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Marking 75 Years of the Windrush Generation With Tony Fairweather

windrush

Our editor, Charlotte Dignam, interviewed Tony Fairweather, author and founder of The Windrush Collection, to discuss his work and inspirations.

2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Tilbury on 22 June 1948. The HMT Empire Windrush carried passengers from the Caribbean to the UK who were given the right to work by the Government to help rebuild Britain’s economy in the post-war period. Many of those who came became manual workers, drivers, cleaners, and nurses in the newly established NHS. Alongside those on other ships who came to the UK in the years up until 1971, these people became known as the Windrush generation.

The Importance of Black Arts and Literature

In 1989, Fairweather founded The Write Thing, an events company established to platform Black authors. The promotion of Black literature is important to Fairweather and a few years prior, he opened one of the first Black bookshops in the UK,Narada. This was based in Brixton and, along with selling books, displayed art by Black artists and a range of artefacts from across America and Africa.

Although still true today, Fairweather notes that back then, literature was particularly dominated by White authors; pointing to the lack of Black representation but also the impact of his bookshop, he states, “In those days, there was no Amazon…if you wanted a Black bookshop, you had to find one and most of them were in London. We were getting orders from Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, and Bristol.”

Following this, Fairweather went on to work for The Voice newspaper (the largest Black newspaper in the UK) where he led a book club.

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The Windrush Collection

Fairweather is also the founder and curator of The Windrush Collection, a touring exhibition of artefacts associated with the Windrush generation. These artefacts span the decades between the 1950s and 1980s. Fairweather explains how the collection, which was launched five years ago, contains totally original pieces that make up a Caribbean and an African front room. The main idea behind this is preservation; conserving these pieces so that they can be shown around the country is crucial in providing young Black people today with a sense of connection to the older generations and their experiences.

“I discovered that we were throwing away our history…the elders were dying and people went and picked out what they wanted and then they called a house clearer, who would throw the rest into bins or landfill. I decided we had to preserve these things because the antique is something that can’t be replaced.”

Fairweather explains that his sold-out play, The Front Room, which was written, produced and directed by him, was inspired by the Windrush Collection as he sought to bring the exhibition to life. Discussing the uniqueness of the project, he states, “Not everybody had a front room. They had a similar thing. But whether you’re African or Caribbean, the stories are the same. This is our genuine story, a Windrush story, based in this country, and you don’t see much of that.”

“Nostalgia brings you back in time. We have a live band in their Sunday best, women in their blue dresses and their white gloves, and men in their pinstripe suits playing music from the 50s right through to the late 80s. It’s a musical history of the Caribbean.”

Twenty-Eight Pounds Ten Shillings

In 2022, Fairweather released his book Twenty-Eight Pounds Ten Shillings. This focuses on the motivations, back stories, and experiences of those from different Caribbean islands who boarded HMT Empire Windrush – the ‘ship of dreams’ – on a two-week journey to start their new lives in the UK.

“We talk about Black people coming here to work in the NHS and all that, but we don’t talk about how they get here and how the Government put adverts in the Caribbean. Not just Jamaica. Remember, it’s Trinidad. All the islands, every single island. And Ghana, Guyana.”

Fairweather asserts that he interviewed over twelve people to capture their stories as it is important to raise awareness about the journey that the Windrush generation took. To express the courage and strength of these individuals, Fairweather refers to them as pioneers, “Every day we lose another one, and a library of information goes with them.”

Fairweather also notes how in those days, people were taught more about ‘the Motherland’ than their own countries. “You knew more about England than you did about your own island because you’re a colony of Britain, and it was run by White people. I wanted to change that and put the narrative in about our story, the story that’s not being told,” he says.

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The Windrush Scandal

In 2012, the Government introduced ‘Hostile Environment’ legislation, which aimed to make the UK unlivable for undocumented migrants and ultimately, push them to leave. The Windrush scandal was unveiled in 2017 after it emerged that due to this, hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were from the Windrush generation, had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights.

Many Black Britons have therefore had their lives devastated due to the Government’s flawed and racist immigration system. Fairweather notes how the word ‘scandal’ is too small to use and how the injustice Black people have faced motivated him to write his book.

“When you’ve been in a country for over 50, 60 years, you paid your tax, you lived your life, you bought a house, you raised your children and suddenly, not even knocking on the door, they kick off your door and say you’re an illegal immigrant and then deport you to an island where you don’t know anybody there. That is disgusting.”

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Looking Forward

Along with continuing to tour the Windrush Collection, Fairweather seeks to establish a Black museum filled with artefacts and stories to help educate people on Black history. He contends, “It really does amaze me, the ignorance about Black people in this country. If you read the history books, we just came over in the Windrush and we were muggers and we had Notting Hill Carnival. And then there was the New Cross house fire and Stephen Lawrence and that’s it.”

Fairweather also plans to release a sequel to Twenty-Eight Pounds Ten Shillings, which will focus on the stories and experiences of the Windrush pioneers up until the present day.

Acknowledging that some positive change has been made in combatting racism, Fairweather asserts, “If you were here in 1948, you could go to rent a room, and when you got to that door, it would have a sign that said, no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs. It wasn’t illegal to do that.” He states that societal improvements have been made “because of the presence of our forefathers, the ones who stuck it out and changed the law in this country and said you can’t put up signs like that. You can’t treat us that way.”

“Sometimes, when it happens in front of you, you don’t see the change, but we’ve got to take a step back and say, well actually, we’ve moved along. It’s not a perfect place we’re living in now, but it’s a lot better,” Fairweather concludes.

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