How we Bahamians are helping

All right, enough responding to the inappropriate reactions of Bahamians to the Haitian earthquake. You know what the old people say: don't mind the noise in the market, just mind the price of the fish. So what the fish costing these days?

I thought I'd start a list of things that ordinary Bahamians are doing. As often happens, people involved in doing good are too busy working to make noise, and so it's easy to get distracted by the more vocal among us and imagine that we Bahamians are not giving or assisting. So I thought I'd make a list of what we are doing. I am absolutely certain that I will miss many people out, so I invite anyone who wants to add to this list. Let's make it as long as we can. (I've got a list over on FB too but let's push it here to the blog, where it can last for a long long time).

We can start with these:

Use the comment thread to post more info! (one note - please be patient when you post your comment - you need to have had a comment approved for it to show up immediately -- if you're a first-time commenter your comment will be held for moderation till I approve it - but be patient, I will!)

On Holding One Other in Contempt

There's an affliction that strikes countries whose histories come out of colonialism. It's one of the legacies that dangles on, like a dying but not-quite-dead jellyfish, wrapping its tentacles over whatever it can reach, spreading its venom to newer and newer generations. It's the sense that what happens in your space of the world, what takes place in your territory, is not quite real. It isn't really happening to proper people. What is real, or important, or of anything significance at all, happens Over There -- in the Real World, where Real People Live. Where we inhabit are the realms of the shadow people.This post was prompted by, but is only partly about the closure of Starbucks COB. It's also about bigger issues: about the way in which we treat ourselves, about our expectations that we citizens have of our country and our development, and the way in which those expectations are exploited by those people who enter the political arena. It's tangentially about the way in which we behaved like adults when following the US presidential elections one year ago, but how we revert to childishness when we follow our own (although the idiocies presented us by our own politicians are no different from the mass of idiocy force-fed to American citizens, and, in many cases, are less egregious (can anyone say Rod Blagojevich?)). But it's fundamentally about what lies at the core of this tendency, and it's this: somehow we think we are only good enough for second-class everything. Somehow, we believe that the good stuff should be saved for our visitors, put on display for the real world. Somehow, we don't actually think we're real.Let me put it another way. We don't think we deserve stuff that other people consider ordinary. Now this doesn't simply affect us here in The Bahamas. It occurs throughout the Caribbean and Africa, with notable exceptions. In this, we mirror our colonial pasts, when the good stuff was saved for sending to the motherland (or serving to her representatives) and the dregs were good enough for us.We see evidence of this situation in many of the homes in which we grew up, where we had one room in which we put all our goodies -- the best furniture, the best decor, the good china, the pretty drapes -- and which we used only when visitors came by -- and only very special visitors at that. Some of us kept the dining table set with our china and silverware, making that space a kind of museum for our good stuff. Many of us kept the plastic on the furniture. In some cases, in houses that were built in the second half of the twentieth century particularly, we even had a separate entrance for different sorts of people: friends and relatives and family would enter through one door (usually the kitchen or side door) and only visitors would walk through the front.Now as far as that goes, it's an interesting cultural adaptation to a history of violence and subordination. By itself, it isn't remarkable. It's even got many good qualities about it -- there's always a space in one's home that is ready to entertain visitors, there's room for hospitality, there's order, there's good sense.But where it becomes dangerous is when we take that practice outside our homes and apply it to the society at large -- to our core institutions, to our city, to our nation as a whole, as we do -- reserving the new and the shiny for the special visitors (or the people at the top), like having a special conference room for the Minister in many agencies, and another "conference room" for ordinary mortals; or reserving the use of a newly renovated building for special occasions and special people; or deciding, implicitly, that a certain level of comfort or service, a certain quality of experience, is "good enough" for ordinary Bahamians, and that the kindness and warmth and smiles are only turned on for foreign visitors.(more to come)

Noelle Nicolls - Way cool blog

I recently discovered, yet another blog by a conscious young Bahamian woman. I was drawn to it by this, a travelogue of one women trailing the length of a Bahamian island. It didn't hurt that the island was one I know better than most -- Long Island -- but what kept me was the blog itself. Here's now it's described:

Discover the world inside my head on the pages of this prayer book, in the love letters to my Man of Steele. Prayer Book is my 'politics' blog that examines the thoughts and questions I have of myself, of God, and the world. Steele Chronicles are stories about the late great R. Kirk Steele. Travelogues are tales of my adventures around the world. Reading Room is a taste of the mind candy I ingest from the world's wordsmiths.

And here's where the inspiration came from:

The inspiration from for the original Creative Extremes, which was intended to be a current affairs blog, came from Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail".

I recommend it. Go have a read, and sink right in.

On Culture, CARIFESTA, and the Bahamian Economy, Part I

It came to my attention last month that our government was planning to postpone, once again, the hosting of the Caribbean Festival of Arts, if it had not yet done so. Announcements to that effect would be made very soon, I was told. The fact that such announcements have not yet been made may make this post obsolete. I rather doubt it, however.It should be no surprise to anyone at all that I think this is a terrible idea. It's not just because I would like to write for a living and make that living in the country in which I grew up. It's also because it's flying in the face of what international agencies focussed on development economics suggest is the place of culture in that development.For those of us who don't know, or who haven't noticed, the world has changed. As I write, indeed, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, the US President is opening the door for negotiations with Cuba, which, as we all know, is the only viable competitor for The Bahamas' prosperity in the Caribbean region. In fact, it's possible to argue that the only reason The Bahamas has maintained its supreme position in the region has been because the fifty-year long US embargo of Cuba, has coincided with the latest Bahamian boom. But now, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting Cuba, and the Obama administration is making very clear noises that the embargo will soon be lifted.At the same time, for the first time in almost twenty years, the Bahamian government's plan for prosperity -- foreign investment, foreign investment, foreign investment -- is not bearing fruit. Why not? The reasons are various. Perhaps the biggest is the reason Barack Obama himself gave for changing the way the USA has done business for the past generation or so -- that trickle-down economics, or the spreading of the wealth accumulated by the rich and mighty -- does not work. It no longer works in the USA, which is the greatest nation in the world; and it has not worked in The Bahamas as an engine of development for a country that has not yet invested in itself.  Oh, it has done well in providing a couple of decades' worth of get-rich-quick money for a smattering of people. But as we are noticing, where the sharing of wealth is dependent on the goodwill of the greedy, little gets shared. And so our current "wealth" is almost wholly dependent on the goodwill of the foreign investor, who is interested in the people of this nation only as workers -- as block-layers, lifeguards, toilet-cleaners, cooks, drivers, or middle managers who have no ability to affect or shape company policy.It is not foreign investment that economists and development agencies are suggesting is the engine of economic development in the 21st century; it's culture. If you don't believe me, go and look it up. Culture is no longer regarded as peripheral to development. It has been recognized as a viable, resilient, sustainable and renewable source of economic gain. A quick look at any international economic arrangement negotiated since 2002 will illustrate this truth. International agencies everywhere, from the European Union to the Organization of American States to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, are recognizing the place of culture on the economic agenda.But here, in The Bahamas, for a generation and a half -- the entire time since Independence -- our national policies have been shaped by a group of men and a handful of women whose actions and behaviour cumulatively suggest that they would rather erase Bahamian culture than invest in it.Despite our so-called prosperity, we are the only Caribbean nation that cannot demonstrate our government's pride in what makes us us. Part of this is because Government policy since 1992 has focussed on conning foreign investors to put in infrastructure that (we are told) the government cannot afford. The result? Despite soaring tourist arrivals (and, presumably, soaring demand for authentic Bahamian cultural products), the cultural industries are in effective decline. Those foreign investors in whom we've placed our trust? They don't care whose culture visitors consume, as long as the profits flow to into their coffers.  What we should have learned by now is that no people -- or their representatives -- can depend on someone else to develop their own cultural resources. We have to do that job for ourselves.But we don't. The recurrent budget allotted by our goverment to culture, despite all the fussing about a so-called Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Ministers of State, only crossed the $2 million line in the 2008-2009 budget year. The government agency charged with the development of Bahamian culture is not a Ministry, nor is it a Department; it is a Division, which means that even that $2 million is not administered by anybody in that Division. (It isn't administered by the Minister, either, for anyone who remains fooled into thinking that this may be so.)  The Chief Financial Officer in any government agency is the Permanent Secretary, or the Director of any Department that has a budget head; and the Cultural Affairs Division is so far away from having a budget head that it would be laughable if it were not so frightening. That $2 million is inscribed in a single line item under whatever budget head the Division is attached to (Office of the Prime Minister (Head 14) one year, Education (Head 38) the next, Youth, Sports and Culture (Head 47) the next). And that $2 million is expected to support festivals throughout The Bahamas, maintain a "national theatre" (which is so far from being either thing that it demonstrates the depth of the contempt that our governments have for us) run a National Arts Festival, finance sundry cultural events throughout the year, and run the $1.5 million festival of Junkanoo.Stand this up against the over $91 million we allot to the Ministry of Tourism, much of which is spent outside The Bahamas. I was once told, laughingly, by a senior official in that Ministry that the budget I was given to work with (that was back in 2004, when the budget was maybe $1.2 million, give or take) was what Tourism managers were given to make mistakes with. We can afford Miss Universe, which will benefit Atlantis; but we cannot, it appears, afford CARIFESTA, which will benefit us all.But it is not Miss Universe, which is a cultural brand developed elsewhere, with economic returns for the owners of the brand that will develop the Bahamian economy.According to international agencies and economists the world around, it is our culture.This is why the planned postponement of CARIFESTA, if it is indeed so planned (and if it isn't, the lack of any progress towards the hosting of that festival in 2010 indicates that a decision has already been made, if not announced), is the terrible idea that it is.I have yet to be convinced that Miss Universe will benefit the Bahamian economy substantially, other than in the collection of departure taxes, which will be funnelled into agencies that spend their monies outside the nation anyway. I am sure it will keep the Kerzners happy. I know, however, that I and mine will certainly not benefit in any way from Miss Universe; nor, I imagine, will most other people in the cultural industries, unless their name be Ronnie Butler or K.B. and unless they be set to open for whatever international giant that comes to perform. I do not think that food vendors or writers or poets or improv performers or even the broad Junkanoo community will benefit in any substantial way from Miss Universe, not to mention the car rental agencies, the restaurants and watering holes on the Bahamian side of the bridge, the small hotels and guest houses, the vast majority of taxi drivers and the tour bus companies not sanctioned by Atlantis, the street cleaners, the road-repairers, the marching bands, the graphic designers, the t-shirt makers, or the film community.These are the people who will benefit from CARIFESTA, however, which is unsuited to be housed at Atlantis, that most inauthentic institution, that theme park for the unsuspecting, which only resides among us, but is not of us.  The influx of visitors, and the type of visitors that will make up that influx, will be interested in us, who we are, what we do, and will spend money on what is most Bahamian, will not be conned into overspending on what is fictional at best.And yet (I'm told) our leaders believe that to host the Festival will be a waste of money in the end.I know this much. Economic evidence from around the world exists which proves our leaders wrong. And common sense suggests it too. Our development will not happen at the hands of foreigners; it is in our own hands, and the hands of the governments we elect to lead us. We can read the reports for ourselves, and accept the idea that culture is the economic sector in which to invest for nations that are still developing; or we can share the delusions of our politicians, which confuse the grandeur of the monstrosities the foreign investors build (and usually protect behind gates and bridges and visitor passes) with development of a nation and of a people. We need to make up our own minds. From here on in, it's up to us.

