February 1979, the country of your birth, St. Lucia, becomes an independent nation, a country you have no memory of. This act of self-determination means that overnight you become a St. Lucian citizen. Automatically triggering the removal of your family’s British citizenship. In 1981 a new UK law means that you and all your UK-resident family will have to register and pay for the right to be British citizens.
Your mother, Joan Cheddie, is another Caribbean woman with two names. Your maternal grandparents are not married and the Catholic priest in St. Lucia will not record her father’s name. Raised by her father, after her mother’s death, your mother’s nickname, her father’s surname, and the official given names are completely different. In 1956, the colonial official demands that your mother’s first British passport record only her official names. On her son’s birth certificate is the name Joan Cheddie. Traveling to England for the first time with her young son, your mother must legally change her names, to be recognized as his mother. In 1959, the solicitor in St. Lucia, registering your mother’s legal change of names, becomes the politician that negotiates and signs St. Lucia’s independence document.
Winter 1981, a slim package from the Home Office arrives, a grey-brown two-hundred-gram paper, bearing only your name, your date of birth, and the signature of a Home Office official. It was some time ago that you decided to apply for your British Registration document. Barely out of your teens, you navigated the British immigration system alone. In 1981, this official document offers the promise of belonging. Despite countless house moves and an international relocation, the British Registration document miraculously remains in your possession forty years later. This flimsy document will be the gossamer veil between legal/illegal status that will allow you to keep rights and privileges that you have long taken for granted and paid into—the right to work, a roof over your head, access to healthcare—and in the future will insure that your British-born child can claim a British passport. You will in time become the good immigrant, documented, educated, and resilient. The postcolonial condition you will spend your adult life writing about—displacement, doubleness, and loss—will in 2018 become an embodied physical crisis. You will be un-homed within the only place that you have known as home.
In 2018, after years of drip-drip stories of deportations and broken lives, you begin to slowly understand, your British Registration document confirms your status, in the words of the British government website, as a documented Commonwealth citizen. Your British Registration document is in reality a thin thread of citizenship that leaves you like the spider on a silken fiber, airborne and at the mercy of changing and hostile political currents. British when Britain wants young workers to rebuild its Empire; an immigrant, now that you are old and expendable.
In summer 1981, your mother’s disbelief and anger washes over you; she is staring at you, looking for some recognition of the Thatcher’s government betrayal. You are nonchalant and arrogant. You pay little attention to the broken social contract between the British government and its colonial subjects—you, your brother, your mother, and the countless others who made the journey to postwar Britain. Winter 1981, your mother is in her forties, younger than the older you writing this letter. Her rage visceral, fiery, heart-broken, concealing a loss, a betrayal of the promise that we were British citizens moving freely between the West Indies and Britain. Had London not molded her? How, your mother demands, is she not British? Had not the flesh and bones of her child, your youngest British-born brother, buried in the London clay, cemented our belonging?
Your mother had come not once, but twice, to the Motherland, first with your older brother, then traveling back to St. Lucia to nurse her dying father, then returning to London with two young children, you and your brother. A journey that cost your brother a much-prized scholarship to high school. His education lost, replaced by the blunt racism and low expectations of 1960s British education. You and your brother never speak of the details of this journey, until much later. It is only when dementia and the enormity of the Windrush scandal has unfolded that you and your brother search for your mother’s registration document and in the process find the name of the ship you all arrived on, the Ascania, and the date of arrival, underneath dementia’s fear and chaos, on an old suitcase. The ship’s name was not recorded in your mother’s passport. Your cousin, undocumented, tells you later that the UK Home Office is demanding that he, who arrived as an infant, should produce not only his aunt’s original passport that he traveled on but also the name of the ship that bought him to England. This is a cruel joke. Ten years earlier the UK government had ordered the destruction of all ships’ landing cards, the only other official record of arrival. You are taken aback by the fading first-class stamp on your mother’s suitcases, having only known the saving, the frugality; this act of seeming extravagance disrupts your carefully composed narrative of your mother. Opening the trunks that lined her bedroom like remnants of a lost past, you are assailed by childhood memories of secretly opening these trunks, full of things for the return journey “home.” Finding these trunks empty confirms a life made in England.
When you find your mother’s documents, the date on her British Registration document is 1988; you wonder what changed her mind. In another box you find a receipt from the Home Office of her application for British Registration, dated 1983. Why the delay? It was 1983 that your young brother died in a house fire. Did your mother’s unimaginable loss prompt in her a fear that she and your older brother would lose their right to stay in Britain? Into that void of British/not British, in order to travel “home” to grieve and tell the family of your brother’s death, your mother has to acquire a St. Lucian passport. The St. Lucian embassy inserts into her passport her 1965 British passport number. What humiliations did she encounter returning to the UK from St. Lucia on her first journey back in twenty years? Your mother does not travel again until she receives her British passport. In 2018, as the Windrush scandal unfolds, other Caribbean migrants recount stories of having had their British passports removed at the border and being denied re-entry—despite jobs, homes, and families in the UK.
