On Moral Illiteracy

for Jackson

Recently I listened to German author Bernhard Schlink on the BBC's World Book Club discussing his novel The Reader. It's a book about the Holocaust, told, as he says, from the perspective of the second generation of Germans who have lived with that atrocity in their cultural and historical reality, and it explores their share of the guilt. For him, that guilt is shared by anyone who loves or respects someone who was active in the Holocaust (I'm simplifying horribly) unless you are also able to call them to account for their share in the war.He writes from the perspective of one who knows. In his life, growing up in Germany after the war but before the complicity of most Germans in the Nazi atrocities was publicly acknowledged, he knew, admired and loved many individuals who had been personally responsible for, or who had at least taken part in, the wartime genocides. At some point in his life he was forced to make a moral choice. Should his love and admiration for these people obscure the atrocities in which they were complicit, or was it his responsibility to call them to account for their actions?The Reader puts this question on the table. On one level, it's a book about literacy and illiteracy; one of the main characters cannot read or write. Schlink was asked whether he'd intended that to be symbolic or metaphorical, whether he'd intended that trope to represent the blindness of the German people as they ignored the genocides being carried out by the Nazi government. His reply had two sides to it. On the one hand, he said, he was not writing a book from a symbolic point of view. The illiteracy in the book was simply illiteracy--an inability to read. But on the other hand, he added, it was possible for a nation, a group, a people, to breed a sort of moral illiteracy--the inability to behave in ways that were morally acceptable. He used that to account for the parsons and priests and doctors who supported the Nazi regime, who were complicit in the torture and murder of millions, who participated in, encouraged, taught, and celebrated the actions of Hitler and his government. Education and profession were no barriers to atrocity, he argued. What was lacking was not knowledge; it was morality.So here is what I believe about my country. I believe that we suffer from a profound moral illiteracy, and that this pervades our society from top to bottom. Our approach to life is simple and simplistic at the same time; all that matters is what is good for me right now. We feel no collective sense of outrage at anything that is palpably wrong; we do not even discuss the inherent rightness and wrongness of any issue, but choose to implement what is most convenient. We mouth Christian principles, and are happy to use them to justify oppression and cruelty; we press carefully selected Bible verses into service to justify why, for instance, it should remain legal for a man to rape his wife, but do not examine the same scriptures for the concurrent instructions about men's responsibilities to love and honour their wives, or spouses' responsibilities to one another. We turn blind eyes on other instances to ministers of the cabinet and of the gospel and all others who abuse the weak socially, sexually, morally, and physically. We celebrate and glorify hard men of every kind, but despise kindness and compassion. And when it comes time to make hard choices--do we do what is right or what is popular? Do we honour bullies who destroy or value people who seek to build up the common life? Do we work to achieve what is hard but best, or do we settle for what is easily within our (very short) reach?