On Images of Savages, Part Three

Don't tell me -- the horse is almost dead, and there's no sense in flogging it much more. I know. The thing is, while you may think that I've made my point about race and related subjects (several times over), there's still one more contribution I'd like to make.I'd like to catalogue the images that were associated with -- and that associated us with -- savages and savagery. The reason? They haven't gone away at all. We use them today. And we use them on ourselves.A lot of the time, it's not a white-black thing at all. Most of the time, we're so comfortable with the images of savages we've inherited from our slave-ridden, anti-Enlightenment past that we take them for granted and think of them as fact.By naming them, maybe we can begin to erase them once and for all.So here goes. A savage was considered to be a lower form of human being, a creature that stood between "man" and "beast", a sort of link between the rational and the instinctive, bestial world. This concept remained constant over the roughly four hundred years that non-Europeans were being coerced into being Europeans' servants and subordinates, although its origins were considered to be different.At first, the difference between Europeans and others was believed to be religious in nature. In the beginning, the debates were held over the existence of the savage soul. Early imperialists justified their actions in one of two main ways, and both were hotly contested at home. On the one hand, the people of the New World were soulless beings, existing halfway between animal and man (rather like angels existed halfway between man and God). According to this reasoning, their eradication was a holy cleansing, and many native Americans were murdered in this vein. On the other hand, though, the people of the New World were believed to have souls, but inferior and sin-ridden ones. According to this reasoning, the imperialists' job was to save them, to convert them and baptize them and turn them into Christians.Later, though, the differences were considered to have a scientific basis. Debates were held over the place of these people in the evolutionary ladder. Although the discussion had changed, the place of the so-called "savage" had not moved at all; non-Europeans occupied different rungs in the so-called "ascent" of man. Careful attention was paid to slotting the right group of people into the correct place in this staircase of progress. Europeans, quite clearly the most advanced of all "races", were at the top, and looked down upon everybody else. But who was closest to them? Were the Chinese, with their ancient wisdom and their revolutionary inventions, like paper and gunpowder and noodles, the next most advanced people, or were the East Indians, with their ancient religions? What about the "Red" Indians? The Africans? The Australian Aborigines and the Pacific Islanders?Generally, the criteria used to assign people to their place on this staircase of progress were simplistic, almost childish. Oddly enough, in many cases the amount of clothing a group of people wore entitled them to be classified as more or less advanced. Civilization was measured by the covering of skin, while savagery was associated with nakedness (the one exception to this, of course, were those groups of people classified as "Eskimo", who couldn't help but cover themselves from head to toe). In many other cases, the kinds of dwellings that people built were also considered to be markers of civilization -- whether a society had something that could be called "architecture" was used to separate man from savage. Other things, like types of technology, land use patterns, modes of subsistence, and religious systems were used to classify groups of humans into degrees of civlilization; and even today, we use these very criteria to think about "progress" and "backwardness". Farms that grow one or two crops and sell them to other people are considered to be more "modern" than farms that grow everything that individuals need and sell a little bit to get cash; these are thought to be "backward". The use of fertilizers and pesticides and tractors are markers of "progress", while more ancient (and sustainable) technologies -- like mixed-use farming, shifting cultivation (otherwise known as slash-and-burn agriculture) and natural weed and pest control are considered to be reactionary and anti-modern.Even more insidious -- and even more widespread -- was the almost unspoken association of the intellect with whiteness and the body with negritude. And this is something that still flourishes today. I could talk about Black American culture, but I don't need to; it's alive and well in The Bahamas as I write. In contemporary Bahamian society, using one's brain is considered "soft" or "white"; using one's body -- whether it be for sports, or for fighting, for sex, or for working on construction sites -- is black and manly.To carry the association further, and to state what many of us believe in our hearts to be true: white people make better scientists and inventors and writers and academics, but black people make the best athletes and dancers and lovers.  White people might be rich, but black people can fight.  White people are cold and calculating; but black people can feel.  On the other hand, white people are compassionate and "soft", and want to give everybody rights they don't deserve; black people are tough and know that punishment is far more effective than understanding.  White people are smart, rich, and weak; black people are stupid, poor, and strong.I could go on, but I'm running out of space.  My point?  That these are all images that were invented to justify the domination of groups of people, and not truths that we must live by.  People are people, and fundamentally people are all the same.  The differences are superficial; underneath, we are more alike than we think.  We don't need to remain bound by the images of savages that have been imposed upon us.  It's time we invented some civilized images of our own.

