"Success is measured by how much you put into it and your failures will be when you don't make the effort." Five minutes with Jim Baker

30 Oct 2018

Jim Baker is a black working-class Londoner and the grandson of a Barbadian merchant seaman who arrived in Wales in 1910. An historian, commentator, activist and organiser, Jim's values and commitment to people, communities and change comes from a belief in family and welfare socialism. As an activist, he has been directly involved in challenging racial harassment, a committee member of the embryonic National Black Workers Groups, and has been an adviser to the Home Office and government. His hobby is presenting soul and world music shows on radio stations, such as Unity 101 Southampton.

At the University during Black History Month as a guest speaker at an event hosted by the Centre for English Identity and Politics, Jim spoke to us about how England has shaped the experiences of black people and how being descended from immigration has shaped him personally and his beliefs.  

How has being descended from immigration shaped you, your career and beliefs?

I see my grandfather's generation of merchant seamen as adventurers. When my grandfather left Barbados he was 16 and he'd never been on a ship. He'd also never had cash - he came from a barter economy. For me, that sense of adventure is important: that you do whatever needs to be done, in the best way you can and the only thing you need to truly believe is that you did your best.

The message from my family is that success is measured by how much you put into it and your failures will be when you don't make the effort. And you have to be big enough to admit it, take responsibility for it, pick it up and get on again. So what it's done is shaped me in a way where I simply don't believe I can fail, I believe I have a right to succeed.

How would you say that England has shaped the experience of black people and black people have shaped what Englishness is today?

England has shaped the experience of black people, because from when we were part of the British Empire, we've been told about the splendidness of the Empire. That still comes through even though I'm third generation settled here. We are constantly, even now, told about the British Empire in different ways. The problem is that we're not taught about the consequences.

Every migrant who arrives on these shores brings a piece of the story that people don't want told. The central assumption about the English identity is that white Englishness is glorious because of the past. But every black person who arrives here sees the past in a different way. There's what I describe as a 'YOLO moment': you only live once. That only starts when you realise how important your life is and at that point you question everything. It hits different people at different times: the Windrush generation, now in their seventies, are experiencing their 'YOLO moment' now.

You argue in your talk that identities always change, no matter how brutal the process: can you explain what you mean by that?

When identities change, it is brutal physically. I was brought up in the East End of London and when I was a kid I fought every day, with all kinds of weapons. The East End was a dangerous place. Physically, subject to when you arrived and how recent you are and how small a community you are, that physical nature of being the outsider is there. Worse, however, is the mental and emotional nature where you constantly are asked in many different ways: where are you from? It's what I call the 'from, from' question. You can say you were born in London but that's never enough.

There is also the effect on people's mental state. In the 80s and 90s, in Southampton and across London there was a significant problem with young black men being picked up and sectioned, particularly Nigerians and people from Benin. In those cultures, people have an ancestor, chosen for them when they are younger who is always looking after them - like your own personal angel. We all hear our mothers' and grandmothers' voices and have conversations with them. But these men spoke out loud and were misunderstood. It was about them being outsiders and the effect of their beliefs on others. Nothing is more brutal than your emotions and your mind because you question yourself when no-one's around.

2018 is the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks. The anniversary has been marred by scandal - how do you think the scandal will change people's attitudes and government policy?

The word that is relevant here is 'invited'. The Windrush were middle class, they were guaranteed jobs and they were invited. So in my terms the word 'invited' has replaced racism, because what does that mean for everybody else?

None of those people who have been settling here since the 1880s, were invited - they just came and settled here. I don't think it will make a change.

In Wales it has caused indignation amongst black communities because the Windrush people are being compensated. My grandfather fought repatriation twice, I have uncles who were taken back to the Caribbean after WW2 who were literally thrown on a ship - no-one has ever offered to compensate them.

The Windrush issue should be used without criticising the Windrush generation but to ask: is this how you see people, that they are either of you and acceptable or not? So it's what the Windrush represents on policy and it is always about policy, never about people.

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