By 1981, you have long since moved from being St. Lucian, Jaaniece Chéy-dee to the British Jan-nis Chedd-dee; even when you correct them, people still repeat Chedd-dee. You have mastered the London accent, no longer code switching between home and school, passing as black British. Ashamed at your own cowardice, you never say Chedd-dee in front of your mother, the name she fought so hard to preserve. You have no second thoughts about the loss of your British citizenship, you write to the Home Office, a simple process, a completed form with the names and signatures of British citizens vouching for you, your St. Lucian birth certificate, and a check for £50. Swallowing Thatcher’s lie that British Registration was a mere formality, a choice. No four pieces of documentation for every year you have lived in the UK; no month’s wages plus legal fees; no good character test, in a land where even vulnerable black ten-year-olds are deemed without good character, a land without second chances; no two years’ leave to remain and reapplication every two years for ten years, with escalating costs. Your primary motivation in 1981 is that you want to travel—a St. Lucian passport presents itself with too much potential for endless visa applications and refusals. Your British identify feels assured, confident, and unshakable. You feel safe, the coming decades of the tightening web of immigration controls becomes an abstract political reality, something that happens to other families, later arrivals and communities. In 1981, you are firm in your belief that France, Spain, and New York are calling to you with open arms. Later, traveling alone for work brings your airport stories, endless tales of hostile and invasive airport encounters in Fortress Europe. Unhindered travel will prove a mirage.
A day will come, unimaginable in 1981, when Windrush is no longer the fading cinema reel of the romantic cliché of postwar immigration, of stylish young men and the dulcet tones of Lord Kitchener singing impromptu, “London is the place for me.” Celebrated in the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, to represent Britain’s progress as a modern inclusive nation. Empire Windrush becomes six years later the Windrush scandal, a potent omen of a future Brexit Britain, with hard, unrelenting hostility toward migrants and selective historical amnesia. Even in London, post the 2016 referendum and the nation’s decision to leave the European Union, the places you once felt welcomed will become cold and hostile. Brexit presenting you with a nostalgic reimaging of “global Britain” as the lost British Empire, of passive and receptive colonial subjects.
How you laughed in 1981 when you read through the accompanying Home Office documentation, stating that Her Majesty’s Government had the right to remove your citizenship. Unthinkable that in 2018, the stripping away of British citizenship, from British-born and foreign-born citizens, is not remarkable or shocking. Surely only an act of treason could remove your paid-for British citizenship. The phrase “conducive to the public good” seems touchingly vague and quaint in 1981, but in 2018 the phrase hangs over you like a threat. In 2013, the UK government deems a peaceful protest by a white Commonwealth citizen against class privilege in the River Thames as not “conducive to the public good,” resulting in a prison sentence for a first offence and then a deportation order. Politically engaged, your participation and possible arrest at a peaceful protest brings with it the constant reminder that your presence in the UK can also be deemed as not “conducive to the public good.”
In 2015, in the midst of your mother’s rapidly worsening dementia crisis and a change of doctor, the immigration point makes itself visible. When a young receptionist at the new doctor’s surgery demands you produce a passport for your eighty-two-year-old mother before she can access healthcare. You have all the previously required documents and ask why an eighty-two-year-old suffering from dementia and unable to travel would need a passport? Catching in your own voice your mother’s disbelief and outrage. All your mother’s British passports have been stolen by a trusted family member; without her passport or her British Registration document in your possession, your mother is one step away from the chain of immigration reporting that would mark her as possibly illegal, halting her pension and the healthcare she urgently needs. The kindly intervention of a fellow Caribbean woman gives your mother access. It is months later that you recognize the nightmare your mother was saved from. Shaken, you are disturbed but not called to action, your belief in the social contract between Britain and West Indians remains intact. You and your brother stay silent, like so many others. Some weeks later you will post your mother’s original British passport and the Ascania ship’s stamp onto your Facebook timeline, celebrating your family’s fifty years of arrival/survival in the UK. In 2018, this image of your young mother pops up on your Facebook timeline mocking you. It is a lie. For months, weekly images of Caribbean faces have been appearing in your news feed, some your age or just a little bit older, broken, made homeless, left without the right to work and healthcare, some left to die, others deported. You wonder how many of the fifteen passengers traveling on the Ascania have been deported or left without immigration status. Signing endless petitions, donating money to the Guardian newspaper that has kept the story alive, producing within you a racial terror of an unimaginable kind.
May 2018, the Windrush scandal turns your fear to panic, you finally realize that your Britishness is not guaranteed. Your mother’s realization forty years ago, that promises made by British governments to immigrants are written with political sell-by dates floods your consciousness. You do not want to encounter another health professional/immigration official demanding proof of your mother’s legal status in the UK in a moment of crisis. Manically reproducing e-copies of all your family documents and spending £100 on a new British passport that your mother will never use. Only when the passport arrives do you feel safe in the knowledge that the possession of a UK passport will allow your mother to obtain access to the healthcare she has paid into for more than fifty years. You become the barrier, shielding your mother from the betrayals, listening for every nuance, fearing the tightening post-Brexit immigration net will may trap you all—mother, brother, daughter. Identifying yourself as a member of the Windrush Generation when your mother’s passport arrives, removing your mask of black Britishness.
But it is winter 1981 and you are safe in the illusion of freedom that British Registration allows you. Your youth gives you a sense of invincibility and a firm belief that your mother, having come this far, can weather any storms that await. In the future your mother’s anguish, vulnerability, and sense of betrayal will be yours. In 2018 your answer to your mother’s question of forty years ago that you chose to ignore, If we are not British, what are we?, will be documented and for now tolerated, but not British.
Janice Cheddie was born in Micoud, St. Lucia, West Indies, and arrived in the United Kingdom with her mother and older brother in the 1960s. She is a London-based researcher, writer, and consultant who works across academia and cultural policy. She has a PhD in cultural studies. Janice (ORCID iD Number 0000-0002-2261-042X) has published widely on issues of visual culture and difference. Between 2002 and 2015 she was, with Shaheen Merali, keeper of the Panchayat Special Collection, a visual arts archive; the collection transferred to the Tate Gallery Library in 2015.