On Images of Savages, Part Two

The thing about writing about race and related stuff, it seems, is that it stimulates considerable discussion. I'm not at all sure that everybody who wants to say something has said it; but the number of comments I've received to my face and on the blogs where my essays appear suggest that there's a need -- if not exactly a desire -- to talk about this stuff.Even when people claim that there isn't.The thing is, though I started out by talking about race in the Bahamian context, this topic is far bigger than any of us. The real reason we have to talk about who we are, who we are assumed to be, and who we are expected to be is that what happens here in The Bahamas is one small piece in a huge global jigsaw. It's perfectly true that up to now many of our public discussions about this difficult topic have been politically motivated, and politically motivated on the most destructive level. One party says race is irrelevant, and this gains them points in some circles. The other party says race affects every element of our current life, and this gains them points in other circles. The problem is, a discussion such as this is not a discussion at all; it's a form of political campaigning that doesn't tell us anything at all about who and why we are.And so back to the images of savages.I didn't invent the term, by the way. I took the name of this article and the one before it from a book written by an anthropologist who traced the origins of racial stereotyping to ancient Europe, and who linked the development of the concepts we carry with us in our minds and our bodies to their roots. And he found some of those roots at a very interesting time in history -- during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.For those who don’t know what the significance of those centuries is, consider this. These were the years in which Europe was reforming itself, moving from the so-called "Dark" Ages into the so-called "Enlightenment". Rather than getting rid of its own "darkness", however -- the ignorance, superstition, and fear that it considered synonymous with mediaeval times -- it instead shifted that "darkness" geographically outward. By the time Columbus was setting sail to find the short road to China, Europe had already prepared itself to see the people he would meet not just as having stepped onto a beach, but having stepped out of the past.By so doing, Europe had laid the foundation for the development of an idea of "savagery" that would enable them to categorize the people they met in the Americas as lesser beings, people who God intended to be conquered, to be evangelized, to be subordinated, and to be enslaved. And by so doing, Europe turned the conquest and rape of the New World into a divine project of civilization and transformation. The enslavement of Africans in the old world followed almost seamlessly behind.It's become commonplace to observe two things when defending the position that we really shouldn't be talking about this -- about things that are long past and faded away.The first is that none of this is relevant to us today. Slavery is over, and everybody's now equal. Crying victimhood does nobody any good, and casting blame doesn't help either. We're Bahamian, after all, and we run our nation now. Let's not cry about the past. Let's just deal with it.The second is that slavery has always existed, and people have always been slaves. It doesn't do us much good to focus solely on one kind of slavery; we have to acknowledge that the Africans themselves kept slaves, and even sold those slaves to the Europeans.There's a lot to be said for this position. Crying victimhood is not an answer to any problems, for while you can't always change the bad things that happen to you, you can control how you react to them. And slavery did exist, not only in Africa, but all the way up to Rome and Greece and even Russia. But there's a little more to be said.The institution of slavery that affected us most here in the new world was a slavery that was fundamentally different from the slavery that existed in the ancient world. While that had a place within the societies that practised it -- slaves were got through conquest or debt or some other process that was shared by the dominant society, and every member of the society, if they were unlucky, ran the risk of being enslaved as a result of war or misfortune -- TransAtlantic slavery involved the enslavement of other people far away from the societies of the enslavers, and enabled otherwise decent people to be complicit in a huge dehumanizing effort. What was not permissible in Europe was perfectly fine when practised on other people. In the words of "Rule Britannia": "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves"; but until 1834 people of other "races" could be, and were.In order to justify the enslavement of other human beings in a society that was engaging in discussions of humanity and civilization and progress, a distinction had to be made between types of human beings. Hence the promotion of the idea of the "savage" -- it helped make the Enlightenment practice of slavery fit with the ideas of freedom and equality that were being taught at the same time. And the results of that idea are with us today. While the institutions that that distinction created have been officially dismantled, the psychic residue of those institutions has not even begun to be addressed.I would argue that the current "gangsta" culture of the Black Americas -- which draws upon and embodies much of the worst of the imagery of savagery that was developed to describe people of colour -- is a playing out, an internalization, of those ideas of savagery that were used to justify the enslaving of Africans, the indentureship of Asians, and the subordination of mestizos and mulattos throughout the Americas. The word we use to describe our own ghetto young women -- jungless -- is derived, whether we admit or not, directly from that whole battery of images of animality, brute force, and stupidity that were projected upon the so-called "lesser races" during the enslavement, forced migration, and subordination of the people who were used to build the American colonies. I'll say it again, and without apology. We cannot even begin to address the problems that afflict us today, therefore, without understanding, and making peace with our past.

On Images of Savages, Part One

Recently I've been exploring the idea of race. It's not because I want to cause trouble. It's because I believe I don't have much choice. Despite the happy-talk about there not being any real problem any more, ours is a society plagued by self-loathing. As "blacks", we hate ourselves for being descended from enslaved Africans; as "whites", we hate ourselves (or our ancestors) for our involvement in the slave trade. We have all, for worse and for better, been impacted by the institution of transatlantic slavery; and yet we refuse to discuss in any meaningful way the consequences of that fact.I'm going to suggest that part of the reason for our silence on this matter -- and it's a silence that's as thick and as ominous as a summer day before a hurricane -- is that we have all been taught to believe the lies that supported the institution of slavery. These are the lies that were told to justify the enslaving of other human beings, and they are also the lies that were taught to the enslaved to keep them from fighting their state.One of those lies was this: that slavery existed as part and parcel of a vast civilizing project that God gave the European for the betterment of all humanity.According to this lie, slavery was a necessary evil that existed to save the "lesser races" from their savagery and to teach them how to be good human beings. The fact that the slaves were forced to work against their will, often to their deaths, and that they were bought and sold like less important horses and cows, was conveniently overlooked in this fiction. Slavery was on some levels God's blessing to the enslaved, the avenue by which He taught them how to be fully human.Utter nonsense, of course, but powerful anyway.This is one reason why, I believe, we're so afraid to address our past -- and one reason why I think we must. The way in which we look at the world -- at ourselves, at our relatives, our acquaintances and at strangers -- was shaped by a specific need to justify an unjustifiable system. If we let that world-view go unchallenged, we will perpetuate the lie from generation to generation.Let me illustrate. There's an article that I relished teaching to students when I was a lecturer at the College of The Bahamas. It addresses the Africanness of Bahamian culture, and it talks about a number of things that link us with the African continent: certain habits we have, the way we bury our dead, things we do when babies are born, the way we worship, and the things we believe about the dead and other strangenesses. I liked to teach it because the students' reactions were so profound. What surprised me most was how many of them stopped reading the article before they reached the end. When we discussed it, they labelled it "heathen" or "sinful", and tried to distance themselves from the author's observations. And their reactions were in direct proportion to the truth they found in the article. The more they recognized themselves and their own actions in the piece, the more they tried to distance themselves from it.I suspect that what was so unsettling about the article is that what they were learning about themselves -- about themselves and about this culture that we all share -- uncovered for them the fundamental Africanness of much of what we do. And this is an unsettling link, it would seem, because we are still perpetuating the lie that was told to justify the enslavement of our ancestors: that Africa was a primitive place, and it took the light of the European to guide it from its darkness to the light.This idea of the savage -- of the being who looked like a person but who wasn't fully human, but who might potentially be able to be trained to be mostly human -- went hand in hand with the project of slavery, and it's against this backdrop that we have learned to see ourselves.And this is why race still pulls our strings today. According to the tales told about our ancestors, civilization was considered to go along with white skin, and savagery was considered to accompany skins of different colours. The way in which we treat people whose skins are dark, as opposed to the way we treat those whose skins are light is residual.This state of affairs is not unique to us, by the way. All of the nations that have been constructed on the ruins of slavery are fighting the same battles, from those in which the descendants of the enslaved are a minority of the population, like the USA, to those in which those descendants constitute the entire country, like some of our neighbours to the south.I'm going to argue that we can trace the present racial and social inequalities of The Bahamas, the USA, Jamaica, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and even Africa to a single set of causes, and that one of these causes is the image of the savage, that person who was invented to help make the project of slavery more bearable to all concerned. Understanding those causes isn't necessarily going to fix the problem, but it may tell us where to look and how to approach it.But more on that later. For now, we need to remember that our inequalities are steeped in a history that is bigger than all of us. That's why there's no shame in talking about them. Unless we talk, we'll never understand them; and without that understanding, there may be no cure at all.

