Integrate, my mum said, so I did. But Eric Morecambe helped me find my Windrush self | Lenny Henry

When I was about nine years old, my mum got me and my siblings together and said: “You have to integrate. You must go among the people in Dudley and talk like them, talk to them, mingle with them, eat their food. Try not to box them down.”

When Mum insisted that we integrate, it was like Superman’s parents saying just before he left Krypton, “Son, when you arrive on Earth don’t use any of your superpowers. Not the flying or the super-strength and don’t even think about using the X-ray vision.”

It was the 1960s and I did what Mum said. I integrated, I fitted in, didn’t create any waves, but there was a price to pay. I was becoming more and more British by osmosis which, I guess, would suggest that I was becoming less Jamaican?

I don’t even have to open my mouth when I’m in Jamaica for a passing stranger to nod and say, “Y’alright Englishman?”

My mum was a proud Jamaican, who didn’t often take her own advice. Being Black in postwar Britain was a constant battle and Mum was never one to easily back down, especially when it came to protecting her family.

My mother moved from a place she dearly loved, having to give up so much more than sea and sun to build a life for her family in cold, grey England. Like so many other Caribbean people before and after her, who faced constant hate and adversity, she wasn’t going to back down or walk away from her shot at happiness.

Despite the intense opposition they faced during those early days, my parents never gave us kids a hint that anything was ever wrong. I’m sure if my dad had staggered into the kitchen full of bullet holes one day, rather than worry us, they’d tell us to “come out of the room” because this was “Big People Business” and nothing to do with us.

As the executive producer of a new series, Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain, one of the things I wanted to learn more about was what life was like for the post-Windrush generation who arrived in UK in the mid-50s. I wanted to understand why my mum wanted us to integrate rather than celebrate who we are.

British West Indian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts, better known as ‘Lord Kitchener’, at the Savoy Hotel in 1957.
The British West Indian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts, better known as Lord Kitchener, at the Savoy Hotel in 1957. Photograph: Ron Burton/Getty Images

From the moment the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948 and the king of calypso, Lord Kitchener, sang London is the Place For Me, Britain’s newly arrived Caribbean community had its own built-in social media.

Through the lyrics of calypso music, the challenges of living in a new country found its way into song. Calypso covered everything from riding on the London underground to housing problems and the best way to deal with racial hostility.

I made the mistake of dismissing calypso as little more than sappy, happy-go-lucky, good-time party music, when it actually goes much deeper than Feelin’ hot, hot, hot. I was surprised by how satirical and clever it was in conveying serious issues, which included how difficult living in Britain was for Black people at that time.

Watching hours of newsreels and reading scores of papers clarified Mum’s wish for us to integrate. Integration is so much easier than constantly having to fight. The Windrush generation fought hard so their children wouldn’t have to. Nothing was going to sway Mum from her plan. We were not going anywhere.

Calypso wasn’t going anywhere either. At the turn of the 1960s the lone regular Caribbean on television was a former pilot called Cy Grant. Originally leaving Guyana to join the Royal Air Force, Grant was a talented actor and singer who for almost three years appeared daily on the BBC’s television show Tonight, to sing a “topical calypso” about the news items of the day.

A couple of years later, the English performer Lance Percival took to using a fake Caribbean accent on the hugely popular TV show That Was The Week That Was as part of his weekly comic calypsos. (This would not be the last time we would see cultural appropriation on television.)

As strange as it was, Percival’s populist parody of calypso’s original intent was proof that Caribbean culture had seeped into mainstream British society. This was only the start.

As a young performer in the 1970s, I performed in front of mainly white audiences and my material consisted mainly of impressions and self-deprecatory jokes where my race was often the punchline.

I had watched Charlie Williams on The Comedians TV show, and learned from him. He was the most prominent Black comedian in the country and told jokes like: “If you don’t laugh I’ll move in next door to you – that’ll bring your rent down.” My 16-year-old self said: “If it’s good enough for Charlie, then it’s good enough for me!”

After a Royal Command performance on the Isle of Wight, where I’d done my usual act of impressions and jokes against myself, the late, great Eric Morecambe approached me and said: “You’re really, really good, but you don’t have to do that material for anybody.”

Eric Morecambe, with long-time comedy partner Ernie Wise
Eric Morecambe, with longtime comedy partner Ernie Wise. Photograph: Time Inc. UK/TV Times/PA

Eric didn’t have to say any more. I was young enough to blame my decisions on integration, but old enough to know that my natural and inclusive sense of humour had momentarily deserted me.

In the late 70s and early 80s, I was also inspired by the brilliant, unapologetic work that was happening in Black theatre (at the Royal Court, Black Theatre Co op etc) as well as what was going on in alternative comedy. For me it was the perfect storm. I quickly realised that if I was going to enjoy a career in the mainstream that my best chance was to be authentic and true to myself – celebrate my Black Britishness rather than denigrate it. This was some journey, and many would say I’m still on it.

Fortunately, since the Windrush landed, and my parents arrived here in the UK, we have found that Caribbean influence is everywhere – in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the slang we occasionally use in casual conversation. I think Mum would be over the moon with that state of affairs. I know I am.

Lenny Henry is an actor, writer and producer. The series Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain starts on BBC Two on Wednesday 22 June at 9pm, and will be available on BBC iPlayer

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