--we make the easy ones every time.In this we are not all that different from many of our Caribbean neighbours, or even from the USA, for which money and finance have more value than human life. It is not fashionable to hold principles. It is not good business to put people first. It is not profitable to seek to be our brothers' keepers, and poverty is in terribly bad taste. The moral illiteracy that I think we share does not end at our borders. It is a North American malaise too, but we in the Caribbean have developed too few traditions that can help combat it, and almost no institutions that provide support for moral stands. For, as Schlink observes, to make the hardest moral choices, "You need an institution to support you. If you are on your own it becomes very difficult."The problem, I believe, is rooted in the fact that our societies in the Caribbean were never designed to be societies at all. Our region is unique in the modern world in being the one place whose sole purpose was to provide cheap goods, generate capital, and extract raw materials to fuel the prosperity of metropolitan centres. This was not always our function; but over the course of five centuries our indigenous populations, societies and structures were first eradicated, and then explicitly re-created to achieve those goals. And we live in the world that remained.Academics write often about "the plantation", but their discussions are remote and not yet as resonant as the legacy of that "plantation", among whose ruins we still live. The concept of the total institution that was slavery in the Caribbean has not entered the popular discourse on any meaningful level. We have been taught, and still imagine, that we have some kind of autonomy about the societies we build in its wake. We do not. Until we do what Schlink and his modern Germany have done—confront the horrors in our history, and call the perpetrators to account—we cannot hope to build anything new. The foundations on which we build are the bones of our ancestors, and they are too uneasy to allow anything to remain.As it exists today, the plantation discussion does little more than provide radicals with the language of critique, and conservatives with a philosophy against which to fight. In our world, we appear not to recognize complexity. We believe that victims are justified by their victimhood, and that they cannot ever become oppressors themselves; we believe that responsibility is one-way, and that skin colour is a badge of power, or of oppression. We do not hold the discussion that recognizes the shared responsibility of us all—that remembers that even of us who consider ourselves "victims", we share in the blood of our oppressors, that we are literally their descendants, or that for many of us who consider ourselves free of the plantation, to share in wealth is to continue to benefit from the forced labour on which this "New World" was constructed. We do not talk about the Africans who sold other Africans to Europeans for guns and ammunition to expand their empires at home, nor do we do not talk about our ancestors who, as the offspring of planters and their slaves, became owners of slaves themselves. We do not recognize the echoes of slavery that  resound everywhere in the global media, local government policies, and the things on which we spend our revenues, both public and private. And we most certainly do not recognize its echoes as we act again and again out of the moral hollowness that is perhaps slavery's greatest consequence.It seems inconceivable to me that we do not recognize the echoes of that evil institution in the way in which we think about development, about nationalism, or about democratic principles, in the way that we talk about and to one another, and in the way that we still—still, after two hundred and seven years after the first slave independence—put almost anything  above human beings. But we do not. We can perhaps take some bitter comfort in the fact that we are only following the lead of the world in this; after all, while the Holocaust has been recognized as a crime against humanity for the entire lifetime of the United Nations Organization, and inspired the 1948 Convention against Genocide, it took that same august body until 2001 to declare the institution of slavery an equal crime. But this is no real excuse.This is the moral illiteracy that plagues the New World in the lengthening shadow of the plantation. Human beings continue to come second to other, "greater" projects. It is to this view that every government in the Caribbean region appears to subscribe, perhaps unwittingly, but subscribe nevertheless, if our collective investment in our human capital is to be any guide. I believe that it is time we, the people of this region, call them out on it. It's time for us to learn, and teach, the moral alphabet to those we elect to represent and lead us, to our children, and most of all ourselves. 