More On Why Race Matters

Last week I wrote about why race matters in the twenty-first century Bahamas, and argued that unless we talk about our experiences as different human beings in this multiracial, hierarchical society, we will continue to relive old prejudices forever.This week, I want to talk a little about why race matters to me -- a Bahamian who, at different times and in different places in this Bahamas, has been categorized as black, white and coloured, and treated accordingly.Let me tell you a story.There was great rejoicing in my family when I was born. On one level, it was for all the usual reasons -- that I was healthy, that I was a first on both sides of the family tree -- the first grandchild in my mother's family, and the first girl in my father's. But there was another reason as well.There was great rejoicing among some members of my grandparents' generation because I was born so white.My mother's family and my father's family both were people of mixed origins. Their ancestors were white people, black people, and other people who ranged from Amerindians to whoever else happened to be in the mix. Their appearance ranged from dark brown with African features and hair (two fundamentally important markers of your lot in life) to coffee-and-cream with European attributes.In pre-1967 Bahamas, there were three social-racial classes of Bahamians: white, black, and mixed (or coloured). The social set-up was simple. There was a little ditty people used to chant to make sure that everybody stayed in their allotted station in life, and it went like this: "If you white, you all right; if you brown, stick around; if you black, stay back."Now, in case you think this was peculiar to The Bahamas, know that it existed throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, where people of European descent made up the minority of the population. They maintained their position at the top of the heap by creating what historians call the "race-class pyramid": a society organized with a few white people at the top, a whole bunch of black people at the bottom, and a motley group of people who didn't fit into either group in between. Now this in-between group consisted of all sorts: black people who had some education or some money and some social status to boot; people from the Mediterranean who didn't quite count as "white" but couldn't be called "black"; Asians of all sorts, from Chinese to Indian; and the mixed-up offspring of them all.In the rest of the Caribbean, where there weren't enough whites to go around, these people were often able to gain access to real power of a sort, becoming senior civil servants, doctors, lawyers, artists, merchants, university professors, and other professionals, and forming the bedrock of the kind of middle class that was found in Europe and elsewhere. It's from this group of people that many of the leaders of the Caribbean independence movement came. In The Bahamas, though, these people had far fewer opportunities.As I've pointed out before, the white population in The Bahamas was the largest of any colony (except Bermuda). What that meant was that (a) there were far fewer openings in middle-class activities for people of colour, although a few non-white Bahamians did make some economic gains; and (b) that there were no social opportunities at all. The most a fair-skinned person could hope for was to be able to qualify for a "nice" job, like serving in a shop on Bay Street, taking tickets in the Savoy Theatre, or working in a bank. Some very lucky women might, if they were pretty enough and smart enough, land themselves a white husband and move into white society. But for the most part, even the fairest Bahamian of colour had their family tree working against them, and couldn't expect to move very far.What that meant was that, if you wanted to get ahead, unless you were very confident or very smart or very stubborn, you didn't concentrate on getting a good education or working hard. Neither of these was going to get you very far anyway; the opportunities for education were limited, and the opportunities for doing something meaningful after that -- unless you were going to be a newspaperman or a teacher or a nurse or a member of the clergy -- were more limited still.What it meant was that if you wanted to get ahead, your best bet was finding a way to make your children lighter than you, so maybe one day, their children or grandchildren could be fair enough to matter. If that meant trying to seduce white men to sleep with you so you could have their children, or if it meant cutting yourself off from your black(er) family, then that was what you had to do.The point of all this reminiscing is this. It may seem that those days are gone forever, and that those attitudes have gone away. But they have not. Forty years after majority rule, there is still rejoicing among some of us when our children are born fairer than we are. Forty years on, there is still apparently a preference among (black) bank managers for people with bright skin to stand behind counters. Forty years on, markers of beauty still include straight hair and pointy noses. And so women pay for weaves and creams that fade their skins, and men still like long hair and light eyes. So before we assume that for those people born in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, most of this is ancient history, let us make no mistake. These attitudes have affected us all, and they are not irrelevant, no matter what hopeful stances many of us take. We have made some progress, it's true; but these ideas have shaped our society and they continue to inform who we are. It's not about black or white or African or European -- that would be too simple. It's about us, Bahamians, and until we tell our stories, we will continue to simplify the most complex issues, and we'll continue to live in a neo-colonial ex-colony, and not in a multicultural nation of which we all can be proud.

On Victory

Let me start by congratulating the Bahamian electorate on its victory at the polls.Before the election took place, I had written a very different article. The bones of it are posted elsewhere; I was thoroughly disappointed in the campaign, and I thought this was going to be an awful election. An interesting election, but an awful one as well.Interesting, because (as an old friend of mine very wisely observed, a couple of weeks before the election) it is the last one to be fought in the shadow of Sir Lynden Pindling, with his two bright-eyed boys nearing the ends of their careers. (I'm talking about the Rt. Hons. Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie, for those of you who don't know, each of whom received their seventh consecutive election to the House of Assembly, each of whom was a favoured Cabinet Minister in the Pindling PLP administration, each of whom was expelled from the PLP in 1984; and, moreover, and each of whom contested the 1987 general elections as Independent candidates and defeated their PLP opponents - quite a feat in those days.)And awful, because this was the first election campaign in my memory that was fought almost exclusively on insult. Both sides focused on the respective weaknesses of the other leader, on the various scandals afflicting prominent members of each party, and on the general baseness of their opponents and their supporters.And still the Bahamian people showed their representatives how to behave, and elected the most balanced parliament in forty years.This, I believe, even more than the changes of government over the past fifteen years, is a measure of the electorate's maturity - if maturity is the right way to put it. I suspect that it's even more a measure of the distance between the average Bahamian voter and the average politician. Politicians, ironically, especially seasoned ones, tend to live in a circumscribed and narrow world, one defined for them by their hangers-on, most of whom are either blindly loyal party members or else favour-currying sycophants, while the Bahamian voters live in a world that is largely defined by global (read American) politics, complete with sophisticated and critical political discussions.For a long time, Bahamian politicians have underestimated the Bahamian people. Many of them -- especially those schooled in the shadow of the early FNM and PLP -- continue to regard us as being semi-educated, superficial individuals who respond best to emotional appeals and simplistic discussions of complex issues. And so what has invariably brought governments down is often their very success. In 1992, the PLP was defeated by the growth of the same well-educated and prosperous middle class that government created. In 2002, the freedom of the airwaves ushered in by the FNM ultimately provided the avenue for that government's downfall. This time? I'm going to argue that this not-our-father's PLP was brought down by the very values they claimed when they aligned themselves with Bahamians of all races and creeds to tackle vexing issues such as land and constitutional reform, environmental awareness, national sovereignty, and the economic challenges posed by globalization - and by their addiction to consultation. The higher a bar is set, the further one has to fall.That's why I want to congratulate my countrymen for this new government we have elected. It's not just the change that impresses me; it's what I suspect lies behind the change, the message it sends, and the implications for the way ahead.You see, this time the government we elected is not one that can govern by a wide margin. It wasn't won by a landslide. The popular vote was one of the closest ever. As I write, estimates are floating that that vote was 50%-50%, or 49%-51% in favour of the FNM; by the time this goes to press the figures may be established. What is even more remarkable is that the margin in the House of Assembly is so close - and that the opposition consists, as one talk show host observed, of seasoned politicians. A majority of five seats means that issues must be discussed with care, legislation must be carefully drafted, and committees must complete their work. It also means that the government is vulnerable not only to the opposition, but to its own members; the balance of power is a mere three seats.In other words, our representatives are going to have to govern rather than campaign. They are going to have to negotiate instead of impose, to persuade rather than bully, to fashion arguments in the place of polemics if anything is to be done. The margin is small enough for anything to happen over the course of five years - and yet it's large enough to ensure that business will take place.So perhaps now, at last, we have elected a government that will get on with the business of governing us, not one that is half focussed on appeasing or rewarding its supporters and half focussed on getting things done for the rest of us.And so now, perhaps, we can deal with issues that affect the future of the nation -- like our identity as a people, our sovereignty, our economic survival in the global economy. Like race, and how we deal with it, whether we are white, black, Haitian, Greek, Chinese, or all (or none) of the above. Like immigration. Like the environment, and how we can make our development sustainable. Like reform of the public service, reform of our constitution, and the fundamental education of our people.It is a great new day indeed. The Bahamian people have won a great victory. Congratulations and condolences to all who deserve them. This was a wonderful outcome of the 2007 general election, and one I've been waiting for all my life.

