Jackson Burnside on Day of Absence

This was written in response to the debate going on in the first two weeks of January 2010, about the best way to observe the Day of Absence, or whether to observe it at all. Ward and I were set to face one another in person on January 12, and Jackson was to join us. Jackson followed the whole debate. This is his response.


BY Jackson Burnside III

“I can’t see anything,” he thought. “If I see nothing, that means I’m stupid! Or, worse, incompetent!” If the Prime Minister admitted that he didn’t see anything, he would be discharged from his office. Hans Christian Anderson

First I must thank both Nicolette Bethel and Ward Minnis for the opportunity to participate at this level in the ongoing debate about A Day of Absence. For some time now I have been following these two scholars on their blogs, on Facebook, and in e-mail discussing a variety of issues particularly important to the culture, arts and heritage of our country. Ward has been in several places including Canada and Eleuthera, and Nicolette has been at the Ministry of Culture and the College of The Bahamas and Shakespeare in Paradise. What is fascinating today is they could be anywhere and still be here, getting in the business of “Who we are and What we are all about”.Both of these Artists have managed to draw me, and many others, into their musings on the state of Art and Culture in our Bahamas, and they have managed to maintain a mature level of discussion while throwing the kind of blows intellectually that would have knocked out the toughest head-fellas back in the days of the Cinema on East Street. Now you must understand that all this is happening on the Internet which opens up The Bahamas to expose ourselves to the world, to give and to receive, consciously and subconsciously. We seem helpless to control the volume of the information we are exposed to, and we seem to accept and wait for our opinions of ourselves and our worldview to come to us from those outside to whom we have given the authority to define us.We did not always have the Internet, obviously. Less than twenty years before Independence in 1973, we thought that television was the limit of technological innovation and we accepted the intelligence came from Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite. Before television we were connected to the radio. Even before electricity was inside the house, we turned on battery charged radios on schedule to listen to the BBC and ZNS to hear the news and special stories.We have always been fascinated by stories. Before the modern broadcast technologies, stories were in books or were ole-stories in the minds or in the traditions of families and communities. The stories that were repeated were those stories that served a purpose to entertain and to pass down survival skills to the younger generations to adapt to these flat, barren, narrow rocks that we only saw as wasteland. These stories, written, spoken, and performed, formed an important part of our rich heritage.Before the radio, when the stories came to us on the boat, we made every new story a part of our “ole-story”. We made this “conch salad” or peas soup” with everything from the Bible stories to the Royal Reader to the Oxendale and the Bellas Hess catalogues, (before the Sears and Roebuck catalogue). Families built the fire on the three rocks and roast corn, and told Bookie and Brer Rabbie stories, and speerit stories to scare the children to sleep and teach them how to survive in hazardous environments. Programs and Recitations in church halls and Lodge Halls throughout the land guaranteed that folk lore and traditions were repeated and impressed into the minds and hearts of the communities. Our people travelled and returned, and others visited and stayed, all bringing influences which we added to this mix-right-up concoction we call our Bahamaland.Reading stories from books and reciting from memory were important to who we were and what we were about. We looked forward to our teachers and story time. I can hear Naomi Blatch now reading from Hans Christian Anderson one of my favourite stories, The Emperor’s New Clothes. This was the tale of the vain Emperor who loved to dress in fancy clothing, who “get swing” by two swindling tailors who were full of self praise.These scoundrels told the Emperor they were great “Artists” and claimed they invented a fabric so light and fine that it appeared invisible. In fact, they said if anyone could not appreciate its quality, this cloth would be invisible to them because they were too stupid and incompetent to see its beauty. The Emperor, his Prime Minister, and all of his Ministers were fooled by these scoundrels, and the Emperor provided a loom, silk and gold threads, and large bags of gold from the public treasury to sponsor the work of the scoundrels. In addition to getting new clothes, the Emperor and members of government would soon learn which of the people were stupid and incompetent.Well you all know how the story went. The Emperor and his men were too embarrassed to admit they did not see the cloth and the clothes. They marveled at the beauty of the cloth and the design of the costumes, and because the Emperor and his court were so obviously impressed all of the spectators in the streets praised the work of the two crooked tailors as the Emperor strutted proudly on parade.A child, however who had nothing to gain from the Ministers and the Emperor could only see things as his eyes showed them to him.”The Emperor is naked”, he cried. “Fool” his Mother screamed. “Don’t talk nonsense!” she shouted as she grabbed his arm and led him away. But the damage had been done, and the sip-sip spread all through the crowds.This story continued to play in my mind as I read the exchange between Nicolette and Ward. Both Scholars agree that, at times, the Emperor is naked. The swindling tailors, like many who call themselves “Artists” in our country are simply foolin’ most of the people most of the time, and their invisible product is expected to be appreciated by the majority of the people. These so-called “artists” are amongst us in every aspect of our lives, the Government, the Church, the Teachers, the Unions, and indeed the Arts, asking us to see what is not there.The most important role in the old fable is given to the child. The young boy is the first to see what he’s lookin’ at, providing that badly needed critique of the work of the Artists. Ward reminds me of that critic, who seems to say that the clothes of the Emperor were full of holes even before he met these so called artists. He says the cloth is badly woven, and the design of the garments is not elegant. Ward says, “We artists in this country have not only had days of absence but we have had years, even decades, of absence”. While I cannot agree fully that Art has been so absent, I support the spirit of his statement.Ward’s role as the “Critic” is a badly missing character in our national story. Without “the children” courageous enough to criticize the “elders” in strong but respectful and honest critique, we will never have the consistent production of Art at the standard of world class. We like to say “We are the Best in The World”, yet we turn around and want to be like heroes from someplace else.Like us, Hans Christian Anderson took stories from other cultures and adapted them to his own. Anderson’s story is an old Arab and Jewish story from North Africa that found its way to Spain, then Germany, and Anderson learned it in Denmark and used it to create his classic. So you will excuse me if I act as if this story, from someplace else, is my own. This works for me because I see the creativity of the Emperors cloth and the design of his fashions as ART, which is the expression of the people’s spirit. I see the behavior of the Emperor, his Ministers and the people as CULTURE. Culture, for me is simply “What” we do, “How” we do, and “Why” we do all the things we do. Heritage, then, is the “Story” of the people and their place, expressed in tangible and intangible forms.To tell you the truth, I too was confused when Nicolette invited Artists to make themselves present in “A Day of Absence”. I agree with Ward when, in praise of his former professor, he says, “I still believe that the Bahamian Community is in need of something like this though, and if we begin a dialogue on what we really lack, maybe we can eventually get at what it is we really need”.Is the Emperor naked? Is Art really absent? Nicolette makes it abundantly clear that, “We Bahamians have cultivated the habit of supporting certain cultural endeavours simply because they are produced by Bahamians, regardless of quality. We have suppressed our critical faculties. We have come to expect sub-standard work from Bahamians, so much so that the very adjective “Bahamian” stands for mediocrity.” While this sad case of affairs is undeniable, it is also true that there is an abundance of individuals and organizations that, in spite of the culture of the “Emperor and his court”, produce diverse expressions of the highest standards.This is a blow that Nico strikes on the defensive in her “Second Response” to Ward’s stinging critique. She asks two questions, how good are we? And, how do we get better? She also argues that most of us choose to present the culture of mediocrity to make the argument that we are not that good. She turns that argument on itself and begs us to focus on the positive. There is no argument from any of us that for a country of our size we have produced an enormous volume of excellent Artwork of all kinds.Ward argues, however, that when we think of “the world of Art”, we are thinking mostly of artists generally from outside our borders. This is a very important issue, in his mind, because he says, ” The reality is that most, if not all of the images and products that filter our way from great foreign cultural creators, such as the United States, have been produced by professionals who have already been paid. To ask the right question therefore, is to ask, what would the Bahamas be without Bahamian Art?”I agree with Ward that the metaphor of absence must be questioned. Ward says. “We do not need any more absence. We need to make our presence felt”. We particularly need to make our presence felt to ourselves, so that we, Bahamians, would not automatically conclude that to get quality creative production or design, we need to look outside of ourselves.Clearly, Nicolette agrees with Ward also when she says, “The Day of Absence is not about withdrawal, about begging, about making money or getting jobs: it is about respect”. Ward questions, “Are all Bahamian Artists worthy of respect?”, and says, “The simple answer is no”. He asks, “Are we (the artists) really trying to reach the people, or have we been aiming at something else?” I believe this searching interrogation underscores the need for more dialogue and institutions in our nation to place Art and Culture in the centre of the public discussion and the national social and economic debate.If “culture” is everything that we do, can you imagine “a day where the undesirable and underdeveloped aspects of our culture are absent? Can you imagine “a day without tiefin, a day without schemin’, a day without liein’, A day without killin’”? The “Emperor and his Ministers”, as well as the people in the public square seem satisfied with this status quo. Less than a generation ago, we declared, in our ignorance, that we have no culture. Then, we began to say that regatta, or junkanoo, or the Dundas, or the orchestra was our “culture”. We were confused then and continue to be confused now, about what culture is, what Art is, or who Artists are. We hate to admit our ignorance, or say “we do not know”. But it is this very confession of ignorance that is the essence and the beginning of learning. Admitting our ignorance is at the foundation of the institutions that ask the questions that lead to new solutions and give our nation guidance to go forward.Can you imagine a Bahamian environment where quality of life is paramount? Imagine if you will that everywhere you turned in The Bahamas there was proof that Fashion, and Film, Fine Art and Craft, Monuments and Museums, Music and Dance, Literature and Theatre, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Homecomings and Festivals, Public Transportation and Open Space were all of the highest quality. Imagine if there was evidence of Bahamian Art and Cultural excellence all around you and the quality of the design environment was given the highest priority in our nation.In her Curator’s Note of Volume 6 of the NAGB Newsletter, Dr. Erica James states:

