Day of Absence '10: 11 February 2010

If you're a follower of this blog, you'll know that about a month and a half ago there was considerable activity here online about the Day of Absence concept. For those who don't know or don't remember, here's a short refresher, both about the original idea and the critique that it sparked.Thirty-six years after independence and forty-one years after majority rule, creative workers in our country are unable to find work in the areas in which God has gifted them. There are virtually no avenues in The Bahamas to enable creative people to develop and hone their talents, or to enable them to make use of them when they are developed. Our greatest brain drain is arguably in the area of the arts; like Sidney Poitier over sixty years ago, Bahamians who want to exercise their talents in the cultural industries are faced with the choice of pursuing their callings as hobbies at home, or of leaving home to make a living by their gifts elsewhere. And we are all the poorer for it.Nicolette Bethel, "Day of Absence: 11 February", Blogworld, January 30 2009The idea behind the day of observance was to sensitize people -- Bahamians primarily, but anyone, really, who regards the arts and cultural activity as luxuries, upper-class frivolities that have no place in the real life of adults -- to the centrality of the arts. In a nutshell, it asks people to imagine a day without art. To imagine life without music, design, decoration, colour, rhyme, story, or dance. To imagine worship without these things; to imagine working or living or moving from place to place without them; to believe the lie that art is a luxury.And then to consider according art and artists the respect that they deserve.

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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 Justice

I'm a big fan of Law and Order -- the television show's that's been running for almost twenty years.  I watch it religiously.  It never gets old.Recently I had the opportunity to watch a rerun I've seen dozens of times.  The thing is, I couldn't remember what happened in it -- I know what the opening was all about, I knew where the case was going to lead, but the core principles I couldn't recall.  So I watched it again to find out what they were.I was glad I did.  The main theme of the show was justice vs. politics.  In a nutshell, it's the show where a man who organizes tours, in a moment of weakness, shoots at his travel agent to stop her from depositing a cheque.  The idea is just to wound her, to give him time to put the money in his bank account.  The plan works, all too well.  The travel agent deposits the cheque late and the cheque doesn't bounce -- but two other people are killed as a result of the shooting, and the man is caught and charged.So that's the small story  The big story is this  While Jack McCoy and Jamie Ross are proposing to charge the man with first degree murder, District Attorney Adam Schiff orders them to indict the man on second degree murder. His argument?  The perpetrator was criminally negligent, but it was not his intention to kill. In the DA's judgment, the man deserves to go to jail for life, but his crime doesn't meet the standards required for the death penalty.  The Governor of New York disagrees, and orders Schiff to charge the man with first degree murder -- he's just reinstated the death penalty, and is looking for reasons to use it.  Schiff refuses, the Governor removes him from the prosecution, and Schiff takes the Governor to court.Now.  Let's not get caught up in the outcome of that episode.  It's not really relevant, anyway.  What struck me as I watched the episode was the way in which democracy works in the United States of America.  The courts are independent of the politicians; justice holds a higher standard than political expediency.  The Governor's action was political in nature and in intent; the DA's response was in the interests of justice.What struck me even further is how rarely we see that kind of dialogue taking place here in The Bahamas.  Oh, it has happened, all right, most recently when Justice Lyons challenged the actions of the former Attorney-General.  But Justice Lyons is not a Bahamian, and he has no stakes in the outcome, really.  Where, I wonder, are our national crusaders for justice?Most of the time, apparently, they're absent.  Too often it seems that the only values that we truly hold in this nation, the only values in which we're willing to invest, are values that have selfish returns.  A visitor to The Bahamas who takes time to follow our news will realize that there are really only one main topic of conversation: variations on the theme "we're better than them".  We discuss it when we're talking about party politics, about immigration, about homosexuals, about Junkanoo groups.  Bigger issues, like the question of (say) justice for all, rarely surfaces.The situation becomes most acute when the question of justice is at odds with our main topic of conversation.  If we're trying to score points -- whether they are PLP points or Saxon points or straight-people points or Christian points or Bahamian points -- the idea of justice rarely crosses our lips.Recently, though, I had the pleasure of reading an article that addressed just that -- the question of justice, rather than the question of expediency or political preference or moral superiority.  The topic was the question of a settlement for the Sea Hauler victims, and what the government's obligation was to them.  The current response of the government is interesting me deeply, as the Sea Hauler was one of the side issues that was raised during last year's election campaign.  What's been fascinating me is that though the party in power has changed, the government's response to the issue has remained essentially the same.  The problem is a private one; the owners of the two boats are liable; the victims need to collect their compensation from them.Now I must admit I have tended to hold that view.  Working in the civil service has exposed me to the over-reliance that many of us have on "government", and the expectations -- most of them unreasonable -- that ordinary citizens have of public servants and politicians.  Government is regarded as the solver of every problem, the mender of every broken thing, the financier of every project of which its citizens dream.  The Government was not at fault in the Sea Hauler tragedy, I reasoned.  Make the private companies accountable.  Let them pay.But -- as Leandra Esfakis, the lawyer who is changing my mind about Bahamians and justice, argues -- that is not all there is to it.  After all, it is the government is not entirely blameless.   It is the government who licenses the private companies, and who is responsible for overseeing the safety of the services they provide.And so, in the interests of justice, the government should pay compensation, she argues.   Not because it is the government's responsibility to do so, but because the government is far better placed to collect what is owed from those who are at fault than the victims of the tragedy themselves.   Her suggestion is as follows:   the government should compensate the people concerned, and then the government should make the owners pay.   In that way, justice will be best served.  Those who are most affected will be able to have their needs addressed, and those who are responsible will pay.It's an interesting proposal, and one I admire.  It's also heartening.  For the ultimate focus in this discussion is not blame, or political expediency, or even Pilate-like washing of hands, but justice.About time, too.

On Self-Publication (a Meditation)

