This week, Nikesh Shukla’s edited collection, The Good Immigrant, appeared, a volume of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers about their experience in Britain. He edited the collection because, as he writes, “while I and the 20 other writers included in this book don’t want to just write about race, nor do we only write about race, it felt imperative, in the light of . . . the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country, that we create this document” (“Editor’s Note”). Too many white Britons (and Americans, for that matter) see BAME Britons (or Americans) as bad immigrants—thieves of one kind or another, prompting those white Britons (or Americans) to “want their country (or their job or their girl/boyfriend or their place at university) back.” This attitude persists even when the writers are not, in fact, immigrants, but born and bred citizens. White people are entitled, but everyone else has to earn their rights, prove their worth.
This has all happened before. Multiple times.
I could write (and have written) about many different examples, but I’m going to highlight just one today in this blog, the writer Andrew Salkey. Salkey came to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1950s, part of the Windrush Generation. The Windrush Generation encompasses migrants from all parts of the English-speaking Caribbean (as Sam Selvon pointed out in Lonely Londoners, white Britons had a habit of lumping all Caribbean people together and calling them, collectively, “Jamaicans” as if there were no other islands or political differences between them) who came to Britain between 1948 and the early 1960s because the UK had asked them to come to fill postwar labour shortages. Salkey, like the other migrants, was British—he had British citizenship as part of the colonial system—and he came to the “Mother Country” to work. He should have been seen as a model citizen. The colour of his skin, however, meant that Salkey had to earn respect through hard work.
And he did. He not only worked for Henry Swanzy’s BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, contributing stories and commentary and interviews, he worked for other parts of the BBC as well, including the African Service, the Pacific Service and the General Overseas Service. He got broadcasting jobs because he was extremely well-spoken (you can hear him speak in a documentary on Caribbean Voices, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02sbplt ) and—in terms of his own stories—he followed Swanzy’s dictates for what a good contributor should do. Philip Nanton, in his article “What does Mr Swanzy want?” (Caribbean Quarterly 46.1, 61-72) says that the answer to this question is simple: Henry Swanzy wanted local colour in work that was publishable by British publishers. That meant that the stories presented on the BBC had to be comprehensible (at least mostly) to a white audience, as well as giving them the ocean breezes, calypso, and other acceptable tropes of the Caribbean that white listeners expected. Most of the contributors, including Salkey, praised Swanzy for the work he did in editing their stories and poems to a “metropolitan standard” because they wanted to be published where it would matter—meaning London, not the Caribbean.
It was through Salkey’s work on Caribbean Voices that he caught the attention of Oxford University Press, who published Salkey’s “disaster sequence” for children, Hurricane, Drought, Earthquake and Riot. Like his Caribbean Voices work, these novels were set in the Caribbean and were full of local colour. But, because of his earlier success, he was able to do something different. These books showed that life in the Caribbean was not all calypso music and coconuts on the beach—the natural disasters that strike the area affect the economy and its ability to grow. Caribbean people were not all poor and rural (the books center on middle-class families in the capital city, Kingston). The last book in the sequence, Riot, shows labour unrest in Jamaica, subtly laying the blame for problems of continuing poverty and a breakdown of community on the colonial system. Salkey continued in these novels to be well-spoken (they are mostly written in “school” English, not patois) and provide a vivid picture of his “exotic” homeland. But his children’s work shows him starting to become a “bad” immigrant, or at least a “less good” one.
Salkey stopped publishing children’s books with Oxford after Riot, but he continued to write for children, and to support other Caribbean writers. He was one of the founding members, in 1966, of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM), along with John La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite. By 1968 he was an editor and advisor to Jessica Huntley, a Guyanese migrant who had come to Britain ten years earlier and who had started Bogle L’Ouverture press with her husband Eric Huntley. Bogle L’Ouverture came out of Jessica Huntley’s desire to produce books for Black people, by Black people, in Britain. Salkey advised her on publishing work by Walter Rodney, Bernard Coard, and Linton Kwesi Johnson—all of whom were or became revolutionaries of one kind or another. He also offered Huntley his own work for children, literature that was very different from what he had produced for Oxford, much more overtly political. Joey Tyson (1974) is a fictionalized account of Walter Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica from a child protagonist’s perspective; The River that Disappeared (1979) details American imperialistic attitudes and drug trafficking in the Caribbean (not the kind of local colour usually looked for in a Caribbean story for children), and Danny Jones (1980) discusses the difficulties of being Black and British in contemporary London. At the end of this last novel, the title character is pondering a “return” to Jamaica, the country of his parents’ origin, thinking it might be the “more hopeful” option than being hassled by the police in Britain just for being Black.
By the time that Danny Jones was published, Salkey had himself left Britain for an academic post in the US. He continued to write for and correspond with Jessica Huntley and many of the writers he had known in Britain, but American universities were happy to do what Britain at the time was not: hire Salkey to teach creative writing to university students. The US, unlike Britain, already had a tradition of African and African-American or Black Studies programmes, and even smaller places were eager to have a professor who could teach a class or two of Black Literature. Britain, on the other hand, has only just begun its first Black Studies programme at Birmingham City University this year.
In the last chapter of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, Musa Okwonga writes about how he spent his life in Britain on the one hand being “an unofficial ambassador for black people” (225) and on the other frequently “stop-searched by police, on one occasion merely for waiting by a bus stop” (225). Okwonga went to Eton and Oxford, but this was never enough: “we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour” (231). Like Salkey, Okwonga finally had enough and left for somewhere he could feel welcome. By not extending that welcome, Britain is continuing—generation upon generation—to lose some of the people who could add to its great literary heritage.