Forty years and maybe more, or falling off the balance beam

are meaningless
except to measure the process
of maturing.

Pat Rahming, "Still and Maybe More -- A Trilogy"

Need I say it? I am overcommitted, and I am feeling compromised, and am consequently conflicted and a little angry at both myself and the system which governs us. I feel like I'm swimming underwater and there's a pressure building up inside (or is it outside?) my head that is uncomfortable, to say the least.

This post is one small step towards equalizing the pressure.


The feeling of compromise comes from the fact that as long ago as August 2012 I was asked to serve as co-chair of the fortieth anniversary of independence committee. Back then, in the golden haze that surrounded the change of government, there was a sense of excitement regarding this anniversary. It's not always an excitement that stretches across both sides of the political divide; often I get the sense that supporters of the PLP tend to make a whole lot more of being independent than supporters of the FNM, but maybe that's an assumption. Certainly there was a measure of scepticism about a big-time forty anniversary celebration. It's a scepticism that I understand. After all, it's not the fortieth anniversary that usually gets the attention, but the half-century, and rightly so.

I even share some of the reservations about a fortieth anniversary celebration that I have heard expressed. No need to go all out on this one; fifty is coming up. Now this is something that I happen to believe, to an extent. Fifty is coming up, and fifty should get most of the attention; true. But when I hear the easy and (forgive me) lazy comments that we don't have the money to waste on celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our independence something happens along my spine and up the back of my neck. I suppose if I were a cat or a dog that's where the fur would be standing up on end. I have very little patience in this uncontested oh-so-Bahamian habit of suggesting that spending money on national events is somehow a waste of time; and the more reading I do about our history the more my hair stands on end.

Money more sacred than people

We come from a tradition where it has been an unquestioned truism that money is somehow more sacred than people. It's more sacred than ideals, and it's more sacred than collective identities. It is an attitude that pervaded our governance all throughout the twentieth century. Back in the 1920s, the debates surrounding the establishment of a public high school that would make it possible for Bahamians who were not white to have even a hope of a high school education were fuelled by this question of affordability; opponents of the establishment of a government high school (who were, unsurprisingly, pretty exclusively wealthy and white) argued that it would be more cost-effective to establish a reformatory school for children (a sort of work-house perhaps?) because there was nothing in the colony for educated black people to do. (Apparently the idea of creating space for educated black people to exist was not something that was affordable either). Back in the 1940s, the argument for not paying the Bahamian workers on the Windsor Field project American wages was that the colony could not afford the consequent raise in wages that those workers would expect from all of their employers.  Back in the early 1960s, the debates attending on independence which inevitably accompanied the changes that were being made in suffrage were countered by the idea that the colony could not afford the cost of creating its own diplomatic service or its own military—things that, strangely, less than ten years later were suddenly affordable. In the 1980s, for some reason our nation was unable to afford the cost of maintenance of public buildings, or of supplying them; those of us who came of age in that era will well remember the persistent shortage of basic amenities in public offices and buildings, from chalk to toilet paper in our schools, from drugs in our hospitals (this during a time when banks were turning away deposits of cash owing to the success of a very different drug trade) to books in our libraries, from docks on our family islands to places of public renewal (think Jumbey Village) in our urban communities.  And in the 2000s, we were unable to afford an investment in CARIFESTA which might have energized our cultural economy and rejuvenated our tourism product and given us the potential to take advantage of the most vibrant parts of the global economy, culture and tourism, today (though we were more than able to borrow ourselves into an economic depression to deepen our harbour and build roads in New Providence alone—things that make you go "hm").

Bahamian money: more important than Bahamian people.

Forty years of independence

So I am not likely to jump on the naysayer bandwagon and argue that we can't afford to celebrate our nationhood by commemorating forty years of independence. On the other hand, though, I am equally unlikely to ratify half-baked and wasteful decisions. I hope that I've made it clear that I don't believe in principle that celebrating our independence is either half-baked or wasteful; but there is such a thing as context, and context changes many things.