Note: I took the blog entry I wrote last week and turned it into a proper essay for The Guardian. Here it is, for archival purposes. It's been edited here and there for publication.I'm pleased to announce that I'm working preparing Essays on Life for publication in a series of books. The first one, featuring the first fifty essays published, is almost ready to go to print. In a week or so, I hope, if all goes well, it'll be available online. Within the month, again if all goes well, I'm hoping it can be available in local bookstores.Sound too good to be true? Well it is, sort of. The process of publication never used to be so quick and easy in the past. And easy doesn't always mean good. But here's the raw truth. After plenty of thought (and some trepidation), and after considering things like time and cost and bulk and other stuff, I decided to self-publish. And I've chosen an online service that will print and bind and ship the book for me.Self-publication isn't anything new around here. There are several options: local publishers, who would edit, lay out, set up, and distribute the book for me (Media Enterprises, Guanima Press); local printers, like the Nassau Guardian, who would do basically what my online service is doing, taking the book I give them and printing it as is; or regional publishers, like Ian Randle, who would do what the local ones would do but with a far wider distribution reach. There are even international vanity presses, which design the book for a price and then provide me with a print run of a size of my choice (sort of).But there were problems with all of the above. One was time; the turn-around time for traditional publishing services is pretty long. This is because, of course, the legitimate publisher doesn't take on every project that comes across his desk, and when a project is signed it has to be edited, laid out, proofed, and then printed. Though the result is undoubtedly of good quality, it wasn't what I wanted for a collection of essays that are pretty topical in nature. Even when one self-publishes the old way, sending the manuscript to the printers and waiting for them to lay out, typeset, and produce galleys is a long, arduous process. And the result isn't always that great.The second one was bulk. Traditional print runs require somebody — the publisher, if you're doing it the most respectable way, or the author, if you're going with self-publishing — to pay for the production of a sizeable bunch of books. These can sit around, getting dusty and (in this climate) growing mould, while you scramble to recoup your costs. If the publisher bears those, you have to wait years to get paid, because the publisher has to work to recoup its costs. All in all, not what I wanted for this book.So I decided to try going with Print-on-Demand (POD) — the practice of publishing that desktop publishing and the internet has made possible.I'd first heard of POD publishers on the internet (where else?). I checked out a couple of services and thought what they offered was interesting, but wasn't sure about the quality of the product, or about its reach. Since then, though, I've seen books produced through online POD publishers, and have held at least two of them in my hands — one of them Bahamian Rupert Missick Jr's Dreams and Other Whispers. Getting hold of them is easy and convenient; they can be ordered online through Amazon or Barnes and Noble. And I can tell you that the product is as attractive as any that a walk-in, concrete, face-to-face printer can produce.There are disadvantages to self-publishing; any serious writer will tell you that. The main one is that for anyone who wants to make a career for themselves as a writer, with all the attachments, like advances and royalties and other trappings of the publishing economy, self-publishing, especially through vanity presses, appears to many serious publishers as a mark of inexperience, desperation, mediocrity, or all of the above. For many of them vanity presses are scammers par excellence; and it's true that if you're not careful, you'll pay far more for a print run of so-so product than the thing is worth. Self-publication also suggests that the writer isn't committed enough to face the hurdles that surround the publishing industry, hurdles whose conquest can produce fairy tales like J. K. Rowling. People who are impatient are often careless, sloppy, rushed, and the quality of the work suffers. And they're not unjustified in that concept; a lot of what is self-published isn't all that good.But self-publishing has its place. One of those places is when you live in small countries with small readerships, as we do. It's generally not economically viable for a big publisher to invest in a Bahamian publication; the cost of production can't be recouped. The market is simply too small. For this reason, hundreds of Bahamians and Bahamian residents — some of them very good writers, some of them not so good, and some of them admittedly pretty bad — have chosen to go with self-publishing simply to meet the demand that exists for their work. Among them are big-name Bahamian writers, like Gail Saunders and Winston Saunders and Obediah Michael Smith and Keith Russell and Michael Pintard. Not bad company to keep at all.And then there are serious advantages to print-on-demand. The main one is that the desktop revolution, coupled with the new global world of business offered by cyberspace, has created a completely new way of publishing. Print-on-demand is just that; you can write and create a book that exists only in digital form until somebody's ready to buy it. That keeps the cost down, keeps the waste to a minimum, and makes the whole process easier and simpler.And what would I lose anyway? Collecting Essays on Life is more an exercise in convenience than a full-scale launch of myself as a published writer. The complete set are already available on Blogworld, my personal blog, are still searchable (presumably) in the archives of the Nassau Guardian, where they were first published, and several of them appear on Bahama Pundit. The trouble is, if people want to walk around with them away from the computer, they still have to go through the hassle of downloading and printing them out on plain paper. Why not make it a whole lot easier by printing through the internet so that people can order the books themselves, or so that local bookstores can buy them as they need them?You be the judge.---Local websites referenced in this article:Nicolette Bethel's Blogworld Pundithttp://www.bahamapundit.comNassau Guardian Online

On Raisins and the Sun

I'm sitting in Starbucks, listening to a jazz rendition of "Sponger Money". I must admit it sounds good. And it feels good to hear an international take on a Bahamian song. But I'm also wondering a couple of things.The first one is what the thing is called. Is it called "Sponger Money" on the label, or does it have a different title -- Spanish, maybe, or something unrelated in English?The second one is who the song is said to be by. Now I don't know the answer to that one, as I have not done the research necessary to find out who wrote it. I can hazard a guess -- perhaps it was Charles Lofthouse, who wrote several songs in the first part of the twentieth century. More likely, it was an anonymous person, maybe a man on a sponge boat, or a woman clipping sponges on the wharf. I do know of at least one person who arranged the song: my father, E. Clement Bethel.The third one (correct, this is a Bahamian "couple"), intimately connected to the first two, is who's getting the royalties for the song.Now I know (as well as one can know these things) that the song is Bahamian. It makes sense, after all; sponging was a major Bahamian industry for the better part of a century, from the mid 1800s to the late 1930s, and the song tells the story of the industry. The version I know was the one we used to sing when I was growing up:Sponger money never done, we got sponger moneySponger money is a lotta fun, we got sponger moneyLaugh gal laughLaugh gal laughLaugh gal laughWe got sponger moneyBut the question I have to ask is this. Even though the song is Bahamian, what Bahamian is getting the revenue from the song?It's a serious question, and one that I have to ask, given the kind of debate that followed the postponement of The Bahamas' hosting of CARIFESTA from 2008 to 2012. That debate, and the general dismissal of culture in general (and, by extension, of our culture in particular) made me realize that most of us -- from the man and woman in the street to the politicians in the highest offices -- are missing the point when it comes to cultural discussions. It made me realize, once again, that our society is locked into a mentality that is jammed firmly into the third quarter of the twentieth century, and that will hinder us not only from developing in the 21st century global economy, but also from maintaining our current economic position as the economic leader in the Caribbean.It's a mentality that is regressive on a number of fronts. In the first place, it continues to imagine -- despite ample evidence to the contrary -- that culture is dispensable, something that you do in your spare time if you can afford it, but not something that has any right to exist on its own. This is the mentality that has led to the removal of music, dance and art programmes from primary schools, permitted adults to regard creative activities as optional, not central, elements in children's development, allowed teachers to divorce the use of language from thought itself, and criminalized self-expression. It's also the mentality that suggests that the enjoyment of life is a waste of time, and that having a unique perspective on the world is sin.It's a mentality, in short, that creates a fertile breeding ground for negative activity. By stifling the ability of people to respond creatively to their environment -- whether that environment is pleasant or difficult -- it leaves them with only the option of a negative response. When you have no room to contemplate or create, you will fight.And so our attitude towards culture is hurting us in several ways. On the one hand, it's rendering us less competitive on the economic front. While we continue to invest in things that became obsolete twenty years ago -- in sun, sand and sea, in gambling, in resort-based tourism, in cruise ship arrivals -- our neighbours are diversifying their tourist economies and creating experiences for their visitors and their citizens alike that will bring the same people back again and again.On the other hand, our dismissal of things cultural is hurting us socially. Not only does it mean that the vacuum that is "Bahamian" society of the 2000s has left us vulnerable to invasions from north and south alike; but it also encourages the development of a criminal sub-culture. Young people who have no sense of self, no outlet for their frustration, and no way of affirming their existence in a country that ignores them will inevitably resort to violence and anti-social behaviour.And this should be no surprise to us. After all, Langston Hughes, the great African-American poet, put it in fairly simple terms. What happens to the dream deferred? he asked.Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?Or fester like a sore--And then run?Does it stink like rotten meat?Or crust and sugar over--like a syrupy sweet?Maybe it just sags --like a heavy load.Or does it explode?

