As Black History Month draws to a close, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about my own personal connection to the observance, 30 years after its inception in Britain. Of the shameful little I do know about British black history, stories from the women of the Windrush Generation – those who came to the UK from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush ship in 1948 – have always intrigued me. They intrigue me because their stories tell of lives similar to my mother’s – as well as both of my grandmothers – who hail from the West Indies. They are stories of separation, reunion, loss.
Stories like my mum’s, which saw her live most of her childhood in Jamaica without her own mother.
A lot has been written about the journeys and harsh realities of the Windrush Generation once they established a community in Britain – or the motherland, as it was commonly and somewhat tragically referred to in countries that had borne the brunt of our colonial legacy. But not so much has been written about the children – like my mother – who were often left behind as their parents travelled overseas. Nor the experiences of the mothers themselves, who, out of necessity, had to make the decision to leave their children for foreign lands, sending gifts, food and money from Britain during their absence.
“I was always excited when the parcels came,” my mother, Everine, tells me over a chat in my childhood home in Kensal Rise. She was just a toddler when her own mother left for Britain, and remained in Jamaica without her until the age of 12. “It was clothes and shoes and ribbons for your hair. We received barrels, too, but that was mainly with food. Because we had our own farm, we didn’t need as much.
“My cousins’ parents were also in England, so we all used to sit on top of the hill and watch the ships coming in,” she explained. “We’d just sit there, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if my parents are on this ship,’ or, ‘I want to go to England on that,’ or, ‘I wonder if that’s where I’m going to be travelling to England, if I do go.’”
There’s a term for children like these, the ones who were, and continue to be, left behind: "barrel children" – a term coined in the 90s by University of the West Indies academic Dr Claudette Crawford-Brown, which is classed by Unicef Jamaica as a “phenomenon where children are left without adult supervision and care and their only support is shipping barrels of food, clothing and other material items sent by parents or guardians living overseas”. It’s common across the diaspora and, although many children are often left with family members, a 2009 paper on the impact of migration on Caribbean children suggests many barrel children “suffer from depression, low self-esteem [...] and [are] at increased risk of poor academic performance”.
“I knew [my mother] was in England because I’d hear family talking about the money coming from [there]”, Everine says.
But, unlike her cousins, my mother “never got any toys”.
“My mother didn’t think toys were important. So my aunt used to use that against me because she didn’t like my mother, saying things like, ‘Look at that ugly dress your mum sent, and look at [your cousin’s] beautiful dress.’ I never thought my things were good enough,” she adds.
It was a harsh but necessary reality at the time, especially considering the historical context underlying my grandmother’s decision to leave. It had been a little over a century since slavery had been abolished in Jamaica, with many of the remnants of colonial social structures still in place – she left in 1961, around a year before Jamaica would gain independence from the United Kingdom. Great myths about the colonial motherland had also led many Caribbeans to believe, as suggested ironically in the story of 14th-century Lord Mayor of London, Richard Whittington, that “London streets [were] paved with gold”.
For women like my grandmother, most of whom had likely worked “as maids for rich, white Jamaicans” or “farmed and sold goods at the market” for years, but were unlikely to have travelled anything as far as the thousands of miles between their homes and England, the question of whether or not one could work and support a family bore no relevance. And if they couldn’t be there to look after their children, “the community would look after them,” she says.
My mother didn’t accept me; at school, I didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand me. The teachers felt that I was cheating because I was this little black girl who could do the work
My grandma, Verrel Euphemia Shand, left for the UK in search of work (and to reunite with her husband, David, my late grandfather, who had arrived in Britain before her) around 20 years after the Empire Windrush first reached Tilbury in 1948. It was a journey that some 500,000 West Indians would make between the late 1940s and 1970. My mum was left in the care of her aunt as a toddler, before being sent to Resource, a region in Manchester, Jamaica, until she was 12 years old. Mum never met her father – he had left for the UK around the time of her birth and “took ill suddenly” with kidney problems while there, requesting for her older brother to come over from Jamaica instead of her. He died before my mum made it over to the UK.
My mother’s arrival in Birmingham in 1972 quickly burst the unrealistic bubble that Britain had created throughout its empire. It wasn’t “paved with gold” or something out of a “fairytale”, as she and my grandparents had been led to believe. It was “cold, miserable and dark”, the food wasn’t as fresh and she was “stuck in a house with eight people, having to share a bed with a woman that [she’d] never met in [her] life”.
Although reports on barrel children generally refer to children brought up without their parents from the 90s onwards, aspects of the effects of separation are present in my mother’s experience. “I think I’ve always felt that I’m not good enough for anything or anybody,” Everine says. “My mother didn’t accept me; at school [in West Bromwich], I didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand me. The teachers felt that I was cheating somehow [because] I was this little black Jamaican girl who could do the work.”
The situation was likely made worse with the realisation that my grandmother – a stern, unaffectionate woman with a sharp tongue and little patience for nonsense, before dementia set in years ago – did not seem particularly interested in her being there. “She had no maternal instincts, I don’t even remember her hugging me when she saw me at the airport and I don’t recall her introducing me to [new electronic items] in the house,” Everine says.
I often wonder if a naturally standoffish disposition, the trauma of leaving her country for a lifetime of factory work in “Sim-eh-tik” (Smethwick), as she pronounced it, and the loss of her husband, who, she often told my mother, “nobody was ever going to be as good as”, contributed to my grandma’s seemingly impermeable coldness; coldness and silence that drove my mother to run away to Kensal Green in London at the age of 16 and prevented both myself and my mother from ever really having a pleasant relationship with her until her later years.
“I think the struggle in life as a single mother who was illiterate, who I tried to school – I taught her to read and write and to sign her name – made her more miserable,” Everine says.
Over a conversation at her flat, where both my mother and I spent our formative years, we reminisce about my grandmother before the dementia took hold and made her, oddly enough, much more friendly. An illness that, as sad as it was, drove my grandmother to call my mum “love”, even going as far to tell her one of my late grandfather’s favourite songs when she gave her a Jim Reeves CD for her birthday a few years ago.
This was the same grandmother who refused, perhaps due to heartbreak, perhaps due to being in a country that did not welcome her with open arms, to give my mother any clues about the man her father was, and knew how to make my mother cry without fail during our trips to visit her when I was a child.
Perhaps as a result of this quite tumultuous beginning to her life, my mother is starkly different to hers. Her tendency to look after people is remarkable and, to me, incomparable. She has made it her life’s work to take people under her wing both in her career – she’s a neighbourhood support officer – and in her personal life. I can only assume that it’s driven by the very same sense of community instilled in her when, after her own mother left her, others rallied round to take the place of her parents. Now, she’s passing on that care – and her important story – to the next generation.