Racial Reconciliation Knows No Borders
“Where have you been? Why haven’t you helped us?” Mavis shouted at us.
Twenty years ago my husband and I found ourselves in the British city of Birmingham, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom, and home to a large number of Jamaican residents.
We had been traveling in England for three weeks with a group of African American seminarians and church leaders. It was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. We lectured on issues pertaining to the black church in classrooms, preached in churches, dialogued with police, gave radio interviews, talked with civic and community leaders—all in partnership with the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
I thought this meeting in the Jamaican community would be the place where we would receive our warmest welcome. We were going to be with other black people! It would be a chance to rest, rejuvenate and let down our guard. I had imagined that we would be laughing and relaxing together in no time over good food and good music.
We pulled up at the church building in our rundown van, and a large group of Jamaican young people were waiting for us outside. But after we filed into the church and sat through some brief introductions, a young woman stood up and literally began shouting at us. Why didn’t you come sooner? Didn’t you know what we were going through?
We sat in complete silence, dumbfounded. We had no idea of their struggle and no sense of their expectations coming into this gathering. So we listened as this passionate Christian woman educated us on the history and the plight of the black British people.
We learned from Mavis that after World War II, the British government had encouraged mass immigration from the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth to fill the shortages in England’s labor market. Many Jamaicans and West Indians came with the hope of making a better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children. However, instead of being embraced and received as equal members of society, as was promised by the 1948 British Nationality Act, the Jamaicans and other immigrants found that they were relegated to a low status in the economic and racial class system of England, with no hope of ever being fully accepted as “British.”
Even as their children grew, married, and started families of their own, they were essentially foreigners in their own land. And to add insult to injury, being born and raised in England meant that they were considered foreigners in Jamaica as well. Coupled with the injustice of economic deprivation and racial discrimination, this frustration led to violence when young Jamaicans took to the streets to protest in 1981. The status quo unfortunately persisted, however, and a second riot had erupted in 1985, just a year before our visit.
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