Pilgrim State and Motherland: From Migration to Homecoming

This is an essay from guest writer for Intersections, Jacqueline Walker, the author of Pilgrim State.

In 1959, as a five year old, I arrived in Southampton from Jamaica having experienced periods of separation from my mother. Like many Caribbean parents of the time, my mother had been working away, in her case in Canada, to save enough money to take her family to Britain. As children we were being united not just with our physical mother but with the country we had been taught to think of as the Mother Country. Many years later, when I began research into the construction of British Caribbean identity for a postgraduate thesis, it became clear that the confluence between Caribbean notions of mothers and Motherland with experiences of separation and reunion were not just part of my personal childhood history. The work of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, amongst others, has explored the response of Black British people to migration and colonialism. My intention here is to examine one strand of this thinking, with particular reference to a number of literary works, Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and my own book Pilgrim State in order to better understand the ways that the experience of migration and settlement for people of Caribbean descent has changed over the last sixty years.


The effects of enslavement on the relationship to ‘self’ has been commented on by writers such as CLR James and Franz Fanon. For more than two hundred years people of African descent had their bodies and minds enslaved through a number of violent and subtle stages that internalised oppression, making bearable what was, in reality, insufferable. However, people will always subvert oppression and Africans were not passive victims; they never have been, they rebelled, not just through acts of open revolt, such as those which occurred in Barbados or Haiti[1]. In every day life enslaved peoples subverted the power of the plantocracy, developing coded, highly mobile language systems, casting spells, corrupting food and saboutaging work schedules. However, one of the most effective and least known modes of resistance was the action taken by women in relation to their own reproduction. Control of fertility was, not surprisingly, a central arena for conflict; the issue being not simply how many children a woman would have, but when they would be born, who the father would be and the eventual fate of those children.

It is clear, when examining data from plantations records as well as the few testimonies of enslaved women that have survived, that infanticide was a reasonably common practice. [2] For many enslaved women infanticide became the only way that control could be reasserted over their own, and their children’s bodies. At this point it is useful to give some thought to the role of religion. The notion that death was not an end but a stopping off point on the way to a better world, an idea which was compatible with many African based religions, provided Caribbean slaves with a rationale for their suffering. However, inherent in this particular formulation was a paradox; survival demanded the subversion of oppression as well as the internalisation of white paradigms. The fundemental desire to survive, not just through tens of years of oppression (as experienced by the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust) but over centuries, married to the oppressive structures of slavery experienced alongside beliefs in redemptive forms of religion developed a different way of ‘being’. In this context, a refusal to continue with life (as a slave) can be seen as a form of resistance; suicide and infanticide becomes a supreme and final act of rebellion. Some of the complexity behind this reality becomes clear when considering the relationship between colonialism and notions of the Motherland.

While all colonial subjects were encouraged to think of England as the Motherland, for enslaved African peoples the relationship between coloniser and colonised, while destructive, was also generative; no enslavement no Caribbean people. As time went on and slave systems were replaced by the more modern oppressions of colonialism, the insertion of a more familial form of control was super-imposed onto the older order of mastery and Empire. It was portrayals of England as Mother which helped transform the original market-led rationale of Imperialism (sugar and slaves – commodity and equity growth) into the more acceptable metaphor of the Empire as family, a family where, of course, England held sway as the distant, if nurturing-yet-severe Mother, whose God-given role was to keep a watchful, authoritarian eye on her darker, forever child-like colonial subjects. This transformation from Imperial master to authoritarian Motherland was assisted by the effectiveness with which Christianity was inserted into Caribbean culture. At this point it is useful to consider the historical develpment of Christianity in Caribbean society. Methodist preachers, the first Christian group to work systematically with Blacks in the Caribbean, took a radical stance, teaching slaves (illegally) to read and write, to consider notions of equality. However, as slavery was replaced by the apprenticeship system the Church of England became the spiritual mouthpiece of the Empire and Christianity became a conservative, reactionary influence. After all, the Church of England was a state led institution, with the monarch as its head (for much of the time then, as now, perhaps significently a Queen). This church supported the status quo, (as the hymn said, ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man in the field’). In a society where the plantation system had detached men from families, mothers from children, where violent coertion took the place of negotiation and bargaining, where maternal ferocity, as the Caribbean writer Lorna Goodison amongst others has pointed out, was common, this strategy of control (by an authoritarian Motherland) could not help but be particularly effective.

The work of Caribbean writers reflects this complex history.

Born in the Caribbean and mostly single men, the writers who came to Britain during the post-war period were escaping the parochialism of island life. They came to spread their wings, beginning their artistic work in the UK by re-writing the experience of their youth, often as ‘coming of age’ stories; a way of narrating the Caribbean struggle for independence. Examples of this kind of work can be seen in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin and V. S. Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas. In 1954 Lamming’s The Emigrants re-located this focus, opening the way for others to publish work not simply written from the Imperial center about the Caribbean but writing based on migrant life as it was being experienced by Caribbean people in the Imperial center, the Motherland. Written in 1958, Sam Selvon’s ‘Lonely Londoners’ is characteristic of this period.