On Commemorating Abolition

This continues a topic I started last week.In November 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring March 25, 2007 as the International Day for the Commemoration for the Two-hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. That the resolution was put forward by the CARICOM states is remarkable. That it was supported widely by other members is important. But what we do with it here in The Bahamas, where we are generally unaware of our role in the international community, and where we are usually ignorant of our place in history, will demonstrate, and perhaps determine, who we really are, and in which direction we are heading.We live, you see, in a society for whom the history of slavery is palpably uncomfortable. For many of us, it’s preferable to forget our slave past, perhaps because we’re ashamed of having been enslaved. For others, we’d rather forget the fact that we owned slaves. For still others, we are torn – some of our ancestors were slaves, and others were their owners.We also live in a society whose images of slavery have been shaped almost indelibly by the depictions of the slave pasts of other people – of the USA, or of the West Indies. We imagine plantations and overseers and whips and brands, but we don’t know that there were fundamental differences between slavery in The Bahamas and slavery in the West Indies and in the southern USA. We don’t realize that our plantations failed miserably, making our slavery quite a different animal.In the first place, although cotton was grown here for a mere thirty years, slavery was legal in The Bahamas from 1648, when the Eleutherean Adventurers settled in Eleuthera, until 1834, when it was officially abolished altogether, and the slaves technically set free. In these 186 years, only thirty of them involved plantation slavery. So what about the remaining one and a half centuries?According to Gail Saunders, large numbers of Bahamian slaves worked alongside their masters in any number of professions. Many were skilled labourers – bakers and masons and carpenters, cooks in people’s houses and cooks on boats, bosuns and mates and fishermen, farmers and scribes, and seamstresses and laundresses. Bahamian slavery involved the kinds of people who might in other societies be called “house slaves” – people who were able to gain diverse skills and glean some education to give them some standing in the world. So we might be forgiven for thinking that Bahamian slavery was relatively kind.But it isn’t what Bahamian slaves had to do that was important. What made slavery evil was what it said slaves were. Although on the surface Bahamian slaves were better educated and better treated than others to the north and the south, we cannot overlook this one fundamental fact: that slavery made people, into objects, things that could be owned and bought and sold.So in tandem with the sense of independence and individuality that Bahamian slave ownership bred, there was also inculcated in Bahamians the same sense of basic dependency, the very self-denigration that all slave societies create. Bahamian slave society may well offer fewer examples of brutality to the historian; but at least one the examples of brutality was outstanding. The story of Kate Moss, the young slave girl who was so badly punished by her owners that she died at their hands, became one of the examples used by British Abolitionists in their arguments about the inhumanity of the institution.And the closer relationship between the Bahamian masters and their slaves, while appearing to be kinder and gentler on the surface, had its own insidious result. You might say that on the plantation the relationship between the master and the slave was clear-cut, and this enabled the slaves to come to terms with their condition in such a way that they were able to rebel against it – and did, in many places. In the Bahamian situation, though, where slaves were often very closely connected with their masters, and where they often forged friendships and partnerships with them – at sea, at home, in the yard, in the shop – the line between property and owner became blurred, and made the struggle for freedom far more complex and difficult.You see, it’s often easier to fight one’s enemies when they’re obvious. When the person who is defining you as a piece of property is also the same one who is feeding you and clothing you, from whose very hands you might accept the gifts, and beside whom you might work, day in, day out, it becomes very difficult to separate the kindness of the individual person from the fundamental injustice of the system. When the person who is keeping you in your “place” is also the one who offers you assistance, and whom you might like and respect and even emulate, it becomes almost impossible to seek freedom. The comfort brought by the relationship you have is often too much to put at risk.Perhaps that’s why we Bahamians today are so uncomfortable with remembering that we were once slaves. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our freedom is only half-here; for we are still quick to surrender our identities and our sovereignty for a taste of the comfort offered to us by the masters of today. There’s nothing new for us to be asked weigh the tough realities of forging our own way against the ease offered us by people who come in from abroad, smiling and handing us treasures we don’t truly understand. Old habits are hard to break, after all, and it’s happened to us before. The Lucayans lost their islands, and their culture; the slaves and their descendants got material assistance in the place of freedom. Why should we be any different?And so, the commemoration of abolition in The Bahamas has got to be a very serious, a very solemn thing. We must recognize what the process of abolition began, while recognizing too the role we – black, white, slave, free, cruel and kind – all played in the dual struggle between servitude and liberty. And above all, we must recognize that that struggle is not over, and steel ourselves to continue it for as long as it takes for us to be truly free.

On Developments, Speculation, and the Bahamian Nation

I have an uncle who was once Bishop of Nassau, The Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. When I was a child, he was Father Eldon, priest of West End, Grand Bahama. I never saw him. He came to Nassau on one or two occasions a year only, because he was living and working and teaching and building in the West End community. He left West End to be made Bishop in 1972, and what he did from there Anglicans other than myself will be able to say better.The point is this. West End, Grand Bahama, was the first place outside of Nassau I heard of as a child, because my uncle lived there. And he loved it with a passion others reserve for the places their navel strings are buried.I had the opportunity to go to West End for the first time at the end of the 1980s, where I visited a school friend from Freeport and where we drove out to the settlements that had been part of my imagination since I could think for myself, Eight Mile Rock and West End. The drive, as many drives in Grand Bahama were and remained until the flooding of that island during the hurricanes, was long and wooded: pines and their companion palms (mostly the favoured silvertop, the best material for our straw industry) for miles and miles and miles. It wasn’t the most auspicious or beautiful scenery, but it was ours. Not mine, specifically, but Bahamian, Grand Bahamian, and – by extension – my uncle’s.All that land. Just waiting to be developed.Well, development has come to West End. It’s developed every tree away from the South Side of the settlement, and, I’m told, it’s hungering for more.Now lest it seem that I’m standing in the way of Progress, let me step back a moment. (In truth, I actually don’t believe in Progress; but that’s another story, for a later date.) I’m not going to say that developments shouldn’t take place, that they shouldn’t happen; they do, and they should indeed. I’m not even going to say that clear-cutting of trees is wrong and shouldn’t take place; some things ought to be evident. What I am going to say is that if we believe that we can hand off our responsibility to determine what form that development should take place, we are making a fundamental mistake.And there’s more. The development in West End is not only foreign investment, it’s an investment that the people who are most affected have the least involvement in. While we can celebrate and publicize the size and the magnitude of the project, we need to consider very carefully the impact of the investment on the nearest community. The entire south side of a deeply-rooted settlement with a richer history than Freeport itself is going to be turned into second homes for non-Bahamians – for people for whom the richness of West End’s history will have very little relevance indeed. Like the ancient Freed African settlement of Delaporte or the fragmentation of the Fox Hill Creek, in five years’ time West End may become the bedroom community for people who may be hired as servants and gardeners for the super-wealthy and the over-privileged.And really, the problem doesn’t lie with the developers. It’s easy to blame them, because they are often interlopers, foreign, and rich. But really, it’s our problem. If we are going to pursue an economic policy that relies on external investment to take care of some of our infrastructural and employment needs, we have to understand both the benefits and the challenges of that policy. We have to look beyond the material and the economic, and understand the full implications of the thing.For instance, we need to recognize that while The Bahamas is economically sound all by itself (foreign investment or no, The Bahamas has been, and remained the third richest independent nation in the entire Western Hemisphere in purely economic terms; our per capita GDP places us ahead of every other country in the region except Canada and the USA), our quality of life is nowhere near so illustrious. We live in a high-crime society where many of our fellow-citizens feel displaced and unimportant, and consider that they have nothing to lose by responding violently to minor actions. We pay too much for basic necessities, our cities are congested (while Freeport may be an exception, Marsh Harbour’s traffic is growing, and George Town is laid out in such a way that its increased population has already placed challenges on the settlement that have yet to be resolved), we have no sensible means of dealing with waste, our environment is both beautiful but ecologically fragile, and our cultural identity is insecure.While unchecked foreign investment may yield high dividends to the Government in real and imagined financial gains, it does little to address the problems listed above. In fact, it exacerbates every one of them — with the possible exception of the traffic problem (which is solved in several cases, such as the West End case, by the application for, and approval of, the building of alternative ports of entry, thereby creating colonial-style enclaves of non-Bahamians in our very midst).And I am not so sure that I believe in half the dreams that are presented, in maps or publications or ads. We live in a global economy, after all, and we must not be carried away by the idea that Bahamian real estate is irresistible in its own right. We are simply an extension of an America land boom, which is rife with speculation and which is selling ideas and concepts, not development. Our desire for quick fixes is likely to end in more disappointment than achievement in the long run.What am I calling for here? A clarification and a firming up of the policy that governs our foreign investments. While it may have been wise a decade ago to invite all and sundry to consider The Bahamas as a good place to do business, we are no longer in a position to have to offer the kinds of concessions that brought the investors back. Foreign investment cannot remain an end in itself. Now that we are on the map, we need to remember what can only be the real purpose of that investment — the development, advancement and integrity of the Bahamian nation and its people.