On Sousaphones, Junkanoo, and Emancipation

Between Christmas and New Year's in The Bahamas, barring any major unforeseen events, there is really only one story: Junkanoo. Traditionally, Junkanoo is held on Boxing Day and New Year's Day every year, and the competition is stiff — so much so that I've grown notorious for suggesting that Junkanoo is a great Bahamian sport, and not the cultural event that people love to claim.As far as I'm concerned, the core and the root of Junkanoo is its music. It's the music that sets us apart from all other New World street festivals. And for those of you who are under thirty years old, I'm not talking about the brass and the tunes that are played during the parades. These are recent additions, developments that have taken place in the last twenty-odd years. Junkanoo music at its core is rhythm.When I teach, I explain it this way. What do you need to have the Junkanoo sound? Some people, young people mostly, might say brass, but they'd be wrong. The brass, the tunes, are the embellishment of the music, and when you have nothing else, you don't look for a horn to make Junkanoo. You look for a drum. And on that drum you play a basic rhythm (in fact, there are a score of different rhythms that are incorporated into Junkanoo, but that's another story). To that you may add another drum or two, each playing a different rhythm (or not). And then you add the cowbell. Then you stick a whistle in your mouth, and you have the music. It's only after you have laid down the rhythm that you look for the brass.Think about it. That's why there aren't many true Junkanoo tunes. That's why the music that people put on top of the rhythm is usually adopted from somewhere else, and arranged around Junkanoo. In the past, the only notes in Junkanoo were those that could be blown with a bugle. For those of you who don't know your brass instruments, a bugle is a horn without valves, and like the conch shell or the sheep horn or the black horn. Those horns can only play one or two notes, depending on the skill of the blower. Well, a bugle can play several, but they're several notes apart - hence the traditional Junkanoo tunes like "A-Rushin' Through the Crowd".And that's it. You can make Junkanoo music with a drum, a pair of cowbells, and a whistle and nothing else. The last thing you make Junkanoo music with is a horn.And yet.For a quarter of a century - almost from the moment the Music Makers brought brass to the parade and played tunes and revolutionized the way in which Bahamians at large thought about Junkanoo - the Junkanoo parades have been sucking more and more brass players into their presentations. We are at an interesting time in the development of Junkanoo, and it's this. We're at a point where young people, the set who take part in Junior Junkanoo, seem to believe that the horns, the brass, are the central part of the music. I have been at celebrations for Junior Junkanoo - most notably at the most recent awards ceremonies - where the music was begun by the sousaphones.Hello.This frightened me no end. The sousaphone, for those of you who don't know, is an instrument that was invented by Americans to allow a bass horn to be carried for long distances as part of marching bands. They're named after the great American composer of band music, John Philip Sousa. They are not Bahamian; they are not African; they are not integral to the tradition of Junkanoo, having been introduced in the late 1990s by musicians who had cut their teeth on the marching bands of the Church of God and the like.Now there isn't anything inherently wrong with them. I like the sound that sousaphones make in a modern Junkanoo line. Not as much as I like the sound that the bugle used to make, or the rhythm and off-notes of the black horns, but that's me. If a sousaphone, or a trombone (my own brass instrument) or a trumpet or a flugel horn or a euphonium or a saxophone or a tuba has a part in a Junkanoo parade, that's fine. Change can be good, and change is often healthy. But when change is indiscriminate, when it occurs in a vacuum, when the core is not understood or worse, not respected, then change becomes more than change. It becomes do-it-yourself imperialism.Let me be clear here. I'm not anti-Sousaphone; I'm not even anti-brass (much, any more). Just as long as we remember that the core of the rush is the drum, the cowbell, the whistle, and the two-note horn. Just as long we respect the fact that Junkanoo music is complete without the tunes; just as long as we understand that our preference for tunes is in some way evidence of our distance from the Africa from which this rhythm sprung.For African music does for rhythm and percussion what European music does for melody. Please understand me carefully. I am not claiming that Africans don't understand melody, or that Europeans don't understand rhythm. What I am saying is that these societies privilege the different elements of music differently. Where African societies developed a whole range of percussive instruments, and made music around textured polyrhythms and drums that talk and beats that convey information, European societies did similar things for their melodic instruments. (In Africa, too, melody was often carried by the voice, just as it was in the Junkanoo parades of the early twentieth century.) In the Caribbean, we marry the two, often seamlessly. Hence the famous Nettleford reference to "the rhythm of Africa and the melody of Europe".We Bahamians pay homage to Europe in different spheres - in our marching bands, in our choral traditions (which follow both our major cultural influences), in our popular music, in our ringplay and some of our dances. Our African heritage has been under threat for centuries. In the beginning, it was outlawed by our white brothers; later, it was out-preached by our own black selves. Until the 1980s, though, you could hear its rhythm in Junkanoo, in the drum.In Junkanoo, once, we remembered Africa. In Junkanoo, once, when the lead drum rolled over and the other drums joined in, we celebrated the land where the majority of us came from, and by which all of us have been changed. This still happens, by and large, in the senior parades. But in the junior parades, where we're grooming the Junkanoo of the future, the sousaphones start the rush. In our future parades, will our drums be drowned out by the brass our colonists brought?I trust not. For to believe without question that Junkanoo music can be started by a sousaphone - that symbol of the USA, the cultural imperialist par excellence - is a clear demonstration of how little pride we have in what is truly ours. I'm not talking about feelings of pride here; you can feel proud of many things that don't really deserve that feeling. I'm talking about real pride, the kind that transcends emotions and resides at the level of the brain, of consciousness. Not to know what a betrayal of Junkanoo it is to have the music start with an American brass instrument that was invented in 1893 - two generations after the emancipation of the Bahamian slaves, and easily a hundred years after we began celebrating Junkanoo - is a failure of some magnitude on the part of the Bahamian society and culture as a whole. And perhaps, just perhaps, it's an indication that slavery never really ended at all.

On Making a Living Doing What You Love

When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would invariably answer, "A writer". The responses I got were various. “Oh, that’s nice,” some people said. They didn’t mean it one bit. Others laughed as though I’d told the greatest joke this side of Vegas. Others stared at me as though I’d just said something foreign, as though my tongue had not formed words that were English at all. And one person – my geography teacher – told me, “Oh, no, you’re too good for that. Writing will never earn you any money. Why don’t you think about being a lawyer or something like that?”But a writer I wanted to be.And here I am, all grown up, my answer still the same. What do I want to be when I grow up? A writer. But. Time is running out for me. Writing is a jealous hobby, difficult to do well, arduous when you want to make the right point, time-consuming, greedy. It’s too selfish to be a part-time thing, and I have to make a living.And making a living writing is something that is impossible in this country — at least for those who choose not to settle for journalism as the next best thing — no offence to journalists. I needn’t list the reasons that it’s impossible; I’m sure you can think of several yourselves. It’s the rare writer who can survive off his or her earnings, unless they are in advertising or journalism or the law. For those of us who simply love the language and The Bahamas, there is very little choice indeed.And so I teach others how to write. You know the saying: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I have always fought it; it suggests that teachers are failures, second-rate beings who can’t succeed at what they want, and so they teach. But more and more the saying rings true. It’s not that I am not capable of writing. But I cannot make a living doing what I love — doing what, I dare say, God called me to do — in the land in which I was born. And so, because I cannot (through no good fault of my own) write for a living, I teach.And I am not alone. I speak as a writer, because that is what and who I am. But there are hundreds of us, perhaps thousands, Bahamians, who have been gifted with the ability to create new realities out of thin air — people touched with the need to express themselves in movement, in colour, in line, in song, in film, in music, in performance, in the assumption of another character, in illusion, in the written or the spoken word. Only a tiny handful of us can do it, and that handful is struggling. The rest of us have to labour in jobs that are second best for people who do not understand us or what we do and squeeze our talents around the edges of our lives.And so what? You wonder. Why should this matter? Why should being able to make a living doing what you love be at all important?Well, first of all, because you love it, and because it’s not frivolous. Despite what many people imagine, the arts — which begin in self-expression, develop through social commentary, and conclude by illuminating the human condition — are really the foundation, and not the frill, of human civilization. A society that does not express itself artistically is simply a conglomeration of people who live side by side. Because there is nothing concrete to link one to another, they are simply a group of individuals walking down the same road together, but they could as easily be enemies as friends, and there is nothing at all to stop them from killing one another.And second of all, because it is the creative impulse that makes us human. I’ve said it before, but I’m not sure that we have fully grasped the concept yet; we’re too busy consuming what others have produced, and we don’t value either the process or the product of our own artists and innovators. As a result, the humanity of the Bahamian citizen has been compromised. We allow ourselves and our reality to be defined by other people, because we have made it difficult, if not impossible, for our creative artists to make a living doing what they love.In order for us to create a society out of this population we have living within our borders, art, self-expression and creation cannot be regarded as luxuries that can be sacrificed whenever the subject of money is raised. Every civilization worth remembering has made a place for its artists. It has supported them, by commissioning individuals to write or paint or sing for a living and for the state, or by allowing them to support themselves. We do not recall the greatness of Greece or Italy or Great Britain for their lawyers, for their newspapers, or for the number of items their factories turned out in a given year; rather, we remember them for their architecture, their literature, and their art.From Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Michelangelo to Picasso, from Confucius to Soyinka, from Homer to Walcott, the greatness of a civilization has far less to do with the apparently “necessary” professions than we imagine. Without the works of artists, teachers have nothing to teach, construction workers will have nothing to build, and retailers will have nothing to sell. You may counter by saying that others have already done the work for us, and that we don’t have to produce anything original of our own. But that is how we have built our society already, and what we have built is coming apart at the seams. The clothes we have put on were designed for other people, and we should not be surprised when what we have borrowed doesn’t fit us all that well.The time has come, I believe, for our society to place emphasis on allowing Bahamians like me to make a living doing what they love. Of course, this will mean starting to pay one another for their art. It will mean understanding that when we approach a writer to ask for a play to be written, or a director to produce a show for a purpose, or a musician to play somewhere, we will have to pay them for their action; but when we do, we will discover far more about ourselves than we knew before. And we will begin to create a community out of this group of individuals all walking along the same road together; and maybe, after some time, ours may become a civilization to remember.