On Holding One Other in Contempt

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

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 the Neighbourhood

In Winston Saunders' quartet of plays, The Nehemiah Chronicles, the main character, an old man who has remained in his neighbourhood throughout a number of decades, talks to an invisible reporter about the rise in crime around him and how he feels unsafe in the home where he once was secure. In the past he's always known his neighbours. He disciplined their children, and helped to raise a society of youngsters who respected authority and one another, and who made sensible contributions to their country and countrymen.He blames the current state of the nation on the growth of the sudivision, where fences and walls and back gardens have replaced front porches and shared yards, where the entire population leaves their houses standing empty during the day, and where at night no one knows the people who live next door.In the suburbs, he says, crime flourishes because nobody knows or cares enough about one another to prevent or stop it. People can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door or across the street without the knowledge of those nearby. In the inner city -- in the ghetto, Over the Hill, or in what was once the neighbourhood, people can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door without the interference of those nearby, because all the connections that once existed have been broken.And he has a point.The neighbourhood -- that locale which is a citizen's larger home, where you can go next door or across the street to borrow a cup of rice or sugar, where you can share child care and walk to the shop and remind yourself of the humanity of strangers -- is dying in Nassau. It is not coincidental, I believe, that violence against other people is prevalent. We don't know one another, and our upbringing in subdivisions behind walls and windows, has taught us to suspect other people, not respect them. We no longer know how to talk to strangers, much less how to behave.There are lots of thoughts about why this is. But I'm going to suggest that one of the root issues is a question of town planning. We appear to believe that urban development must follow a certain path, that when a neighbourhood ages and people begin to die off, what must follow is the conversion of that space into commercial properties.Our town planning appears to follow this model, and implements without question the idea of commercial rezoning in older urban neighbourhoods. All too often the wishes of the residents of those areas are overlooked or ignored; perhaps the assumption is that in the long run it is good for them, as they can sell their properties at commercial prices and everyone ultimately benefits.There's something to be said for this approach. It has its short-term advantages. Most of these accrue to individual businessmen and real estate agencies, many of whom come from outside the area. As properties change hands, speculators and businessmen snap them up at residential prices, and resell them or develop them as commercial properties, sometimes exploiting the changing nature of the neighbourhood to get the most value from their dollar -- using residential offsets for commercial properties, for instance. The profits they make are enviable.But they are individual profits, and the long-term result is not so glorious. Those of us who live in changing neighbourhoods all too often find the safety and integrity and character of our areas being threatened by impersonal businesses, whose entire existence is to maximize the profits of their owners, and not to contribute to the life of the community. As this commercial development spreads, residents who have been able to live good lives at reasonable prices are forced to move out.This again is good for developers, who can create more and more subdivisions further and further away from our business centres where prices are high, facades are sophisticated, behind walls and fences and, nowadays, gates, where buyers pay a high price for privacy. It's not so good for those us who have become the victims of commerce. And in the long run, it's not so good for the economy of us all.Because we haven't considered the downsides. In the first place, many of the newer subdivisions are bereft of commercial activity, which means that for even the simplest need one must get into one's car and drive to the nearest shop or series of shops. This costs money and creates traffic and makes the entire population unhealthier, more stressed-out, more car-bound. In the second, the privacy for which we have paid so much is often overwhelming, and provides very little real security at all. In the neighbourhood we have neighbours to watch out for us and our property; in the subdivisions we must rely on burglar bars and alarm systems and our faith in God, and in the gated communities we pay money to a private security company to do what our neighbours did for free.In the USA and Canada, where this trend happened forty years ago, they have learned the lesson we are about to ignore right now. The "redevelopment" of neighbourhoods into commercial "centres" doesn't work. By moving the residents out of the neighbourhood, the cost of living goes up for everyone concerned -- the businesses included. Residents are also customers, and they will gravitate to those businesses that are the closest to their homes. Business follows people, not the other way round; and so the cost of doing business is similarly affected. Security, transportation, advertising -- all these costs escalate, the result of moving people away from neighbourhoods when zoning is exclusive.In North America, the new trend is towards mixed zoning. In short, they're recreating neighbourhoods. In The Bahamas, where we have the opportunity to rescue the ones that still exist, residents must be given equal footing with developers. Town Planning must make it a policy to consider the needs and wishes of the neighbourhood before approving any new development that will affect the character and the quality of life in the area. We should get to choose which businesses we want to allow next door. That way, we will strengthen the sustainability of business, increase our quality of life, and help control the cost of basic living.

Some useful links:New Urbanism (WikiPedia article)Defining Elements of New UrbanismNew Urbanism webpageThe cost of urban sprawl

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 Blogworldhttp://www.nicobethel.net/blogworld/Bahama Pundithttp://www.bahamapundit.comNassau Guardian Onlinehttp://thenassauguardian.com

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 Images of Savages, Part Three

