance. Berry, who came to Britain from Jamaica in the Windrush year of 1948, described his “skin sun-mixed like basic earth” (84) being the cause of discomfort for others. Despite “my eyes packed with hellos behind them/ my arrival bringing departures/ it seems I test people” (84). Otherness does test people, because it reminds us all that we have only one world and its resources must be shared. For many of my British colleagues, the post-Brexit world seems rather frightening, not because of the (perceived) “others” but because of what those others might think of the British in the face of the racist incidents that are getting so much coverage. The poets of post-WWII immigration show us that the answer to racism is not to worry, and fear, but to act positively. Speak out against racism. Listen to the voices of those experiencing it. And think about how you can help to make those the loudest voices. As humans, we are being tested all the time; in this case, it’s important not to be found wanting.

I’d like to dedicate my blog this week to my friend Lisa Pershing Ballinger, who despite being tested by lung cancer for over three years, always faced everything with courage and a sense of humor.  I’ll miss you, Lisa.

 

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