On What Culture Isn't

As an anthropologist, one of the most valuable things I learned was to judge other people's cultures by their own standards, and not by my own.  The reason for that is that all groups of people evolve ways of life that work, more or less, for them.  What we call “culture” is what results when a group of people adapt to their particular environment, and in many cases it's the outcome of trial and error and finding out what works best in a particular situation.Because of that, we tend to judge other people's customs according to the things that work for us, without understanding that every culture has its own unique adaptations.  What good for the goose, to quote Winston Saunders, ain't gat to be good for the gander.  The application of one's own morality and understanding to everybody else in the world is called ethnocentrism, and it's responsible for a whole lot of evil.The entire history of European imperial expansion and the colonial project that accompanied it is an excellent example of this.  Wherever they went, the Europeans carried attitudes they had developed in their own countries, and, because they were convinced of their superiority and of their right to global conquest, they imposed those attitudes on the people they met and subdued.  From Mexico to Chile, from Vancouver Island to Florida, from Bermuda to Venezuela, and from Morocco to Cape Town, they carried out a programme of “education” that taught the people they conquered that the way of life they’d always known was wrong and “backward”, and that the way of life perfected by the Europeans was correct and progressive.  To be modern, one had to be more like Europeans.  To be oneself was to be primitive, animal, and savage.These days, we’ve got rid of part of this thinking.  We are far less likely to state that “white is right”.  We are very likely to assert our Afrocentrism and our black pride, and we celebrate those things we think are evidence of our cultural uniqueness.  And we embrace our so-called “African” heritage uncritically, without examining its value or its integrity.The problem is, our reaction is superficial.  We have changed the language we use.  We have turned our faces away from much of what we imagine smacks of our colonial past without understanding that our culture is itself unique, an adaptation that happened when Europeans and Lucayans and Africans and North American “Indians” and Asians met on these limestone rocks in the sea.  We have not examined the full picture, have not read the whole story; we have simply torn the cover off the book, and think we know who and what we are.But.  The language we speak is European — in vocabulary at the very least, if not in grammar.  The desires and the ambitions we have are western, the religion we claim is Europe’s, and our social structure, our laws, our calendar, our schooling, our economy, our judiciary, and our entire mindset are the products of colonial domination.  Even when we wake up and recognize that many of the things we are taught as children — that money is good, say, or that the best kind of profession to have is one that makes you wear nice clothes and work in an air conditioned office with lots of people around who call you “Sir” or “Ma’am”, or that people who work in the yard with dirt on their hands are lesser beings and should be treated with contempt — our reaction is shaped by the complete transformation our histories underwent in colonialism.So those of us who choose Islam over Christianity because of its deeper roots in Africa, those of us who embrace communism instead of the decadence of capitalism and the corruption of democracy, even those of us who turn ourselves over to Rastafarianism, the only Caribbean religion, are all reacting within the confines of a model that has been fundamentally shaped by colonialism, imperialism, Europe’s view of us all, and slavery.  And until we engage with this fact and understand the depths to which we have been affected, we will never truly embrace ourselves.So what is the solution?  Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not.  It isn’t reacting in a wholesale fashion to colonization by throwing away everything we imagine to be the trappings of that experience.  The blackest of us is not African, and the whitest of us is not European.  The Bahamas has been cooking up different cultures since at least 1492, and those five hundred years have created an interesting and special stew.  It’s a stew in which classical music has been simmering — and developing — side by side with the vocal harmonies, the call-and-response patterns, and the polyrhythms of Africa.  It’s a stew in which the dances of the aristocracy have married the drums and the footwork of the servants.  It’s a stew where the straw arts of the Native Americans converse with the basketry of the Africans and the headwear of the Europeans, and where the oral arts of us all have pulled from Haiti and the USA as well as England and Africa.The answer doesn’t lie in claiming everything that appears “African” either, for nowhere is everything entirely good.  When Chinua Achebe wrote his classic novel, Things Fall Apart, his purpose was to criticize both the English and the Ibo people of Nigeria.  He condemned the English colonizers’ destruction of traditional Ibo society while at the same time criticizing those bits of Ibo culture that he regarded as wrong — the killing of twins, for example, the treatment of women, certain punishments given to wrongdoers.  Today, African women are speaking out about age-old traditions as well, from female circumcision to the deplorable habit of fathers and grandfathers to take their female relatives’ virginity.What culture is requires serious study, requires the recognition, naming, and celebration of all that is good about us.  And so we need to focus our eyes inwards, for the habit of looking beyond our shores for things that are “good” is a colonial one.  Not until we can name our strengths and address our weaknesses will we know what culture is; but in the meantime, we need to make sure we know what culture isn’t.

On Impossible Dreams

This week, I want to write about dreams. It seems to me that we’re a country that has given up on dreaming. Oh, we talk a good game. Our favourite pastime is talking – whether it be talking to God, talking to our pastors, talking to our congregations or constituencies or followers. But when we finish talking we sit back and wait for our pastors or our God or whomever isn’t us to turn that talk into action.But our country wasn’t always like this. In the lifetimes of many of us, we have moved from being a backwater colony of Britain, governed by a minority of businessmen, to a wealthy and independent nation, governed by people who represent us all. Many of us still remember days when being black was synonymous with being poor – too poor to afford new clothes more than once a year, or to own more than one pair of shoes, two if you’re lucky – things that many young Bahamians can’t imagine.And we got here because some people dared to dream impossible dreams.My title is taken from a song that comes from the musical Man of La Mancha, which in turn is taken from Cervantes’ novel about Don Quixote, the Spanish nobleman who went off on impossible quests, always tilting at windmills. The thing about Don Quixote is that he seems mad when you look at him, always trying to do the impossible. The thing is, he always hopes he’ll succeed. But even if he doesn’t, at least he tried. As the last verse of the song says:And the world will be better for thisThat one man, scorned and covered with scars,Still strove with his last ounce of courageTo reach the unreachable star.We’ve got a few Don Quixotes of our own. I want to write about one of them today – Kayla Lockhart Edwards, who has lived her life dreaming so-called impossible dreams about Bahamian culture. For all her adult life, Kayla has been an inspiration for Bahamians involved in the performing and folk arts. This is because she believes – rather, she knows – that Bahamian culture is rich and full and so valuable that every citizen should be steeped in it. And so she’s dreamed impossible dreams to prove it.Not all of her dreams came true. When she dreamed of the school of the arts, her Institute of the Arts, established in the late 1970s after she left the Cultural Affairs Division of the then Ministry of Education and Culture, her plans for the country and its artists were great. They may have been premature – the Institute didn’t grow as planned, and eventually closed its doors – but the dream continues, so much so that a school for the performing arts made its way into the PLP’s Our Plan in 2002, and may even now be on the verge of becoming a reality.On the other hand, at the end of the 1980s, when she realized that we were raising children who didn’t know traditional Bahamian stories, songs, proverbs and ringplay, she brainstormed with Derek Burrows and came up with Dis We Tings – a theatrical revue that took audiences on a journey down memory lane, introducing the younger members to traditional Bahamian culture, and reminding older ones what it was like. The show was such a success it played to packed houses during its two-week run, and had to be revived six months later. She followed it up with two sequels – Dis We Tings II, and Dis We Tings III: Contract Voices, which dealt specifically with that period on Bahamian national history known as the Contract years.Kayla’s dreams came in all shapes and sizes. Some of them were big dreams, like the Institute and the Dis We Tings series. Some of them had big consequences. Dis We Tings brought Bahamian traditional culture back into people’s consciousness, and it’s possible to trace the nostalgic writings of Bahamian musicians back to that series of productions. The early 1990s were also a time when Bahamian artists and performers blossomed; some of that may have had to do with the energy that resulted from the change of government in 1992, but some of it was definitely the result of Kayla’s shows. In this category can also be placed her work with Bahamas Faith Ministries, her integration of culture and cultural activity into Christian ministry, which has changed the face of Bahamian worship irrevocably.But some of her dreams were small dreams, with results that won’t be measured for some time to come. These included all of her CDs, which are collections of traditional and original music, and poetry; her books and her television shows and plans for television shows. Many of her dreams have apparently gone nowhere.But the world has been better for them. We didn’t even know how much better until recently, when Kayla’s illness prompted a gathering of all her friends and colleagues in an outpouring of love and gratitude for all that she’s done through a lifetime of dreaming. This weekend’s concert, featuring the Kayla Edwards Chamber Singers and friends, is a testament to the miracles wrought by Kayla’s dreaming.All too often these days we react to dreamers of Kayla’s calibre the way that the Spanish countryside reacted to Don Quixote’s quests: by laughing, or ridiculing, or saying that the dreams they dream are impossible. But let us take a lesson from this great woman, who never let the impossibility of anything stop her not only from dreaming, but acting to make her dreams happen.And so we salute Kayla – our impossible dreamer. We know that her greatest dreams will come true; those of us she has inspired will all see to that. And the world will be better for them. It’s a promise. We will all strive to reach the unreachable stars.