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

On Images of Savages, Part Two

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

On Images of Savages, Part One

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

More On Why Race Matters

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

On Why Race Matters

It doesn't. Really.And if you believe that, I have a couple of bridges to sell you.I've written about race before, from two different perspectives. The first time I wanted to write about why race didn't matter -- about how all people are fundamentally human alike, and how the concept of "race" is an idea that is used to achieve various goals. The second time, I wanted to talk about racism, which occurs when humans act on what they imagine to be racial differences.Today, I want to bring it home. I want to discuss why race matters, here and now, in the twenty-first-century Bahamas.Now some of you may feel the urge to put the paper down, thinking "not this again". Before you do, consider this. We Bahamians love to avoid discussion of the very things that are most crucial to us. We have unacceptably high incidences of pregnancy, HIV and other STD transmissions, and sexual abuse among our young people, and yet we steadfastly refuse to talk about issues of sex and sexuality in any constructive and positive way. We have unprecedented numbers of stateless people living among us, and yet we refuse to discuss any sensible policy relating to immigration and citizenship. And, forty years after majority rule, we remain a deeply divided society that continues to remember and celebrate distinctions based on colour.So let's call a lie a lie. Race matters. And we need to talk about it in order to make it matter less.To begin with, in our multicultural society, minorities are virtually invisible. The Bahamas is different from the vast majority of English-speaking West Indian nations because of a relatively high percentage of native White Bahamians. In Jamaica, the percentage of the population that is of European descent is 0.2%; in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana both, it is less than 1%; even in Barbados, where native Whites occupy a substantial sector in the society, it is 4% (my figures are taken from the UK Foreign Office Country Profiles). In The Bahamas, accepted figures suggest that between 12% and 15% of Bahamians are of European descent.And yet, except for their involvement in political activity, the presence of White Bahamians in day-to-day Bahamian life is so slight that many young Bahamians are under the impression that the only people of European descent who live in this country are expatriates. For them, "white" Bahamians are people of visibly mixed heritage who refuse to acknowledge their African connections; European Bahamians simply do not exist.White Bahamians may be invisible; Haitian Bahamians are silent. Although we do not have specific figures, estimates suggest that "Haitians" make up perhaps 20% of the overall population. We have plenty to say about our "immigration problem", but we rarely, if ever, acknowledge that people of Haitian ancestry are here to stay among us. And as a result, many Haitians seem to disappear in Bahamian society, Bahamianizing surnames, speaking with Bahamian accents, and keeping what is most precious separate and apart and private.I could go on to talk about how we ignore other ethnicities that make up our population, but I think that the point has been made. Race matters in The Bahamas -- so much so that the people who are not of the accepted ethnicity choose to melt into the background rather than challenge the status quo.But when we place these concepts next to the fact that in the USA, 12.9% of the population is African-American, and realize that it is impossible to ignore the African-American experience in and contribution to the United States, we can come to only one conclusion about race in The Bahamas: race matters so much to so many of us that it prevents us from building a society.It matters because the black, English-speaking majority run the risk of being the only people who ever feel truly at home in this Bahamaland of ours.It matters because the appointment of a self-identified White Bahamian as Deputy Prime Minister has given White Bahamians a chance to feel as though they belong in The Bahamas again.And it matters because the appointment of that same self-identified White Bahamian as Deputy Prime Minister has for some raised the fear that the oppressive forces that were fractured in 1967 will return and change The Bahamas back to what it was before Majority Rule.It's time, I believe, for us to open our mouths and start talking to one another. Until we examine the things that shape our race relations -- like slavery, emancipation, labour's struggle, the fight for equality, and the massive influx of Haitian immigrants -- we can never hope to build a united society. Although it's no longer a matter of law or custom, there are still churches and clubs and parks and professions and schools that are avoided by whites or blacks. There is still very little opportunity for mingling, for getting to know the people beneath the skin. And we have to say so.It's time for us to ask hard questions -- like what makes some White Bahamians feel as though they don't belong in The Bahamas? Why do some Black Bahamians fear whites who hold political power so much? Why do we still refuse to accept the fact that Bahamians of Haitian parentage have a place in our nation?It's only in asking tough questions, starting arguments, and listening to one another that we will go beyond our current uneasy political unities and build a society that is unified. Let's begin by agreeing that race matters. To pretend that it doesn't is to trap The Bahamas forever in a cycle of prejudice, bigotry and hatred that will stunt the growth of us all.