On the Attractiveness of Exile

It's said that one of the things that sets Bahamians apart from other West Indians is our tendency to avoid emigration. We travel a lot. But unlike Jamaicans, Haitians, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Guyanese and others, we always come home. We Bahamians have been fortunate enough to have had economic prosperity for so long that we've built a society out of people who travelled abroad for education and came back to contribute to their country. It hasn't hurt that most of us who have come back have learned that, to some degree or another, life is truly better here. We may pay more for a pound of butter or a leg of beef, and the cost of a gallon of gas may make us swear, but we have the unenviable advantage of being the architects of our own destinies -- a rare condition indeed for descendants of Africa, wherever they may be found.I've lived long enough now to watch with some amusement the return of many of my contemporaries who made the final life move. The last ten years have brought with them the return to Nassau many of my friends and family who swore that they would never come home. But the air is cleaner, the drives are shorter (despite traffic), the views are prettier, and, for many of them, business is better in the Bahamas.So it may surprise many of you who are reading this column that more and more I have been considering the attractiveness of exile.The Barbadian novelist, George Lamming, once wrote a book called The Pleasures of Exile. He knew what he was talking about. His is the generation of West Indian writers on which the whole genre of Caribbean literature in English is built; his contemporaries number among them V. S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, the Caribbean Nobel Prizewinners; his fellow Bajan, the great Kamau Brathwaite; Wilson Harris, one of the earliest postmodernist novelists; Samuel Selvon, one of the funniest men ever to put pen to paper; and Michael Anthony, without whom BJC students of literature would have nothing to read. What every one of these writers share with Naipaul, with the exception of Anthony, is that they left their islands to become great. They had to. Their exiles established their careers.Now. The Bahamas has a great track record when it comes to retaining its citizens. We are not a people-exporting nation. But neither are we a great cultural force in the world. And I am not at all sure, at this point, that the two things are completely unrelated.Bahamian cultural products fit overwhelmingly into two main categories. On one level, we make things we think the tourists will buy. When we produce Junkanoo statues and paintings of Poinciana trees and candles made of gelatine with sand on the bottom, we imagine we're catering to the tourist market. But how many of us have taken the time to do market research and find out? How many of us know somewhere deep down, that what we're selling is really junk that has no real connection to our souls, that are just products knocked out for commercial purposes, to be sold to wealthy people who are ignorant of who we really are?On another level, our most popular entertainment is self-referential. The plays that populate our stages these days are more often than not commentaries on recent local events, and speak only to people who are very, very like us. They don't last; they don't travel well; when removed from their contexts, they are curiosities, little more. The same thing goes for our contemporary music. Ultimately, our cultural production falls into two categories: trinkets that we sell to foreign people who don't know any better; or in-the-moment social commentary that has limited appeal to anyone who isn't us.It's no surprise, therefore, that we aren't a culture-exporting nation. We don't have all that much culture that can be exported. Instead of placing our culture and its products in a global context and measuring it by international standards, we tend to insulate ourselves and expect what we produce to exist in a vacuum of its own. And when people arise who challenge what we think should be, we marginalize them, as we did Tony McKay and Amos Ferguson, underestimating their very greatness by the limitations of our own experience.But I'm coming to understand that the value of exile, as places like Trinidad and Jamaica and Guyana have learned is that when you leave your homeland you're able to put your culture in a global context. You're able to judge it from a perspective that is informed by more than the standards and expectations of people exactly like you, and those standards are often highly critical. All too often it's exiles, not locals, who can really see what's good and strong in their culture.When you travel, when you pull up your roots and move somewhere else, your culture becomes important to you. You carry it with you, and you develop it, delve into it, produce it, simply to survive. It is no accident that Jamaican culture has become the world culture of the twenty-first century. Jamaicans don't have the luxury of staying at home; more Jamaicans live outside Jamaica than live in the country, and they have carried home with them. In so doing have infected the world. By exporting people, Jamaica has exported itself.We Bahamians, on the other hand, are comfortable and overfed and making good money. We don't do exile. And for us, it seems, SUVs and digital cable and good meals on Sundays is enough. We have material riches; culture is a luxury we believe we can live without.And so the attractiveness of exile. Ours is a society that is so stifled by the material that it has no room for the language of the soul. And so, for those of us for whom life is more than conch salad and self-referential writing and recycled Junkanoo and the same story sung to the same tune, options are limited. Like Sidney Poitier almost sixty years ago, exile for us looks very attractive indeed.

On Citizenship

It's a funny thing about belonging to a country. We think of it as something that happens automatically, but it's not. Anyone who's had to apply for a passport for travel will realize that fact; it's all very well to talk about being "born dere", but in fact being a citizen of a nation has far more to do with politics than with birth.There are many people who are born right here in The Bahamas who would attest to that truth.You see, the regulations that govern who may or may not be considered a citizen of these Bahamian islands are not things that are handed down from on high. No. They are written in the constitution of the Bahamas, and they are very clear. In short, they go something like this:You're a citizen if you were born in The Bahamas before July 10, 1973, and were a citizen of the United Kingdom. In short, anyone who held, or could hold, the passport the British assigned to the Bahamas colony automatically became a Bahamian. You could also become a Bahamian if you were a foreign woman who had been married to a Bahamian.You're a citizen, if, after July 10, 1973, you are born in The Bahamas and both your parents are Bahamian or if your father is Bahamian, even if your mother is not.If your mother's a Bahamian, but she married a non- Bahamian, and you're born in The Bahamas, you're not automatically BahamianIf you're born outside The Bahamas, you get to be a citizen only if your father is a Bahamian, or if your mother's a Bahamian and not married. And if you're born into a country that automatically confers citizenship at birth, you will have to give up that citizenship when activating your Bahamian citizenship.And even if everything else is equal, the Government of The Bahamas can, under certain circumstances, revoke your citizenship. It might do this if you are discovered to be in possession of more than one passport, a technical no-no in our scheme of things. Citizenship, you see, is not an automatic entitlement of birth. It's something that a group of people decides for you, something that a government confers. And in the case of The Bahamas, the rules governing that conferring are not the same for everyone.Three years ago, the former government held a referendum addressing certain elements of the Bahamian constitution. Some of them had to do with citizenship, specifically with the role of Bahamian women in the conference of citizenship to their children. The present government, recognizing a potential need for constitutional reform, has established a Constitutional Commission to follow up on the subject. And today, with a growing population of resident non-nationals throughout the country — erroneously called "illegal immigrants" — getting themselves in the newspapers by building shantytowns and forming posses and attacking police cars, it's time for us to reconsider the criteria we use when we're talking about Bahamian citizens.I happen to be one of those people who believe that citizenship should be a simple matter of blood or birth. In my opinion, both are sound criteria for defining citizenship. You should be Bahamian if one of your parents is Bahamian, no matter what their sex or marital status; and you should be Bahamian if you're born in The Bahamas, no matter who your parents are.Now I know that both of these positions are contentious, especially as most of us appear to believe that we are a nation under siege, a nation in imminent danger of being overrun by aliens. I'm not going to spend much time trying to defend my position logically; the reaction to the position is bound to be illogical, and I'll only be wasting words.So never mind the fact that our country is woefully underpopulated — with a landmass the same size as Jamaica and a population that's one-tenth of the Jamaican population, we could do with more Bahamians, and should be encouraging immigration. Never mind the fact that, like it or not, our society is so structured that it needs sizeable numbers of immigrants to make it work. Never mind the fact that in a globalizing world, the ability to be flexible, to adapt easily to difference, to be cosmopolitan, not insular, are strengths, not weaknesses. Let's cut straight to the chase.It seems to me that there's something inherently weak, something soft, about the way in which we define citizenship in The Bahamas. Bahamian citizenship, it seems, does not conquer anything at all. Rather, it seems a pretty vulnerable thing. One gets to be Bahamian only after meeting a complex web of conditions. There's nothing simple about our belonging to our nation; there's no being-Bahamian-by-geography going on, as there is in the USA, or being-Bahamian-by-blood, as happens with Haiti. You're Bahamian if you're born of a Bahamian father, if you're born in The Bahamas, if you're born before 1973, if your Bahamian mother didn't marry your non-Bahamian father. If we were dealing with genetic theory here, the Bahamian gene would be classified as curiously recessive.I can find nothing to be proud of in that. There's a confidence lacking from our identity, a confidence that is found in the Haitian or the American definition of citizenship. In those countries, there's a sense of pride, not paranoia, about deciding who belongs where. Unlike us, there are no if-if-ifs about it; you belong by birth or by blood.I can't help admiring that kind of confidence, and I can't help wondering why we imagine our citizenship as being so weak. And so I ask you. Why, then, when deciding who's Bahamian and who isn't, have we got all those conditions? Why is it that, when defining who can or can't be Bahamian, we reveal more weakness than strength?