On the Tragic True Story of Mr. Sam Ahab

There are times in a writer's life when realism just won't do. That's true even when that writer is an essayist who writes commentaries on what she observes. But the writing of essays isn't the only thing that God intended writers to do; and so I hope you'll forgive me if I take a moment to tell you the tragic true story of Mr. Sam Ahab, a relatively young man who, as a child, wasn't really trained up in the way he should go, and so who as an adult found himself a-wander in a wilderness every bit as hot and hostile as the Arabian Desert was for the old-time Israelites -- and blind as could be to the pillars of cloud and of fire leading the way.Now Mr. Sam Ahab was a man of many talents. In this he was rather like the servant who had been given talents by the master who was going away on a trip to a far land. But that's as far as it went. In this story, Sam Ahab inherited his talents from his father, Mr. Sam Ahab Senior, who had received the original five and invested them. Unlike his father, though, the wise investor, Sam Ahab Junior was too cautious or too careless to do much investing. Instead, he did what one should never, ever do with talents: he dug a hole in the ground and hid them in it, and went off to enjoy life's other treasures. Many of these, like the talents, he'd inherited from S. Ahab Senior; and off he went like the prodigal son to spend them in search of warmed beds, loot, and feasting.First of all, he went to visit the Pom-Poms, who looked at what he had to offer and told him it was of little value. Then he travelled among the Nacirema, who looked at what he had to offer, took what was best from it and claimed it for themselves. Then, poor and without dignity, he moved on to visit the Naeb-Birac, who were as poor as he was, poorer sometimes, but still proud of themselves.And then, not unlike the Prodigal Son, Sam Ahab Junior found himself wandering in the desert, cleaning pig pens for a living. The only difference between him and his Biblical counterpart was that he didn't realize that this was what he was doing; the pig pens he cleaned were very nice pig pens, pig condos, in fact, with many and various very nice pigs. But pigs they were. And Sam Ahab cleaned away, believing that because the pig pens were bigger and better than some of the homes belonging to the Naeb-Birac and others, they were not pig pens at all.And little by little, Mr. Sam Ahab forgot that he had been given talents in the first place. He forgot he was a rich man, the possessor of many talents. Thing is, if he had remembered, he probably wouldn't know where to find his talents anyway; he'd buried them in a hole in the ground, after all, and we all know what happens to buried treasure. Maps get lost, vegetation grows over the spot, and sometimes thieves come along and dig it up.Poor Mr. Sam Ahab, stuck cleaning pig pens and forgetting the talents he inherited from his father. What will he do if and when the master returns and asks about the status of his original gift? Will it be enough for Sam Ahab Junior to explain that his father had doubled the talents, or will he be chastised for his own carelessness? Perhaps he'll suffer the same fate of the unfaithful servant in the parable, and the master will take his talents away to him and give them to the ones who were more industrious than he was. I don't know -- but I'm pretty sure the master won't be pleased.Now I'm sure you're wondering just what drug I'm on, penning this story of servants and prodigals and deep-buried treasure. Perhaps you're wondering what to make of this fable. No doubt several of you have cast down the newspaper in disgust, certain now that this writer has finally lost her mind; some of you may be on your way to the toy store even now to purchase some marbles you can share with me out of sympathy.But before you do that, just consider this.Consider the fact, first of all, that this story is both tragic and true.Then consider the fact that our country is made up of hundreds of islands, each of them different, each of them resplendent with talents, with people young and old who could, if encouraged, multiply those talents in ways we cannot even imagine.Then consider the fact that despite this truth, we seem to believe that those talents will multiply without our doing anything about them at all. And so we invest virtually nothing in the research, strengthening, or celebration of those talents. We have no great libraries to preserve our writing and show our children what the generations before them have produced. We have no public theatres to provide outlets for our actors and playwrights and designers, and we are allowing our private ones to starve slowly to death without comment. In a nation where making music was once second only to breathing, we have no concert halls, no conservatory, no programme at all that will enable us to keep the best of us alive. Our young people are supremely gifted; and we have given them no tools to enable them to take those gifts to the world.Like Sidney Poitier almost sixty years ago, the most gifted of our people have to fend for themselves if they have a thirst to create. The luckiest of them are leaving our country in droves, assisted in part by the scholarships and grants we so gratefully give, seeking training and fame and fortune elsewhere, in idioms that are foreign to them and add nothing to the world. And that is a shame.Ladies, and gentlemen, we are Mr. Sam Ahab. We have taken the talents multiplied by our fathers and buried them in the ground, apparently happy (like him) to clean up after the wealthy, unaware that we are wandering in a desert from which there may be no escape. We have forgotten where and what our treasure is, and have left it vulnerable to the thieves are even now seeking to ransack it. When the master returns, what will we have to show him to ensure that he doesn't take our talents from us and give them to nations who take better care of the gifts he has given?

On Demolition

Something happened to my family at the beginning of February that is hard for me to get over even now.You may recall that I wrote about my grandmother's house, built in the 1860s out of salvaged wood, salt-cured and tough as granite, which survived every major hurricane of the twentieth century, even though others younger than it fell.Well, it doesn't stand up so well to bulldozers.I found this truth out the hard way. I was driving along East Bay Street one morning, when I saw a backhoe in a most peculiar place -- our family property where my father and his family had been born. Turns out the contractor was taking down the wrong house. He was taking down our grandmother's house at 672 Bay.It was a costly mistake. There was one bright spark about it, though -- no one was in the house at the time.The same can't be said for a certain house in First Terrace, Centreville.A similar thing happened to it, more or less. A contractor with a backhoe drove in the yard one day and bulldozed the house down to the ground. By mistake. But in this case, someone was living there.Thank heaven he wasn't at home when it happened. According to the grapevine, he was at work. But it was his home, and someone flattened it, by mistake.Now the point of this article isn't that these things happened, or that they happened because of gross negligence, or that it is supremely unlikely that that negligence will be corrected, or that the rightful owners of these homes will ever be able to collect what is rightfully theirs; when people make mistakes -- unless they're caught -- they are extremely adept at disappearing into nowhere.The point of it is that they happen every day. And there are laws in place to stop them happening. To demolish a building you need an order. When that order is obtained, it must be displayed. Ideally, no contractor should proceed with any demolition in the absence of such an order. Moreover, my grandmother's house was listed as a historical building, and such buildings may not be demolished; no order could be got for it. But it came down anyway.We are, you see, very adept at doing things against which there are laws. What's more, we are adept at getting away with them. In the case of the demolition of old homes, there is sometimes an element of collusion on the authorities' part that allows people to act with impunity. After all, why should we protect old things that make the country look bad? If we can't destroy them outright, at least we can ignore their tacit destruction. It's called turning a blind eye, being in the right place at the wrong time. And more and more of our patrimony, of our heritage, is being demolished as a result.Now for many people, perhaps most of us, this is not a big deal at all. Why should people be concerned about ugly old buildings anyway? Why should we expend good money fixing them up when we could take that money and invest them in new, up-to-date buildings that look like they could be anywhere in the first world?Well, it's this. Ours is a society whose history is written in our memories, on our landscape, and not on paper. Our forefathers, white, black and in between, gained no benefit from excessive book-learning. There was no space in Bahamian society for people who wasted valuable time in writing down ideas and events; the challenge to survive was too great. And so our history is largely written on the land. Each old house, no matter how modest, is a book. The ways in which our ancestors shaped the wood is a lesson to us about how we used to survive, back in the days before we were American clones. The same is true for the way in which they laid shingle and thatch, the way they burned shells for lime, the way in which they made tabby for our own Bahamian plaster. Our identity lies in what we have created over the years, and not in what has been inscribed in history texts. Every old thing that we destroy now is a part of us.And the men who wrote their existence in wood and stone and house did not intend to be forgotten. They built their homes to last, and expected their posterity to last with them. When my cousin and I looked at the wood we were able to salvage from the ruins of 672 Bay, we found out that it doesn't matter how bad an old house looks. The frame and the planking of the house, made of good old Abaco pine and Bahamian red cedar, were as strong as, or stronger than, almost any new wood that can be bought today. And we found out, too, that the men who built that house had made their mark, inscribing their initials on the corners of the planks before putting them in place. To disrespect them, to roll over their work in machines that turn hard pine into mulch, to remove them so completely from our memories and our futures, is to kill ourselves.You see, it doesn't matter that we have forgotten how to read the lives and the work of our forefathers in the beams and panelling of old buildings. Our ignorance should not allow us to destroy what we do not know we have. Each demolition is a blow against our identity, a removal of a part of us. We no longer know how to build houses without nails, but our forefathers knew. By preserving their work for our children, we preserve the hope that our children may relearn the knowledge and the skills that made us who we are.