On Personality Cults

There has been much talk over the past three months in the media and over the airwaves about the differences between two men, men who, at their best are two parts of a whole. Much of the bottom line of the 2007 election rhetoric was fastened on to one thing and one thing only: who would voters like to have running the country -- a man who acts quickly and decisively and makes massive errors, or a man who contemplates all sides of an issue and hardly acts at all?Let me say this. Contrary to what we believe, twenty-first century leaders don't run countries. People do. For the first time ever, it is possible for democracy to function as it should. Thanks to fundamental changes in the transmission of information, every member of a democracy has the opportunity to make his or her voice heard -- over the airwaves, through the medium of the radio talk show, or, more revolutionary yet, over the internet, through blogs and podcasts.I'm not saying that leaders don't shape governments, or that they don't give direction, or point nations towards specific goals. I'm not even saying that they aren't convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. They do, and they are. What I am saying, though, is that simply being a leader is no longer enough. Thanks to the internet and the broadcast media, leaders are more vulnerable to the changing whims of public opinion than ever before.And, thanks to the internet and the broadcast media, those whims can change more quickly than wannabe leaders can imagine.It's for this reason that I turned away, consciously, from the 2007 election campaign, which had more in common with a protracted marital squabble than anything else. The targets were the two leaders from which the voters had to choose. The Free National Movement launched an all-out attack not on the policies or the successes of the Progressive Liberal Party government, but on weakness and corruption, singling out individuals -- the leader and various members. The Progressive Liberal Party responded predictably, resorting to cries of bullying, big money, and racism. The main venues for the campaign were the political rallies, which called upon emotions and gut reactions, and offered very little in the way of discussion or debate of ideas or visions. Rather than providing the Bahamian public with a means of finding out what the philosophies of these two parties were -- through debates, through long-range plans issued in good time, through a lining up of the pros and cons of the things that matter to the average person -- who, after all, ever gets to deal directly with a Prime Minister anyway? -- the primary focus of the campaign was a question of personality. Snap decisions or endless consultations? Indecisive waffling, or dictatorial stubbornness? A black-and-white worldview, or one filled with grey?The tactics were not new. Students of Bahamian political history will find almost exactly the same rhetoric -- employed, indeed, by some of the same men -- in the past, particularly during the1982 and 1987 elections, when the Free National Movement was being run by the "nice man" -- the late Kendal G. L. Isaacs -- and the Progressive Liberal Party was being led by the "tough leader", Lynden Oscar Pindling. Back then, corruption and racism were the core elements of the two campaigns, together with cries of propaganda and media bias.The difference, perhaps, is that in 1982 and in 1987 who led the party, and who led the country, mattered far more to the average person than it does today. During the 1970s and 1980s dissent was not merely difficult, it was virtually impossible; political bias and victimization were hard realities, not rhetorical bugaboos. The Government of The Bahamas controlled the airwaves, and diligently monitored what was aired on the single local television station and the two AM radio stations. Talk shows were interview shows, largely pre-taped, with very limited opportunity for calling in, and the average Bahamian toed the party line, or kept his mouth shut. The only real avenues for debate were the newspapers, the streets, the big trees, and the College of The Bahamas.In that crucible, the cult of leadership worked. Today, though, the landscape is fundamentally different. Having escaped from Egypt, we Bahamians appear to have come in sight of the Promised Land, if a sound financial policy and a growing economy may be considered that. In this election, Joshua and Caleb squared off against each other, and their supporters, rather than asking them to map for us what to do with the prosperity our nation is currently experiencing, took sides.In a world where leadership is in fact less and less important, both political parties ignored the real questions -- what do we do when there are few material or economic frontiers to conquer? How do we develop our human capital? -- and reverted to the politics of the previous generation. I expect the personal attack and the smears -- on both sides -- will continue for a while. But there is one fundamental difference.This country is run by the people now, not by the leaders. Leadership styles are exactly that -- style, not substance. The substance has not changed; we need only to study the parties' booklets, published in both cases less than one week before the election, to see that. Although we have changed our leaders (and by extension those individuals who are in positions of influence as well), we have not changed the direction of the country. Our civil service remains the same: antiquated, colonial, and opposed to change. Our commitment to development by foreigners remains the same as well; only now, perhaps, different developers will get deals. The people who will benefit from contracts will continue to be political cronies; only this time the faces will vary. There is one major difference, however. By 2012, both leaders are likely to be too old to put the same kind of dent in a political race. Our challenge, should we choose to accept it, is to move at last away from the cult of personality and build the kinds of governments for the future that we all would like to have.

