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Hackney storytellers remember and celebrate the Windrush generation and its legacy

PUBLISHED: 18:07 10 July 2020 | UPDATED: 15:32 14 July 2020

Sonia Cummings was born in Jamaica and came to England in 1973.

Sonia Cummings was born in Jamaica and came to England in 1973.

Courtesy of the Cummings family

A storytelling event gave Hackney writers and poets a chance to share their experiences of migration and pay tribute to the Windrush generation last month.

Lydia Julien works at Hackney Library Services with Jack Houston founder of the Libraries Lockdown Poetry Group.  The group was started to help residents share their experiences and oral histories through poetry and prose.Lydia Julien works at Hackney Library Services with Jack Houston founder of the Libraries Lockdown Poetry Group. The group was started to help residents share their experiences and oral histories through poetry and prose.

The virtual event held on June 29 was hosted by local award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus, writer and historian Colin Grant and Hackney Empire’s young Alter Ego spoken word finalist Phoenix.

Storytellers like great-grandmother Sonia Cummings spoke powerfully about the challenges faced by the Windrush generation and its descendants, many of which, are still dealing with the threat of deportation today.

She read: “Your paper me like to see. We believe you have no right to stay in this country.

READ MORE: Caribbean tea party celebrates legacy of the Windrush generation

Amanda Inniss' poem Amanda Inniss' poem "A Grip and A Prayer" was inspired by her parents and the Windrush elders she works with.

“Man, me have to prove my right to stay in the land me call home for years? In the land me give me blood sweat and tears, in the land me call home for 60 years.”

The 64 year-old was born in Jamaica and came to England in 1973 to join her mother who had already migrated.

Sonia was inspired by stories told to her about Windrush elders having difficulty finding places to rent in Britain, the signs put up with the message “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” and, more recent news of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

Sonia is a member of the Hackney Libraries Lockdown Poetry Group, set up when the coronavirus pandemic started by Lydia Julien alongside Hackney’s Community Library services team, managed by Christopher Garnsworthy.

The virtual event forms part of Hackney Council's online Windrush Festival. Picture: Holly ChantThe virtual event forms part of Hackney Council's online Windrush Festival. Picture: Holly Chant

The project centred on collecting the life experiences of African-Caribbean people who are over-55 living in the specialist residential unit Peppie Close, as a means of tracing their roots from the West Indies to London.

In 2017 Lydia created a prose poem, Me Say, You Say, with residents of Peppie Close using their oral histories and memories. She read it out loud at the virtual event as well as at Peppie Close and the Windrush Tea Party at Hackney Town hall in 2018.

Lydia said: “It’s important to amplify those voices to reposition and reveal not just history but also our present.

“[History] puts our own contemporary views into context and makes us look again at societal structures and the extraordinary people that are amongst us - often living in our very own house.”

Lydia Julien performing Me Say you Say at Peppie Close. Picture: Hackney Community Library ServicesLydia Julien performing Me Say you Say at Peppie Close. Picture: Hackney Community Library Services

READ MORE: Town Hall Square sculpture will be revealed on Windrush Day as Hackney’s festival gets underway online

READ MORE: Hubert Howard: Lower Clapton Windrush victim dies without apology or compensation

Other speakers, like Maxine Tomlinson, captured childhood memories and wrote them down.

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She told viewers that she was sharing a “little piece of history” and said: “ I think it’s important to shift the narrative because often when we hear of Windrush we think of the scandal and what’s being done to us and actually, I think it’s a beautiful passage of time. “

She added: “As I listen to my parents and I listen to them regaling their stories and history to their offspring - three generations hence, I’m proud of their journey. I’m proud of their history and I’m proud that they are an integral and intrinsic part of British history. They came, they saw [and] they definitely conquered.”

Trevor Stewart, 73, joined the event from Germany. He had lived in Hackney during his childhood and moved to London from Manchester, Jamaica in the 1950s.

He read a story called The Flying Tiger Lion to the Promised Land describing his first plane journey.

The 10 year old set off to meet his parents in England after having spent a year separated from them.

Trevor said the anxiety-ridden experience of travelling alone as a child was “still very vivid” in his imagination.

Amanda Inniss offered viewers her poem called “A Grip and A prayer.”

She said: “For those of you who don’t know the younger ones. A grip is an old-fashioned suitcase.”

She is chair of the charitable body Friends of Woodberry Down and says her literary works are inspired by the diverse group of older people she works with and the experiences of early London her parents described to her.

They travelled to England from Barbados in the early 1950s to “seek a better quality of life” and she has lived in Hackney since 1992.

Her poem begins: “I came to England with a grip and a prayer. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I reached there. They said the mother country needed our help she had been struck down after the war with Hitler and needed to be rebuilt.”

Hackney Council organised the intergenerational event and has been committed to celebrating the Windrush generation and its legacy with tea parties, cricket matches, street parades and baking days.

It became the first local authority in the UK to pass a comprehensive motion regarding the Windrush Generation where it pledged to oppose the criminalisation of Windrush families and called for an end to ‘hostile environment’ policies.

The council has also recently announced two public artworks to honour the Windrush Generation.

READ MORE: Thomas J Price and Veronica Ryan commissioned to build Hackney Council’s Windrush public sculptures

To watch the event click here.

Apply for the compensation if you or a family member has been affected by the Windrush Scandal by clicking here

Further information about Hackney Libraries online programme is on twitter @hackneylibs


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