On Death

Well, now, Death came knocking at my mother's door,He said, come on, Mother, are you ready to go?Well, my mother bent down, began to buckle on her shoe,And she handed up her cross and began to move,And she move on down by the Jordan stream,And she shouted "Hallelujah! I have been redeem!"She cried, "Yes! My Lord!"She cried, "Yes! Yes! Lord!"She cried, "Done do my duty,Got on my travelling shoes."-- "Death", as sung by the Dicey Doh MenThere's a truth that currently seems to be in the process of being denied in the global media: everything that lives dies.This is a truth that's being discussed ad nauseam in the American media these days, with relation to the Terry Shiavo case. Now I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of that case, or to take any stand on it. Instead I want to think about what it tells us about the people who are making the fuss. Many of the same people who want to keep Shiavo alive -- many of them born-again fundamentalist Christians -- are the very same people who want to make sure that criminals die.There was a discussion on a website that I frequent on this very subject. Someone who was not an American said that it seemed to him that Americans, and particularly those who profess fundamentalist Christianity, were very afraid of death. For them, he said, death was something that should only happen to bad people; good people, at any cost, should be protected from dying.Now I don't want to get bogged down in the politics of all of that. But what he said rang very true for me. For a group of people who should be unafraid of death -- particularly when it affects good people (and having once been a fundamentalist myself, I know very well that what classifies as good has more to do with one's heart, one's commitment to Christ, than with one's actions) -- and for a group of people for whom death is a gateway to a better life, there seems to be a lot of fighting going on to keep people tethered to this life. No laying up of treasures in heaven here, apparently. The treasure that seems to count is firmly anchored to this everyday world.In the words of the song, the good person -- in Christian terms, the mother -- is more than ready to die. Why, then, the fuss about fighting one's time to go? The way in which many people are addressing the question of dying fits a whole lot more in with what happens to the sinner when Death comes calling, than with what happens to the mother:Well, he wade in the water by the ankle deepAnd the water came a-lapping up around his knee,He say, "Go way Death! Please now let me be!"And the water came a-lapping up around his thigh,He say, "Go way Death! I don't want to die!"And the water came a-lapping up around his chest,He say, "Go way Death! Please now let me rest!"And the water came a-lapping up around his chin,And along came Death and pushed him in,He cry, "No!"He cry, "Don't want to go!"He cry, "Ain't done my duty,Ain't got no travelling shoes!"But let's get away from the religious side of this. Let's say that we believe in no God at all (note to all hit men: this is a supposition, not a reality; let's just suppose this). Even beyond that, we are faced with the fundamental truth of life: everything that lives dies. Indeed, without death, life has no meaning for anything. Plants, trees, animals, birds, fish, even amoeba and other germs -- everything that is alive dies. Why should human beings be any different?It is a particularly American malaise, I think, to believe that death can be cheated. It's not something that we tend to suffer from very much here in The Bahamas at the moment; we are well aware that death is a part of living. We follow up our promises with "If God spare life" or "God willing"; we believe in burying the dead very well indeed, with a good funeral that sends them off in style. This is a very African thing. As long as individuals are alive, they keep the others who have passed over alive in memory and truth; it's said that a person doesn't really die until everyone who remembers him or her dies. We have retained much of our African heritage.It's a very healthy way of approaching life and death. Rather than pretending that death doesn't happen -- or that it should happen only to the evil, as it appears to be the belief further north -- we recognize that it happens, we integrate it into our lives.This is something that we should celebrate about ourselves. After all, death comes to us all. As the character in Winston Saunders' I, Nehemiah, Remember When notes, very wisely: People dying today who en never die before. While we are appropriating many of the cultural manifestations of our American neighbours, we will do well to avoid their peculiar aversion to that which is the most natural thing of all -- death.Listen to this article online.

On Innovation

When life hands you a lemon, they say, make lemonade.There's another way of looking at it. You got a problem -- fix it. Find a solution. And while you're at it, make it a fun one, a creative one. Turn a minus into a plus; turn a sour, rindy fruit into a delicious drink.The process of innovation, of finding appropriate solutions, is a fairly involved one, and to succeed requires something that we seem to have lost as a nation -- confidence in our ability to solve problems. To be innovative, one has to define the problem, consider a variety of possible solutions, and then pick the best one. Not the cheapest, or the one that gets the most votes, but the best. That is how wonderful things like electric lights and telephones get invented; that is how people get sent to the moon.Now we Bahamians, throughout our history, have been a pretty innovative bunch. We invented an original way of building houses, for instance, based on our original way of building boats. We invented unique ways of singing, of keeping ourselves occupied. We invented 101 ways to cook a conch, something a whole lot of people throw away. We created an economic model for our country that works, and has worked, in a region where dependency-based poverty is a curse. Our ancestors found a use for every single thing in their environment. A good look at our history, or in any old family island home, will show exactly how innovative we were.We aren't any more. These days, we seem to invent very little. For some reason, we have become pretty bad at looking at our problems from our own perspective and working out something that is relevant to us. No; instead the first thing we do is engage some "expert" from some foreign country -- usually a country to the north, too, as we all know that southern nations just don’t produce experts -- to come here and tell us what to do with our problems.The second thing we do is suggest, as gospel, some highly impractical and impracticable "solution", and then complain for the next generation or two that no one has Done Anything. Nobody can, considering the general idiocy of the "solution" we proposed.Cases in point.Water -- on Sunday, listening to Parliament Street, I heard once more the idea that the solution to New Providence's water problems is a water pipe from Andros to New Providence. Well, I was ready to throw the radio on the ground and stamp on it -- not because the idea is necessarily a bad one, but because -- well, it's a bad idea. Simple on the surface, but difficult to execute. Difficult to pay for, too. And it's not a solution at all; all it does is push Nassau's problem -- a shortage of potable water -- onto another island, in much the same way that rich Western countries "solve" problems of toxic waste and so on by sending it to poorer, less developed places. In another generation or two, Big Yard or no Big Yard, we will be facing the same issue -- only we will have used up the fresh water reserves of not one island, but two.Immigration -- the only thing we seem to be able to come up with collectively as a country is send 'em back. In all fairness, we have heard a number of ideas proposed, but rather than considering them for their promise, their originality or their potential success, we tend to throw them out without real thought. Well, you should all know by now what I think of that.Development -- the only thing we seem to be able to do here is to invite foreigners in and sell them our land for second homes and for resorts -- or (in a more absurd move) for the creation of salmon farms on Inagua. Salmon? Why not grouper farms, what with the limitations being placed on grouper fishing?Allow me to be radical here. And let me do it not simply for The Bahamas, but for the world.What the world needs is not a whole army of carbon-copies occupying every populated space. People are different, and God gave us the infinite power of creativity. There is no sense in asking other people for solutions to problems of which they have no comprehension. They'll offer the solutions, sure, and they'll charge dear for them, but the solutions we'll get won't amount to a hill of good beans. (Just take the concept of the four-way stop, for example, in this country where the bigger you are, the more rights you have.)Why aren't we creating our own solutions?There's more to this question than simply fixing our problems in ways that work for us. There's something else too. Good ideas are hard to come across anywhere in the world. If we cultivate good ideas of our own, instead of cookie-cutting others' solutions, then we may find ourselves in the position of selling our solutions to other people, instead of buying theirs.

