Pauline Nevins: Brown babies and The Mixed Museum
“Why is your sister brown?” a neighbor boy asked.
“She fell in a bucket of paint,” was my kid brother’s innocent reply.
The question was understandable. I was the sister. The only dark-skinned child among seven other kids in our family, who lived in a country town in England’s East Midlands where cloud cover prevented even a hint of a tan.
For a time, people of color were a rarity in the British Isles in other than the major port cities. That changed in 1948 when the Empire Windrush, loaded with smiling dark-skinned men, sailed into London’s Tilbury Dock. Invited by the British government, they filled a chronic labor shortage following devastating losses of young men in World War II. People knew so little about Britain’s racial history that this large influx from the Caribbean was generally credited with the largest growth of a post-war Black British population.
To fill the void of the country’s racial history, British academics Dr. Chamion Caballero, who’s mixed race, and Peter J. Aspinall undertook a research project on people of color in 20th century Britain. Their research became the foundation for the critically acclaimed BBC2 series in “2011: Mixed Britannia.”
This series inspired Dr. Lucy Bland, professor of social and cultural history at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, England, to delve into the history of children born during and after World War II whose fathers were Black American GIs, and whose mothers were white British women who’d offered the soldiers a bit more than tea and crumpets.
Professor Bland exposed a little known and often painful part of Britain’s past. She discovered there were more than 2,000 wartime mixed-race children in Britain before the Windrush sailed into London, mostly unknown or unacknowledged.
Professor Bland interviewed over 40 of these children, now in their 70s, and her resulting research cumulated in a book: “Britain’s Brown Babies.” The African-American press coined the term “brown babies” in their human interest stories, describing the plight of these war babies. Citing segregation laws in the United States, the American military banned Black soldiers from marrying their British sweethearts. The British government, nervous about interracial relationships, did nothing to challenge that order.
Nearly half of those interviewed by Professor Bland described ostracism and prejudice in England so severe that their mothers, unable to cope, abandoned them to children’s homes.
I was fortunate. My Irish mother kept me. Fiercely private, for reasons I’d discover as an adult, she shared a rare story. I had double pneumonia as an infant, she’d said. She lay with me by the coal fire, the only heat source in our tiny house. Mother had tucked me into a make-shift bassinet — a dresser drawer — a tiny corner of a newspaper placed over my mouth so she could see my breath rise and fall.
If you think being mixed-race in a predominantly white community was confusing, add being half-Irish in England. Young Irishmen, curly-haired and pale, fresh off the boat in Liverpool, often lodged in our small house. I’d lay awake upstairs listening as they’d bang away on our old piano and blow a tune on a penny whistle. Their mournful lament, “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland” — words from Galway Bay — sung along with my Irish stepfather, their voices lubricated by an earlier trip to the pub, would filter up the stairs.
My mixed-race identity and my Irishness brought me into contact with Dr. Chamion Caballero and Peter J. Aspinall, who took the archival history they had painstakingly accumulated and developed a permanent digital museum and archive that shares the history of racial mixing in Britain from 1900 to 2021: now known as The Mixed Museum.
In July 2019, the Mixed Museum partnered with the Association of Mixed Race Irish on an exhibition designed “to shine a light on an often obscured dimension of the Irish diaspora.” Who knew mixed-race Irish have been living in Britain since the 1700s?
Through the wonders of Zoom, Dr. Caballero, The Mixed Museum director, held a virtual launch from London in September of a second digital exhibition: “Britain’s Brown Babies,” taking its title and content from Dr. Bland’s book. Dr. Caballero was joined by Dr. Bland and others, including SuAndi, a distinguished poet and educator, Phil Mullen, a PhD candidate and researcher at Trinity College, Dublin, as well as “brown babies” David, Arlene, Terry and me.
I’m immensely grateful to Dr. Caballero, Dr. Bland and their associates for preserving this history. Growing up in a white family, in a predominantly white country, I felt both conspicuous and invisible. I’ve embraced the conspicuous part, and thanks to these dedicated British academics, I and other mixed-race people are no longer invisible.
Pauline Nevins is the author of the memoir, “Fudge The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby,” and “Bonkers for Conkers,” a collection of personal essays. She lives in Colfax. She can be reached at http://www.paulinenevins.com.
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