“More and more I have come to accept this recession as a rite of passage for The Bahamas, an indication that the nation’s extended childhood is over. Is it possible to seek vision in difficult times? Will these trying days host the moment when we are forced to learn the presence and value of our culture, accept the complexities of our identity and take ownership of our lives, our communities, our societies, and harness the ability to write our own stories?... Can we accept the fact of our limits, yet embrace the limitlessness of our imagination and determine nevertheless to insist on the excellence we are fully capable of?”

Unless we are confident enough like Nicolette Bethel to offer new solutions, and courageous enough like Ward Minnis to question the obvious, we will continue to wallow in our ignorance believing that artistic expressions alone make up culture, crippled by our fear to speak truth to power. Art hopefully places a mirror in the face of culture, and causes us to see what we lookin’ at when we look at ourselves. This is particularly critical in our economy, where our only public focus appears to be “winning on Bay Street”, or on the pretty scenic post card, and the well trained smiling servant faces, and on making money. We hide the ills, the pains, and the social and intellectual poverty of our society for fear that we might offend or upset our almighty tourist trade and dollars.So, we continue to hold “the parades”, in all aspects of our social and economic life, where the Emperor is naked, and we are satisfied when the children’s illustrations from somewhere else show that the Emperor at least has on underwear. We look at what the Emperor is wearing on Bay Street and we marvel, because we do not want anyone to think we are incompetent or stupid and we go back over-the-hill, out East, out West, and to the Deep South, and we holler “Dey rob us!”