On New Tings

Bahamians, it's said, love new tings.To some degree, that's true. Just let a new restaurant open up. You better hope they got valet parking, because without it you'll never get near the place. You better eat before you go, because you won't get a table until well into the digestive process, and your stomach will start in on itself. And you better find out if they take reservations, because without them you may have to wait a week or two to even smell the door.Or just let a new car come on the market. Even better, let it be a big car, expensive, preferably with some gold on it somewhere — on the logo, maybe, or where lesser makers would put chrome. And then watch the roads, and count to see how many of them appear within the next month or so.Or just let a new service be provided for (say) a cell phone — or even let a new cell phone hit these shores. You'd be surprised (maybe you wouldn't) how many people invest in it.Or just let a new place of worship open its doors. Better yet, let that place of worship come complete with a new building or even a new style of service, and watch to see how full that place will become within a week or two of its establishment.But just don't mess with our overall way of life.I've got a couple of things in mind here, and most of them have to do with my ministry — two in particular. The first is National Youth Service. And the second is Junkanoo.You see, the idea of National Youth Service, which comes onstream at last this year, this month, has been kicking around for longer than many of us have been alive. (I use that "us" advisedly, by the way; I'm a little older than the idea, but only just.) It was first advanced by the brand-new Progressive Liberal Party shortly after they came to power, and discussions intensified about it right after Independence. Nothing happened back then, because the idea was too foreign, too new, and the populace resisted so strongly that the government dropped the idea. It resurfaced back at the end of the 1980s, when it became apparent that the so-called drug scourge had affected a whole generation of young Bahamians, many of them men; but once again the electorate struck back. No service for my good child, was the refrain. (Some people read that as no mixing — of classes, of races, didn't matter, but never mind that now.) And so it is that almost forty years after the idea was first introduced, National Youth Service is finally becoming a reality.Now some may argue that the reason it hasn't happened before is that the time was not right, or that the pitch wasn't right, or that — well, something wasn't right. I'm not so sure that those reasons aren't correct, but I'm not so sure that they are, either. I'm not so sure that it matters. What matters is that we did not like this new ting. And so we fought back against people of greater foresight and vision until it became absolutely clear to many of us that this was something we had to do, or else.And then there's Junkanoo. Well, there've been plenty of new tings happening in that festival lately, from the introduction of $75 dollar tickets to the institution of a new management structure. It's not entirely clear that Bahamians are overwhelmed with these changes. While some people flock to the best seats, many others — many of them relatives of the very people rushing in the streets — can't afford a good spot, and are excluded from full enjoyment of the achievements of their loved ones. And while the new management structure seems to have made the group leaders happier by raising the level of trust between the people operating the parades and the people competing in them, from the outside — or from the bottom — it's hard to tell that anything's different at all.You see, I'm not so sure that the adage that Bahamians like new tings goes much beyond our surfaces, or far beyond our stomachs (and even then, we're picky about what we put there). If a new ting comes attached to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing ourselves, we run like the blazes in the opposite direction. If we return to Junkanoo for a moment, consider what's really new about it. When was the last time we say something really revolutionary in someone's presentation, or in someone's costume or design? When did someone go out on a limb and bring something truly radical to Bay Street?The answer lies in the groups who don't get all that much airplay, who don't feature big in the public imagination: Colours, who build small, audition their members, score their music, and paste according to a limited palette of colours; Barabbas, who invented a new way of carrying cowbells and started a whole craze in drumming; the Fox Hill Congoes, a group who are almost gone from the public mind, but who introduced the legions of big bass drums to the parade.The fact that we don't celebrate these groups for their innovations, but rather ignore their new ideas or ridicule their difference and continue to pick our winners from the tried-and-true pairing of SaxoValle suggests to me that we really don't like new tings as much as we think we do.You see, the new tings we love best are those that come from away. New ideas, new habits, especially those proposed by Bahamians, are harder to catch on. We'll change clothes and hairstyles and vehicles and televisions and furniture and eating places and preferred vacation styles, but we're a whole lot slower to welcome new ways of doing the things we take for granted.The trouble is, until we wake up, look hard and embrace innovation, we are going to lose more and more of ourselves. Cultures thrive on change. Without innovation, our culture will continue to assimilate changes that come from beyond. And we'll find that the new tings we do like are going to come more and more from the outside, and will speak less and less to us about our selves.

On the Invention of Santa

Santa, they tell me, used to dress in green. He also used to walk around on foot, wear a long robe, and visit children on December 6th. He didn't originally come from the North Pole (wherever that is), or have reindeer, or carry toys; he was Turkish, believe it or not, and while he was the patron saint of children, he was also the patron saint of sailors, scholars, merchants and thieves.Christmas is coming, and, like it or not, we're being flooded with images, stories, and concepts that affect us and our children. Now I'm not one of those people who believe that Santa is an anagram for "Satan", and make a whole lot out of that fact (after all, "God" is an anagram for "dog" and vice versa, and "evil" is simply "live" spelled backwards — we can do a whole lot with this game); but it's always useful to know where the things that take prominence in our lives come from, and what purpose they used to serve.It's useful because by doing so we're able to loosen some of the power these things have over us, and claim some of it for ourselves.Santa Claus is one of these things. Here, on the fringes of American culture, Santa is as much a part of our Christmas imagery as anything else. While we may not make him as central to our celebrations as Americans do — we're Christians, after all, and for many of us that means that we want to focus on the religious aspects of the season, not the secular ones — we still find his image and his colours everywhere we turn. So it'll be useful to get some idea of where these two things originated.Santa Claus as we know him has three main origins. The first is the story of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a Christian who lived in fourth-century Turkey. His entire life, it's said, was lived according to Christian principles. Nicholas dedicated his life to the service of God, and spent his inheritance on helping the sick, the poor, and the suffering. According to legend, he loved children — he gave good ones presents, and bad ones got switches instead. He walked on foot, and didn't drive any sleigh at all. He died on December 6th, and that date is celebrated as his day in parts of Europe.The second is nineteenth-century America. In the early nineteenth century, the major influence on Christmas ritual was Dutch, like many of the early settlers. Santa Claus is the Americanization of the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas — Sinterklaas. But the first images of this person portrayed a fat bearded elf who squeezed himself down chimneys, the kind of person who appears in the poem "The Night Before Christmas". But that Santa wasn't the one we know today. He didn't wear a red suit, he didn't wear a cap, he wasn't a big fat man; he was a little fat elf.The third is Coca-Cola. Ever notice how Santa's the colour of a Coke label? Well, there's a reason for that, and it's that the red suit trimmed with white fur was an invention of the Coca-Cola company. The idea was to sell more soft drinks, but what ended up happening was the selling of the idea itself. Santa's red costume is the product of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. And as for his home in the North Pole (which is a block of ice anyway, as the North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean) and his elves and his sleigh and the reindeer, they are all inventions that have been tacked on throughout the years.What's my point?Well, think of it this way. Santa Claus may be an American invention, and one that has spread, like American culture, to most countries of the world in some form or another, but he's a composite of a number of different concepts from another different places. Like Bahamians, Americans come from elsewhere. Like the Lucayans, the native Americans have been killed off and driven away, and their traditions do not form any part of mainstream American life. American culture, like ours, is a hybrid culture, something created out of the various bits and pieces the various peoples of the USA brought with them. Santa Claus is only one example; there are lots of others.My point, then, is this. Just as Santa was imagined and re-imagined over the years, so we Bahamians can create our own traditions out of the fragments of our histories. Just as the Americans dug into the various mythologies of Europe to come up with their image of Santa Claus, infusing it with bits and pieces they added themselves, so we can create our own festivals and traditions.So Christmas is coming. Every screen that we face reminds us of that fact, and there's a sense of urgency in the air. Traffic is thickening on the roads; it took me as long to get home the other night as it did to get to work that morning, probably because I happened to be heading in the same direction as the mall. Flights in and out of the country are booked, and people are already having their luggage bumped because the gifts are piling up in the cargo holds. Christmas is coming, Santa is out, and we're spending our free money on gifts.Isn't it time we created our own traditions and symbols to help us celebrate this very special time in our very own way?Christmas is coming. Joy to the world.Peace on earth, goodwill to all men.

