On Blacks in Uniform

Just recently I had the privilege to spend considerable time visiting Paradise Island. In part, this was because I had several friends and acquaintances in town, and one of the sightseeing must-dos is to show them around Atlantis, as far as possible. In part, it was because of meetings that took place there over an extended period of time.I have to say that I travelled there without much of a second thought. This occurred to the wonder of some of my friends, who asked me whether I needed my passport to go there. I told them I didn’t need anything except to toss one dollar of my money into the till at the tollgate. (Ministry of Tourism officials, I learned, are provided with passes, which probably means that the government puts its money directly into the tollgate. I don’t know where that money goes. Perhaps it goes back to the government, which would defeat the purpose of my putting the dollar in – but never mind that.)There was the fact that in some places in the hotel my husband and I were asked for our room key or fat wads of our cash. As far as that goes, that’s fair enough; it’s the people hotel after all, and they have the right to charge for certain privileges. What you don’t pay for on the swings you’ll spend on the merry-go-round. No; within the confines of the four hundred walls of Atlantis, that’s fair enough.I didn’t need a passport. Most of the time I wasn’t going to Atlantis, or to Kerzner land at all. But what interested me was what I saw in the open air. Other people, especially those who worked there, needed a passport of sorts.Before I elaborate, let me explain a little about Paradise Island, which was the site of my recreation when I was a child. I grew up in the east of the island, and after the weather got warm my friends and I spent our free time on Cabbage Beach and wandering around Paradise like bands of bush urchins in our various brownnesses. When I was growing up, P.I. was mostly pine forest and mysterious trails leading off towards beaches and revelation (or, if you like, towards the beach facing Athol Island or towards the Holiday Inn). Now it’s a bustling city-unto-itself.Oh, people live there. It’s not all Atlantis. There are apartments and luxury homes all along the roads and side roads to the east. Kerzner has not got hold of every acre yet. But what struck me about most of the faces that I saw there, on Kerzner land and off, was this: either they were white, or they were black – and uniformed.I can hear you now. “That’s not unusual,” you’re protesting. “They work for people over there, and they have to wear uniforms as part of their work.” Or you’re saying, “Most service industries require their staff to wear uniforms or identifying clothing.” And you’re right, of course. Uniforms are both necessary and helpful; they instil pride in one’s position, they instil confidence among the clientele, and they may even be aesthetically pleasing overall.It’s not the fact that people are required to wear uniforms on Paradise Island that piqued my interest enough to write an article about it. I get the concept of uniforms, and I even like it in certain times and places. No; what arrested me was the fact that virtually the only black people I saw loose on Paradise Island – not driving cars, or sitting eating in the Hurricane Hole plaza, or behind the counters in Marina Village – were uniformed. Almost all the other faces were white.I can only presume that there’s something very comforting about black people in uniform. Uniforms make black faces look as though they fit in. They allow for categorization, and for control; each uniform tells you where this person is supposed to be, and who’s responsible for this person. All very comforting indeed.And all very odd, to my mind, in a country which gained majority rule without bloodshed, under the leadership of a party who stood for the achievement of equality for all Bahamians, regardless of the colours of their faces. Because the relegating to the black face to its appearance above a uniform smacks to me of a structure of class and race that Majority Rule was supposed to dismantle. It makes me think of slavery, of course; but to make that comparison is too facile and too expected for my main point. What it really suggests to me is that we have moved from an era where black faces were confined to uniforms because they were considered inferior to an era where black faces are confined to uniforms because it’s better for the bottom line.And it seems supremely odd that we appear to have no collective discomfort about this fact. Rather, we seem to be embracing it, welcoming investors who will replicate the “success” of Kerzner and Paradise Island, and spreading it all around this archipelago of ours. It seems crucially odd to me that we have had no true discussion of the implications of what I noticed on Paradise Island – implications that suggest that it’s all right for us Bahamians, particularly (but not exclusively) Black Bahamians, to be considered so out of place in our own country that we are expected to be uniformed to move freely around it.And it seems entirely odd that our governments – black, educated, wealthy, and stuffed with people of good conscience – have no problem with the concept at all.Perhaps we are all, fundamentally, prostitutes. If what it takes to provide jobs and “development” and a better performance on the tourist charts and money and children in private schools, then so be it.But I’m left very uneasy. History shows very clearly what the love of profit can breed. So I wonder. Is the phenomenon of blacks in uniform all that different from the past we thought that January 10, 1967 was supposed to erase? And by acknowledging the profit inherent in the practice, are we all that very different from the West African coastal businessmen who sold their people to slavers in exchange for guns and rum and cold, hard cash?