On What We're Good At

I was taught never to end a sentence with a preposition. To end anything, for that matter, with a preposition. Instead of saying "This is something I'm not going to put up with", I was taught to say "This is something up with which I will not put". Ends on a verb, see. Much better.I was taught to make an effort to be good at the stuff I did — stuff that included the speaking of English. And being a good child, I tried. Even if it made me sound like a pedant.What I wasn't taught, not consciously anyway, was what we're good at. Be good at stuff, I was lectured; but not so much, look, you're good at this already; make it better. By "we", of course, I mean the collectivity of Bahamians. No. I went to a "good" school, where I received most of my teaching. Received, and soaked it up; like any Bahamian with broughtupcy, I made a very good sponge. The Andros Mud had nothing on me.Fundamental to what I learned was this: we (read Bahamians) aren't good at anything at all.I have since learned better. It's seeped into my consciousness without my realizing it: the fact that we can do some things very well, and others the best in the world. And in this climate of fear-of-the-immigrant, resistance-to-the-expatriate, this fight for protection of our own mediocrity (because of course, foreigners — black or white — do it better), I never hear anyone discussing what it is we can teach other people.No. In fact, we're busily working to destroy what we're good at.Now just what do I mean by this? Well, OK, let's look at what The Bahamas has given the world. (What is she talking about? I hear you saying. What in the world has The Bahamas given the world? Just wait and see.)One: Joseph Spence and the Androsian guitar.Two: Rhyming, in spirituals and other songs.Three: The goatskin drum carried over the shoulder and beaten with one main hand.Four: The Bahamian style of house, in wood or in stone.Five: The Bahamian workboat, in every size, shape and fashion.So where are we now? Well, first, how many young people know the name of Joseph Spence, much less know that he's one of the greatest folk artists in the entire world? Beyond that, how many young Bahamians are making music on guitars tuned to the six notes that Spence tuned his guitar? How many young Bahamians can play a single guitar and sound like a whole band? How many young Bahamians — and not so young too — even know how to hold a guitar these days, much less play it?Second, how many young Bahamians know that rap and even dub are variations of the African-style chanting that occurs throughout the diaspora, and which has its own style here in The Bahamas? How many young Bahamians can rhyme with the subtlety and sophistication of a Spence or a McQueen, or produce a story in rhyme without shrugging on the accents of street Brooklyn or Trench Town? How many of them (us) even recognize the rhythms of the old Bahamian rhyme, much less welcome them?Three: Where have all the goatskin drums gone? I know the challenges inherent in making them: the people who know how are aging, tom-toms are easy to find, goats are few and far between, skins have to come in from Jamaica — but these are weak excuses, not reasons to abandon a skill our ancestors recreated from the ashes of slavery.Four: The houses that are uniquely ours, as opposed to those whose facades and spaces we see in magazines and on screens, are in imminent danger of disappearing forever. These buildings — of wood some of them, built often by master shipbuilders and held together by pegs and engineering designed to withstand waves, and of concrete or stone others, made to be cool without air conditioning and stout against storms — are being bulldozed with surprising rapidity, falling before machines made far away and unlamented by men who value expediency over Bahamian skill. And at the same time, American architects in the South are copying the Bahamian style.Five: Where are the boatbuilders who know how to bend wood? Have we moved entirely over to fibreglass? Is the tradition of Bahamian boatbuilding — so world-renowned that the richest men once had their yachts built in Abaco (the word hadn't got out about Long Island and Ragged Island and Crooked Island and Exuma) — in danger of dying because of our own ignorance?Now, lest it seem to people that I'm drowning in nostalgia, that I'm romanticizing stuff, that I'm being impractical and unrealistic and too passionate to make sense, consider this.We live in a world where ideas, original ideas, are the things that generate cold, hard cash. It's a world that's looking for fresh things, new things, for things that work. The world created by people who are "progressive", unromantic, practical and realistic and devoid of any passion, is a world that falls down in big winds, sinks at the slightest provocation, stops running five years after its purchase (if you're lucky), and issues out of machines. It's also a world whose profits all go to the same places: to the Sonys and Microsofts of this earth.And what sells is stuff that's unique, that works, that lasts, that's special, that's true.Every choice we make to leave what is ours behind, to abandon what we're good at for the stuff that's easy or cheap is not a choice simply to give up a little piece of our souls. It's a choice also to give up a little piece of our wealth. For in this Sonysoft world of ours, our wealth will come from our souls. If we keep it, they will come.

On Being Caribbean

Peter Minshall is in town.For those of us who don't know who Peter Minshall is, or who may imagine that his contributions may have very little to do with our lives, being so plugged into the energy of our northern neighbours, it's time to think again.Think, for instance, Trinidad. Think Carnival. Think big themes, social commentary, giant puppets, super-costume; and then think Junkanoo.Minshall is the foremost designer in Trinidad's Carnival, where his work has revolutionized the way in which people regard and think about their festival. His creations are not simply pretty, you understand; sometimes they are frightening, shocking, or horrifying — but they always make you think. And his contribution is not limited to Trinidad. He's been invited to design the opening ceremonies for not one, but three Olympic Games: Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992, Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, and part of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in 2002.His influence on Bahamian Junkanoo has been profound, but it isn't what people may expect. While we often think that the brass lines and the tricks and the feathers are all "Trinidad" or "Carnival" imports, they're not where Minshall's made the most impact. No; Bahamian Junkanoo leaders were in Trinidad in 1983 when Minshall's shocking presentation, "The River", which provided a commentary on the rape and murder of purity, harmony and nature by technological man, appeared, and were there again, with Committee members, in 1986, when "Rat Race", a meditation on modern urban Caribbean life, appeared. No; where Minshall's influence on our Junkanoo has been greatest has been in the area of theme.There's a category in the judging process for Junkanoo that's called Execution of Theme, and it's here that Minshall's influence can be seen. Of all the groups who rush, it's the Valley Boys who have mastered this best. While other great groups like the Saxons and One Family and Roots have long been executing their themes in purely artistic fashions, using — often brilliantly — the designs of their dancers and their bellers and their back lines to illustrate their theme, starting in the second half of the 1980s the Valley Boys took a leaf from Minshall's book and began to perform their themes. Who can forget the moment when the Valley Boys' free dancers, all costumed in Defence Force camouflage, threw themselves onto their bellies at Charlotte Street and began to crawl? Or when, for their Wedding, the Valley Boys released balloons at the rollover, and danced down Bay Street, to cut the wedding cake in Rawson Square?For Minshall, you see, whose background is theatre, Carnival — and by extension Junkanoo — is the theatre of the street. Caribbean people, like Africans and Asians and unlike northerners, perform in the outdoors, in the open. The great Caribbean performance spaces are not the grand theatres and opera houses of New York or London; rather, they are the fields and parks and streets of cities.What are we doing with ours?I ask because it seems to me that we have been given the task of caretaking a special gift — the gift of performance, the gift of communicating with our whole bodies, of turning our selves into instruments for the expression of the human soul — but that we seem to be far more interested in who gets to administer the arena for this gift, or in who wins the competition that accompanies it. And that winning is everything. It doesn't matter whether what wins has lifted us out of ourselves, or has simply rerun what was done last year and the year before; it doesn’t matter whether the whole thing, the art of Junkanoo is moving forward, taking us with it, or whether it's sliding into irrelevancy. We've been given a gift to look after, and we're wasting it on politics and competition.What Peter Minshall has to teach us isn't how to build costumes or even how to put themes out on the street, though we'd certainly do well to learn both from him. No. The message he comes bringing is that we are Caribbean people. We can quibble all we like about the veracity of that fact — we can argue that if the Caribbean Sea stops at the southern shores of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico it means we're outside the Caribbean, or we can claim that because Columbus, God bless the man, first set foot on one of our islands, it knits us up inextricably with the Caribbean — but the truth of the matter is that Junkanoo says it all.For Minshall, you see, the essence of the Caribbean being is hybridity — that glorious mixing that happens with cross-fertilization and jumbled-up genealogies. Like Caliban in Shakespeare's play The Tempest, we are strangers in our own lands, speaking with words that are foreign to us. Our fullest expressions happen beyond words — in the language created by music, by art, by our bodies in the dance. Junkanoo is the ultimate site of these expressions — or at least, it's supposed to be, and it can be. It's for us the most sacred work that any of us can perform. But Junkanoo, weather or no weather, is not invincible; if we play with it too much, we can lose its truth and be left with an empty shell.And so let us celebrate our Caribbeanness by recognizing the sacred trust that draws us all together: the trust that has us all, from Nassau straight down to Port of Spain, engaged in the creating of that wonderful theatre that is Junkanoo and Carnival. And let us respect that trust so much that we forget our differences and our competitions and our postponements, and concentrate on the work itself.