On Victory

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

On 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 Commemorating Abolition

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

On Abolition

In 2007, we in the British New World will observe a bicentenary of great significance. The anniversary I’m talking about is the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain. That is a different thing from the abolition of slavery, which made it illegal for anyone throughout the British Empire to own other human beings. Rather, it was the abolition of the practice of sailing to other people’s countries and enslaving their people to provide free labour on land appropriated from yet another set of people.In 1807, the British Parliament made it illegal to enslave human beings afresh. The Abolition Act didn’t grant immediate freedom to those people who were already slaves; but it put an end to the profiteering that came from capturing new people.We know slavery was bad. We know it’s an indelible part of our history. But it’s over, and it has been in our country for almost two hundred years. So why should we commemorate Abolition, when it didn’t actually erase the institution of slavery or free the slaves?The short answer is that it marks the beginning of a process of emancipation that involved all parties -- the slaveowners as well as the slaves. The long answer is that Abolition created a culture that provided the foundations of the one in which we live today. If we begin with the question about who enslaved whom and when that ended and who ended it, we begin in the wrong place. We already know those answers, and we tend to use them to justify weaknesses and cast blame. The commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery, however, allows us to approach the institution in a different, and, it’s hoped, more constructive way.Currently, we’re taught to consider the institution of slavery as an unrelieved victimhood, with the Bad White Oppressor and the Poor Black Oppressed -- Simon Legree, for those of you who still remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Uncle Tom, Topsy, and company. But what we overlook is that the real institution was far more complicated. The slaves themselves struggled for their freedom from the moment of their capture, and their activity in that struggle for freedom contributed to importantly to the Abolition movement. The slave-owners, on the other hand, were not all greedy and cruel, and several engaged in the education, religious and otherwise, of their slaves. Not all people of colour were slaves, not all white people were slave-owners, and not all slave-owners were white; some, like the Fox after which Fox Hill took its name, belonged to the group of people known as Free Coloured People.So we have to approach this bicentenary of Abolition in a spirit of openness. We need to understand the processes of emancipation that began with/led up to/culminated in the passage of the Abolition Legislation through the British Parliament in 1807, and to recognize that those processes must continue; for two hundred years later, we are still not entirely free.So what should we commemorate about Abolition?Well, to begin with, (and for this article, I’m going to end here too; I’ll continue in other articles, and the one after that) though it didn’t do away with slavery, it changed the face of the institution in very important ways.Politically, Great Britain’s Abolition of the slave trade had the interesting side effect of making Great Britain the protector of the innocent on the high seas. The abolishing of the slave trade made it possible for British ships to police the Atlantic, capturing slave ships and setting the people on them free. The impact that this practice would have on The Bahamas for the rest of the ninetenth century was huge; if the slave ships were captured on the western side of the Atlantic, the likelihood that they would be towed to Nassau and the slaves on them set free in The Bahamas was high. The result was that the black population of The Bahamas was augmented throughout the 1800s by the arrival of Liberated Africans, and these people, who had never had their cultures stripped from them by the institution of slavery, contributed to the development of many particularly Bahamian traditions, such as lodges, Junkanoo, asue and so on. These people were responsible, further, for the creation of many of the villages we currently celebrate; Bain Town, Grants Town, Delaporte, Gambier, Adelaide, Carmichael and Fox Hill all had as their origins villages created for the Liberated Africans.Culturally, perhaps, the greatest legacy of the Abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was the stabilizing of that language that we now know as “Bahamian dialect”. There were other things, of course, but as I believe that a language is a basic cornerstone of identity, I’d like to focus on it for now.The creation of new languages is an interesting process. In the British West Indies, until 1807, the pool of Africans was constantly being added to by new arrivals. These people had diverse tongues, which meant that in order to communicate with one another and with the whites, an intermediary language, structured around African grammar systems but using English words, was established.When Abolition put an end to the fresh enslavement of people, the result was simple and interesting: the language that the slaves and their masters used for communication began to stabilize. In the absence of new languages being added to the pool, and in a situation where people were learning the intermediary tongue as their first language, a dialect was born. After Abolition, the creole languages that developed in the New World were the foundations of today’s various Caribbean and Latin American dialects -- fundamental markers of local identities.So why should we commemorate Abolition? For our culture and our language, at the very least. And of course, for all the ancestors who were changed by it, and who by that change changed us -- African, Creole, White, liberated, slave, and free.