On Thanksgiving

Let me tell you a story.It's a very Bahamian thing to do, you know, tell people stories. I could start mine in a number of ways. I could, for instance, start like this:I'll tell you a story bout Jackinanory …or I could start like this:It once was a time a very fine timethe monkey chew tobacco and he spit white lime…The point is, it's a Bahamian thing to do, to tell people stories. Remember that for later.Anyway, here's mine. A couple of years ago, I was teaching a class — a very large class of sophisticated, well-employed people. It so happened that I was giving a test on a Thursday evening near the end of November. I announced my intention a week or so in advance. In the class before the night of the test, a stream of people, one after another, came up to me. Every single one of them had the same request: could we postpone the test? The reason being given was simple. Thursday was Thanksgiving, and they were going to be on holiday, eating their Thanksgiving turkeys somewhere that was not the class.Now, being a good Bahamian — I watched our flag going up that flagpole at midnight on July 10, 1973, and I saw the blessing the Good Lord sent down upon it, stirring the air around it so that it opened out in a soft breeze that had not touched the Union Jack until that point — I flatly refused. My students were horrified."Are you American?" I asked them. "Do you have dual citizenship?"I was truly interested; I don't like people who make assumptions, and I didn't want to be guilt of one myself.As I remember it, not one of them was."I went to school in the US," said one brave soul."Well, I went to school in Canada," said I, "but you don't see me celebrating their Thanksgiving on Columbus Day." (I do not think I said Discovery Day; I don't think I can fix my mouth to say that.)I then took the stand that if they wanted to pass the class, they had to take the test. The worst thing they could've done was tell me they wanted to go home and celebrate a foreign holiday; it straightened up every patriotic bone in my body. There was a great outcry, but I stuck to my guns."If there's one thing I hate," I told them, "it's a group of independent Black people taking over an American holiday."And it's not as though it's anything to be proud of. Even Americans are learning to be critical of their Thanksgivings. Not that there's anything wrong with giving God thanks; that's what Harvest is for, as my good colleague Sebastian Campbell has already eloquently pointed out. But the implications of Thanksgiving, even for Americans, are pretty iffy, to say the least. They become even more iffy when people whose history is a whole long story of oppression insist on adopting the holiday.You see, American Thanksgiving is a celebration that remembers the Pilgrim Fathers. Now who were these people? They were a group of white settlers who, fleeing religious persecution in Great Britain, set up camp on a land that was already inhabited. As the story goes, each Thanksgiving was another chance for them to thank the Good Lord for keeping them alive for another year.On the surface, it doesn't seem all that terrible. But look at it this way.The Pilgrim Fathers did for the mainland of the USA what Columbus did for our islands. Their settlement, like his landfall, ultimately resulted in the devastation of the populations of native people who occupied, farmed and ruled the land that was North America. Each Thanksgiving, therefore, implies that the Pilgrim Fathers were giving thanks to God for helping them kill off a few more Indians, for helping them take over a little more of the land that belonged to the Six Nations (whose descendants tell us that they celebrate the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth). The states in which the Pilgrim Fathers landed have very few reservations at all; almost all their native people have been assimilated into the dominant, invasive population.It is for this that we give thanks.I don't accept it. I was born and grew up among a people for whom oppression is a daily part of life. I don't merely refer to people of African descent; all of us have experienced oppression in one form or another. As inhabitants of a tiny country on the edge of the greatest nation in the world, we are more than familiar with oppression. We should identify with the oppressed everywhere — not with the oppressors.I believe that those of us who do not carry an American passport but celebrate Thanksgiving like the Americans choose to identify with oppressors. To do so denies our very essence, erases our history a little more. To buy into this holiday, which commemorates people whose settlement of New England began the massacre of the Native peoples of the USA, tells me that we have very little solid sense of self. We ignore the fact that among us still walk Bahamians in whose veins run Native American blood. Some of us — Bowlegs and Wildgooses, among others — still carry Native American names. And for any one of us to celebrate American Thanksgiving on our soil obliterates who we are.E bo ben, my story done en.If you ax me for another, I'll tell it again.

On Generation Property

There is a lot of talk these days about generation property, the practice by which Bahamians have owned land throughout the archipelago throughout the ages. It's a problem, we're told; it impedes development. Time for us to fix the system.Well, good. Just as long as we don't fix the system by making it just like every other land-owning system in the western world.Keep in mind the following points. First, generation property is an oral way of organizing people's relation to land. The principles that govern the custom are fundamentally different from the principles that govern every other system of land ownership; and any bid to deal with the system must recognize and respect this fact.Second, generation property is a strategy that has provided the descendents of slaves with access to land that is unprecedented in the Caribbean and Latin American region.Third (and this point is closely related to my second), generation property has provided black Bahamians with the ownership of prime land in a region where the second-class position of people of non-European descent is pretty universally entrenched.

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On Carts and Horses

Now that the silly season is over, the year has been spared, the halls undecked, the paychecks spent and the A-groups robbed, it seems a good time to lay out something I've been thinking about for quite a long while. I touched on it last week in my article about the sport of Junkanoo, but I didn't elaborate; so here's the elaboration, for what it's worth.These days, when we think or talk about Junkanoo in public we have a tendency to think and talk about things that are in fact incidentals. If we describe it to people who have never seen it, chances are we'll talk about the costumes. We may mention groups and performance, and we'll probably talk about the way in which all of Bay Street rocks when a big group comes down the road.We talk about the costumes. Or the B-52s. Or the brass section. Or the choreographed dancers. Or the bellers. Or the bleachers, for heaven's sake, or the tickets, or the way in which the fans respond. Rarely do we talk about the heartbeat of the thing.Rarely do we talk about the rhythm drum.

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On Junkanoo

Well, it's official. Junkanoo is not a cultural event. It's a sport. Complete with winners and losers, gamblers and fixers, points and penalties and appeals.Think about it. In all the debate that we hear about Junkanoo every year, how much do we hear about the event itself? About the innovations in the art, the changes in the music, the use of colour, the presentation of the performances?The answer: virtually nothing.What we hear instead are insults to the judges, to the committee, to the Ministry, to the winning groups, to the losing groups, and to anyone who ventures to say anything remotely sensible about the whole. All that matters to the group, the press, the public, is who won and lost the parade. A sport, plain and simple, in which the referees are perpetually suspect and the umpires always under siege. Somebody get rob; somebody do the robbing. But we rarely hear anything about the art of Junkanoo.

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On Land

Over ten years ago I attended a lecture being given at the College of The Bahamas by Eris Moncur. His topic was, not surprisingly (as it was the Quincentennial year), the site of Columbus' landfall. Now I'm not going to debate that now; anyone who knows Mr Moncur even slightly knows what his view on the matter is. What I am going to raise is something he said, somewhat in passing, in that lecture. It was this: Bahamians are millionaires.Now many of us are fond of thinking of ourselves as "poor": "So-and-so like to take advantage of poor people," we say, or "The government job is to help poor people get ahead". I am not entirely sure what the cut-off point for wealth is; I suspect that poverty is something we own, while wealth belongs to the other guy. Be that as it may (and that's certainly fodder for another column), I want to argue Mr Moncur's case, because I agree with him. Many, if not most, Bahamians are extremely rich.

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