On Being a People

We need our artists.It's not enough to be a creative people; it's not enough to be a tourist destination; it's not enough to have majority rule; it's not enough to be the wealthiest independent country in the Caribbean. Without our artists, we are as poor as an Untouchable in Bombay.Poorer, probably. At least Untouchables know who they are.I had the pleasure this evening of attending a presentation being given to the National Cultural Commission on culture and tourism by the Director-General of Tourism. As usual, the discussion was lively. As usual, it was loud. But among the many jewels of the conversation that arose from the discussion was this. The Director-General told the story of a young Bahamian who was engaged to sing the Bahamian national anthem somewhere abroad, on live television, and who began the song with the words "Oh, say can you see."Now you may be thinking, oh, that's horrible; or you may be laughing as hard as you can; but chances are you're wondering what that has at all to do with artists. After all, what an artist does has very little to do with whether a young Bahamian knows the difference between the Bahamian national anthem and the American one. Right?Wrong.What an artist does is absolutely fundamental to the difference.Now understand that when I say "artist" I'm talking about much more than the person who sits in front of a canvas and paints (although if you've visited the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas lately you'll know how much that kind of artist can say.). I'm talking about visual artists, and sculptors, and Junkanoo artists, and musicians, and artisans, and dancers, and actors, and storytellers, and directors, and writers.We need them all.We need them all because without them, we have absolutely no touchstone to remind us what it means to be Bahamian. Who we are as a people depends almost entirely on the artists among us.You see, being a people in this day, age and place depends almost entirely upon our ability to tell a story, and to tell that story right. Ours is a society composed of many different people with many different backgrounds, origins, dreams, and goals. All too often, though, we go about our business unaware of our complexities. There was a time when the Bahamas was a white nation; black people were "natives", and made up part of the scenery and backdrop against which Real Life played out. There was a time, too, not so long ago, in which the Bahamas was for black people only; white people were considered interlopers, visitors, tourists. We're continually given the impression that The Bahamas is a Christian nation, as though atheists, Rastafarians, Muslims, Buddhists and Vodouisants are not part of us. We are always looking at only a piece of the puzzle. And many administrative decisions are made without taking our complexities into account.But our artists tell the real story; this is why we need them.There's a theory that claims that art holds up a mirror to nature, and by looking into the works of our artists we can see ourselves. There's a measure of truth to this theory. I can attest to it, having just come back from New York where I had the pleasure of seeing several shows, each of which reflected some little bit of the society that made it and the society it represented out to its audience.But there's another side to the theory as well. It's that nature is also a mirror of art. This is particularly true when we look at the mass media — at television and cable and satellite, at the internet, the music industry, the fashion industry. Art's both something to produce and to consume; and where there's a vacuum, stuff will rush in. The result is that without our artists, we cannot be a people. Rather, we'll be an extension of the people whose art we consume en masse — of Americans, of Jamaicans, of someone else.Hence the young Bahamian who sings the "Star-Spangled Banner" for the Bahamian national anthem.Hence the witness who, standing up in court, pleads the Fifth; or the Rasta who, though born and bred in Englerston, speaks with so thick a Jamaican accent that the pollsters ask him to show his passport to prove his eligibility to vote.As a people, we need our artists to examine us in all our differences and complexities and teach us back to ourselves. And we need our artists to be full-time observers of who we are. We need dancers who do not simply execute steps in time to music or interpret the words that are being sung in the song, but who can tell us a story about ourselves. We need writers who will go beyond the hibiscus and the banana and speak of the hurts and pains of all Bahamians, otherwise we will never know what it is that separates us and what unites. We need artists who (like the people in the current national exhibit in the National Gallery) can look at our warts as well as our beauties and be unafraid of placing them on display — and we need people who are willing to be challenged by looking at their work. We need actors who are able to dig into themselves so that they do far more than declaim the printed word with unnatural stress, but so that they become the people they portray so they can show us back ourselves.To be a people, we need to face our souls.We need our artists to spread our souls out for us to see.

On Being a City

I'm writing this from the Big Apple, the City that Never Sleeps — New York City. What strikes me most about being here, aside from the expected, like the vibrancy, the culture, the bustle — is the fact that New York's concept of itself as a city, is fundamental to all it does.And that set me thinking. Why doesn't Nassau have the same sense?The answer's obvious, but absurd: Nassau doesn't have a municipal government.The obvious reason is that Nassau is the seat of the national government, and therefore by default doesn't appear to need its own government.The absurdity of that is that Nassau, the capital city of The Bahamas, a city of almost 200,000 persons, has less administration than Freeport or Marsh Harbour or even than George Town or Deadman's Cay.We do have a number of Ministries, each of which has its head office in the capital city. We do have a parliament that is composed of elected officials, each of whom represents a specific constituency. Each constituency is carved out every five years by people who report to this parliament. The majority of the constituency lines are drawn on New Providence. Thus the residents of the city of Nassau, who make up two-thirds of the national population, are governed in segments that may or may not have anything to do with the needs of the city itself.Now it seems to me that there is the danger of a conflict of interest in this. The conflict need not be anything sinister; it may be as simple as a competing need. At this very moment, it's the fact that the northern Bahamas is devastated by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. At the same time, plans have been set in motion for the renovation of Bay Street, a major facelift for the City of Nassau, which includes a permanent home for the Straw Market, among other things. One or the other of these projects has now got to be put on hold; one or the other of them has to be given priority. Both are important. But because the government that is responsible for the renovation of the city is the same as that which is responsible for the well-being of the entire country, they cannot be adequately dealt with at the same time; the self-same government is responsible for both.Now I am not saying that activities for Nassau should not be put on hold while the more immediate needs of the people in the Family Islands are met. What I am saying is that the current system of government we now have makes it an either/or situation when it doesn't have to be.You see, the city of Nassau suffers not only from not having its own government, but it also from not having its own budget. Utilities, services, works, and so on are dealt with by the agencies that are charged with running the whole country. Now in this case, Nassau generally comes out on top; the vast majority of the work done by the public corporations, or by the Ministries of Works, Health, National Security, Education, and so on, affects those of us who live in Nassau. In times of crisis, however, that money has to be diverted elsewhere. We have no provision to meet the needs of both.If Nassau were a municipality, money that should have a specifically local application for the city of Nassau (local licences, real property tax and so on) would not get mixed up with money that should go to the nation as a whole (customs duties, departure tax, and the like). Currently, however, the apportioning of all that money is in the hands of the national government. It was a system that didn't work all that well in colonial times, and it has no real reason to start working well now.Just imagine, for instance, what would have happened if Hurricane Frances had devastated Nassau as it did Freeport or as Hurricane Jeanne did Abaco. Now imagine that San Salvador, Cat Island, Eleuthera, Abaco and Grand Bahama also suffered as much damage as they have done. How long do you think it would take for the national government (which is also Nassau's local government) to get around to meeting the needs of the people on those islands?I'm not making this scenario up, by the way. In 1866 and in 1929, hurricanes devastated the capital while also affecting other islands. In neither case did the islands get the help they needed; Nassau had been crippled, and was unable to serve their needs. In fact, Nassau was so devastated by the 1929 hurricane that in 1932, when the Great Abaco Hurricane flattened Abaco worse than Jeanne did, the people there were left to fend and rebuild for themselves. Nassau could not help.There is no good reason why the needs of the city should be looked after by a government elected to see to the needs of the entire country. There is one powerful one; the creation of a government that is responsible for meeting the immediate needs of two-thirds of the Bahamian population will considerably weaken the clout of the average politician.It's a real reason, but not a very good one. As I am not a politician, I believe (perhaps naively) that politics should not supersede everything else. I believe that election to parliament and gives one a far greater responsibility than simply to get elected again in five years' time; it gives one the chance to do something fundamental, something seminal, for the long-term development of the Bahamas.I believe that there is no more fundamental thing than real local government, which includes the creation of the municipality of the city of Nassau. The parliament and the cabinet who creates that will allow the national government to get on with governing the nation, rather than meeting the needs of the city — even if that creation affects their members' power in the short run.

On Paradise

Last week I wrote about fact and fiction, raising the question of how we know what's real and what's not, what's fact and what's fancy, and how much we rely on books to form our "knowledge" about the world.This week's article stems from that, but takes it in a different direction.This week I want to write about paradise.It's an idea we hear a lot when we talk about the Bahamas. But I suspect we don't think enough about it when we hear it; we take it for granted, but we don't really question it. But we should.My good friend Ian Strachan, whose writing every thinking Bahamian should seek to read, has put out a book called Paradise and Plantation, on tourism and culture in the Caribbean. Of course, his main focus is on The Bahamas, because ours is a culture fully steeped in the idea of paradise. You'll notice, though, what he links paradise with. In Ian Strachan's world, the idea of paradise is the flip side of the plantation.I think I agree with him. It's not that I believe that tourism is a bad thing in itself; but I do believe that there's something fundamentally unhealthy in having a unidimensional tourist product, one that's designed to sell an environment, to push an idea.

To read more, buy the book! link

On Being Bahamian

Just recently, during the lead-up to the FNM convention, the question was raised about whether race was still an issue for the Bahamian electorate. Of course it is. Race is the only marker of identity that is consistently invoked by Bahamians when we imagine ourselves.Note: I say consistently. When describing oneself as a Bahamian, one either flashes one's skin colour as a badge of identity, or else one defends oneself for not having that badge; for in the popular imagination, to be Bahamian is to be black. People who are not obviously black tend to spend a lot of time explaining why they are Bahamian even though their skin isn't. One's race is usually the very first thing that is considered when assessing whether one is a "true true" Bahamian or not.

To read more, buy the book! link