Double Passage

Anthropologist George Gmelch of Union College has done a wonderful job of finding and interviewing a representative assortment of articulate, thoughtful Barbadians who participated in the postwar mass migration of West Indians to England and later (after 1962, when under domestic political pressure the British parliament passed a law limiting migration) to the United States and Canada. Though Gmelch acknowledges having edited for coherence, he has been deft and respectful enough that his narrators’ voices come through clearly, telling their individual and yet exemplary stories.

DOUBLE PASSAGE is obviously a labor of love, as well as a work of great value and methodological integrity. Gmelch is an empathetic interviewer and a skillful synthesizer of material. He frames the book’s oral narratives with helpful chapters on Barbados, “Patterns of West Indian Migration,” “Immigrants in the Metropole,” and “The Meaning of Return Migration,” and he closes the book with his own “Reflections on Oral History and Migration.” Most of his narrators are “ordinary” return migrants (though perhaps by virtue of being returnees not ordinary among Barbadians at large) — though one, Jack Wickham, is one of the Barbados’ most distinguished writers and statesmen, and The Mighty Gabby is the island’s greatest calypsonian.

Gmelch claims, and his narrators’ stories demonstrate, that Barbadian emigrants have tended to be notably ambitious, resourceful, and intelligent. One notes with great interest their impressions of white Britons and their passage from naivete (many emigrated at very young ages, in pursuit of abundant jobs rebuilding postwar Britain) to a wisdom and broad-mindedness acquired from many years in a foreign society. Return migrants are among the elite of a newly prosperous Barbados. “All that I have gotten in life since I left school — property, experience, motivation, the will to get ahead — I got in England. I owe England a lot,” asserts Valenza Griffith, a nurse with immense, palpable self-respect who emigrated in 1961.

Many interesting photographs add a dimension. The topic, scope, and tone of DOUBLE PASSAGE bring to mind Nicholas Lemann’s superb THE PROMISED LAND: THE GREAT BLACK MIGRATION AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA (Knopf, 1991).