On Travel

You ever notice how, when certain people travel, they go wherever they please without a second thought? From Ethiopia to Tibet, from Vienna to Baton Rouge, from Moscow to Santiago, they step off the plane or train or whatever got them there, they look around, and they feel well, not exactly at home, but entitled to be treated with a measure of dignity? These are the people who rise up in indignation when they’re challenged at borders, when they run into snags or problems, when their dignity is not recognized.On the other hand, you ever notice how, when certain other people travel, they pick where they want to go? They avoid certain places, they pick certain routes, they travel by specific forms of transport where security is the norm and not the exception, and when they step off the aeroplane, they prepare to be treated like immigrants or criminals or worse? These people may rise up in indignation when they’re challenged as well, but it’s not because they are shocked into that state. It’s because they’re all to familiar with their dignity not being recognized, and they’ve just become tired of it all.I’ve been travelling a lot lately. Now I’m not one of the people in the first group. I tend to expect border officials to be unfriendly, to be unwelcoming, to try and intimidate me into not blowing up whatever it is that they have. But lately I’ve been reminded that travel is good for you, despite the security clearances and the surly immigrant immigration officers who patrol the US border and the puffer machines and the various other beeping things. Travel is good for you.It doesn’t just open your mind, it blows it.On my recent trip to Trinidad, what blew mine is how fundamentally similar we Caribbean people are. While we Bahamians like to draw imaginary lines around and between us, aligning ourselves with northern people and assuring ourselves that we’re nothing like the Others, we lie to ourselves; even white Caribbean people (I met some in Barbados) are like white us.On my recent trip to Britain, what blew it then was the fact that London has become a European city. Never mind the rhetoric of the tour guides and the joshing that happens every now and then; every waiter who served us in a restaurant, half the ushers who seated us in the theatres, and every employee in our hotel was from Europe. And the pedestrians now walk on the right side of the sidewalks in London, and trot up the right side of the stairs of the Undergound, and London appears to have given in to it. Rare and far between are the signs instructing pedestrians to Keep Left; the Battle of Britain, at least in London, has been lost.But we — and by we I mostly mean Bahamians, but not entirely — don’t travel. Don’t get me wrong. We go places; we go shopping. We take planes and trains and we carry lots of money with us and several empty bags, and wherever we follow bargains and objects for consumption. But travel, the kind of travel I’m talking about, the travel that is part of one’s education, that stems from basic curiosity, that involves the discovery of unfamiliar places, is not a part of our cultural vocabulary.The thing is, it’s part of other nations’. It’s fundamental to their self-definitions. Europeans and Canadians include travel as part of their socialization in the world. Consider this. There are far more British and French and German and Danish and Austrian teenagers who are familiar with Africa and its various cultures than there are Bahamians, whose ancestors were brought from Africa. Young Europeans take summers and even years to travel around or even live and work in countries and cultures as different from theirs as they can possibly find. They learn other people’s languages, and they collect other people’s customs. Canadians do the same thing. Even Americans, who (apart from us Bahamians, who imitate Uncle Sam in every possible thing, good and bad, and bad more than good) are some of the most geographically challenged people in the universe, include summers in Europe or visits to Latin America as important parts of their exposure.There’s a reason for this, and it’s a far bigger reason than one might usually imagine. It’s so big I can’t possibly begin to address it in this article. But it’s so big it’s fundamental to who we are and where we place ourselves in this world.Because this distinction I’ve noted, about the way different people travel, is indicative of who we are, where we stand on the world stage, and what we ultimately think about ourselves.And it’s not something that we have a whole lot of control over.But it’s important. It’s important because it has something to say about us, our identities, our self-esteem. That’s the Big Picture.Here’s the little one, the one most policy-makers and decision-brokers pay attention to. We’re in the travel business. We have built our industry on the comfort-traveller. This person is usually American, and is usually unadventurous. This is the very person who’s unlikely to dash out and get a passport just to be able to leave his country and come to ours. Because we don’t understand travel, come January 2007 we are going to suffer an economic downturn while the comfort-travellers who are like us get around to securing their travel documents. We want to keep our market share, to remain head and shoulders above the our competition. But until we understand why people travel, unless we can step into their shoes, we are going to stay right where we are, and other people are going to catch us up and grow taller.Here’s what we have to begin to understand. Travel isn’t just about beaches and shopping, sunshine and good roads, or Coca-Cola in our vending machines. For many people in the world, travel is exploration. For them, the world is an empty map, waiting for them to blaze a trail onto it. Uniqueness, not imitation, is important. And until we learn this fundamental truth, we are going to find ourselves challenged, at least for a little while. It’s time for us to learn about travel.

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.