The London Selvon narrates is unashamedly male. Sentences are punctuated by repeated references to ‘the boys’, ‘the fellas’, the ‘men’. Women are as peripheral to the narrative of Lonely Londoners as Caribbean geography and culture is seen to be to the native English inhabitants of the capital city. The new settlers lay claim to the city through a number of elaborate strategies. The reader is constantly reminded of where the protagonists are, exactly how they got there. We are made aware of the desire not just to be at the centre of things, but to be seen being at the centre. The performative insistence of the ‘boys’ maleness suggests that the return to the Motherland is akin to a male rite of passage. This need to track, name and record the city and its diverse parts permeates the practice of the boys’ everyday lives, authenticating their role as men, as pioneers and settlers, a reputation which is authenticated through the discourse between themselves as well as through letters to the ‘folks back home’. Throughout Lonely Londoners native Londoners are examined, their behaviour noted, advice on how best to traverse and exploit them and their city is exchanged and negotiated. In this way London is mapped, it’s limits proved, it’s roads demarked, landmarks noted, bus and train routes laid out, made known and most importantly, made available in a way that is analogous to the mapping, naming and categorising exercises practiced by the first European colonisers of Africa which occurred centuries before. The cityscape of London is thereby feminised, the capital opened out and made accessible to the boys’ predatory gaze and actions. However, whatever entry points the boys attempt to negotiate, they are never quite taken into the inner sanctum of the Motherland, indeed how could they be? You may want to sleep with your mother but an essential part of maturation is to accept that this form of intimacy is neither acceptable nor desirable. Lonely Londoners remains a bitter-sweet rendition. As we accompany the boys we, like them, observe the city and her habits. And just like them we are left with a sense of alienation, we remain outsiders, kept at the periphery of London society, roaming the streets with the boys like a group of detached, errant children, as we follow the names of places the boys frequent in a vain, if at times amusing and poignant attempt, to engrave a greater presence on the landscape. While there are moments of intimacy, essentially London keeps itself to itself, a distant if always desired Motherland.

Like the work of their much earlier male counterparts, the first writing produced by Caribbean women (such as Jean Rhys, Merle Hodge, Jamaica Kincaid) were coming of age texts, often narrated from the context of abusive relationships between mothers and daughters, which focused on the struggle of the protagonists to separate and seek liberation from their mothers and the islands of their birth.

Pilgrim State, which was published in April 2008 by Hodder, follows my family’s migration from Jamaica, via New York to London, covering a period from the 1940s to the present day.

Although categorized as a memoir the text is narrated in many voices, with mother and child both taking part in the story telling. Even though the subtitle of the book ‘A story of mothers and daughters and the bonds which can never be broken’ suggests an un-broken link between mother and child, in fact Pilgrim State describes a number of experiences of separation and reunion which take place between mother and child.

The book is divided into three sections, the first section based in New York and Jamaica, the second and third sections in London. As the family land in England, greeted by the cold fog of 1950s England, attention is immediately drawn to the distinct response that this migrant family have to arriving in the Mother Country. Dorothy, pregnant and accompanied by her two children, immediately senses something of the challenge that awaits her, greeting the Empire on her own terms, as both mother and mother to be, challenging the grey, somewhat sterile appearance of the Motherland. She exclaims,

‘This was it then; a home at last for her and the children, a new home in the old country, a new starting-mother in the old motherland.’

As with The Lonely Londoners each chapter of Pilgrim State is marked by place and time. Similarly, much of the action takes place outside of the family’s home, in the streets of London. However in Pilgrim State there is no sense of the city being mapped, rather each space is systematically greeted, evaluated and inhabited, particularly by the children who, resisting the limitations imposed on their movements by the effects of racism and poverty, insert themselves into the landscape and finally claim it for their own.

As readers we become familiar with London as seen through the eyes of the child narrator, thus the city is transformed into a magical wonderland.

‘ The breeze tugged at their clothes, lifting skirts over legs, throwing handfuls of paper and petals into the air where they swirled and fell into the sunshine-littered streets. Jackie skipped along the edge of the kerb. The gutters were choked. For weeks the trees had been holding onto their blossoms but now the wind was rocking the branches, shaking flowers like rattles so the petals were torn from their stems and thrown across the pavements till the gutters disappeared in ankle-deep drifts of the falling spring’

Zebra crossings cut canyons through roads, making pathways in the streets for the children’s explorative fantasy-play to thrive and take root. While the river, as in Lonely Londoners, acts as boundary and a reminder of island life, it also offers the daughter in Pilgrim State an opportunity to discover new play spaces, not just for her present life but for her imagined future.

The effect of an engaged, loved child narrator is to keep the text expectant, optimistic, forward looking, over and above even the tragedy and violent racism the family experience. In fact, it is the child narrators adoption of the Motherland as Home which enables the city, even in the face of death and tragedy, to be imagined as a site of resurrection and re-birth – in itself a useful and complex metaphor of migration. In this way the city is transformed into a nurturing space from where the child, in turn, can herself become a nurturing mother to her own daughter. London at last is able to become home.

[1] Note The Black Jacobins, CLR James

[2] Note Toni Morrisson’s novel Beloved based on the celebrated story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman in pre-Civil War America, born on a farm in Kentucky, probably the daughter of the plantation owner. She married Robert Garner from a neighboring plantation and had one son, Thomas, described as dark-skinned. Robert was frequently hired out to work on distant farms and Margaret’s three other children would each be born a few months after the plantation owner’s own children. These three light skinned children were most likely the children of Margaret and her current owner. In 1856, a pregnant Margaret and her husband Robert, escaped to Ohio. Slave catchers found the Garners, surrounded the property, and stormed the house. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see the child returned to slavery. She injured her other children, preparing to kill them and herself, before she was subdued by the posse.


1 Comment

Filed under diasporas, identity, literature, oral histories, women

One response to “Pilgrim State and Motherland: From Migration to Homecoming

  1. John

    Very good description of a uniqe writing style, about human life and families.

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