My personal challenge is simple. Each week I am called to attend a meeting of  the (recently formed) fortieth anniversary committee. Despite having been asked to serve as its chair in the middle of last year, the committee was appointed in January 2013. We are expected to sit around a table once a week to discuss activities for the year. At the same time, though, as I write, a document is circulating around my place of employment (the College of The Bahamas, for  those who may not know) which calls for fairly drastic budget cuts. These are cuts being imposed upon that institution by the government of the Bahamas, in the form of a (perhaps unprecedented?) reduction of the government's subvention: a 10% reduction in 2013-2014, rising to 25% reduction in 2014-2015—the same government who has asked me to co-chair a committee that plans activities in honour of our fortieth anniversary of independence. They are cuts that will not simply require the trimming of some fat at what is already a fairly lean institution, but will certainly require the letting of some blood as well—and, if rumours about 2015 and beyond are to be believed, the chopping off of a limb or two. At the same time, 2015 is the year by which my institution is to be a university. Add to the mix the fundamental conservatism by which the institution has come to be governed internally—according to philosophies that privilege central control over shared governance—and also add the ways in which protests have generally been made within that institution—by personal attack, divisiveness and a pitting of one constituency (faculty, for example) against another, and you will understand that the balancing act with which I am currently faced appears impossible.

Falling off the balance beam

On the one hand, I understand the desire to recognize our fortieth anniversary of  independence in some tangible and uplifting manner. Among other things, in this country where our history is as well-known as the speaking of Latin, it has a practical significance that in some ways trumps the symbolic significance that our fiftieth anniversary in 2023 will have; it is the last major anniversary of independence when the people who will shape the Bahamas of the future can converse and work together with the people who laid the foundations of the Bahamian nation (and here I'm not just talking about the political leaders). That we celebrate it appropriately, to my mind, is imperative.

But on the other hand, when we are being asked to "celebrate" in a climate where one of the most solid achievements of our forty years of independence, the College/University of The Bahamas, is being asked to cut services which are already woefully under-funded and under-supported by successive governments, the question of what is appropriate looms large. And the irony of my personal situation is not lost on me. I know one thing for sure: that if the College is forced to cut 25% of its budget in an attempt to meet the shortfall it will face from the 25+% cut in government subvention, the independence that I am called to celebrate will lose much of its meaning not only for me, but also for the generation of Bahamians to come, whether they know it yet or not. 

Sidney Poitier, Independence, and respect for Bahamian artists

I have been involved in the performing arts, and specifically in theatre, in The Bahamas for over thirty years. Like many in my generation, my involvement began as I entered high school, continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s and blossomed in the 21st century. For all of that time, my mentors were great Bahamians who, sometimes at considerable personal sacrifice, had committed themselves not only to their own personal development in the arts, but to sharing their skills and training generations of Bahamians who came after them.Four names come immediately to mind:

  • Winston V. Saunders, playwright, actor, director, producer, whose leadership of the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts between 1975 and 1998 laid the foundation for what has more recently been called the “golden age” of Bahamian theatre, establishing a regular Repertory Season, and allowing for the production of some forty original Bahamian plays;
  • Philip A. Burrows, actor, director, and Artistic Director of the Dundas Repertory Season from 1981-1997, whose training and expertise not only assisted Winston Saunders’ vision for the development of Bahamian theatre, but who made international standards of production and performance synonymous with Bahamian standards, and who trained, both through workshops and through working with actors in productions, scores of Bahamian actors in the craft of theatre;
  • Cleophas Adderley, composer, singer, director, whose musical genius has inspired, challenged and strengthened all of us who have heard or performed his work, known now as the director of the National Youth Choir of The Bahamas, but perhaps most famous for being the composer of the first classical grand opera in the English-Speaking Caribbean;
  • E. Clement Bethel, pianist, composer, teacher, Director of Cultural Affairs, and my father, who gave up fame and fortune as a internationally-acclaimed concert pianist to return to the Bahamas to make his own contribution to the recognition and development of Bahamian music and arts, and who taught thousands of young Bahamians about themselves and their culture as a result.

Sidney Poitier was not one of those individuals. Nor did he, like his fellow Bahamians in Hollywood, Calvin Lockhart and Cedric Scott, come home and give of his talent, expertise and skill to help develop those of us who were working in theatre in The Bahamas. There were times when we felt that he did not respect our continuing struggles, that he had shaken the Bahamian dust off his feet, and had turned his back on us altogether. The reason I understand the betrayal being expressed by many who are now working in the performing arts at the decision to establish something in his honour is that I too felt betrayed by him.And yet I support the idea that The Bahamas should honour him in some tangible, long-lasting fashion.I've thought about this long and hard, and have argued about it long and hard, long before this most recent controversy about Sidney Poitier's worthiness to be honoured. There was a time when I was like those people who opposed the awarding of honours to Sidney Poitier; what did he do for us? I wondered. What did he give to us? In meetings of the National Cultural Development Commission, when that body existed between 2002 and 2007, the same discussions that are being had in public in social media were held as we hammered out the National Heroes and Honours Bills; these questions were raised and discussed, with some of the members of that body, Bahamian icons in their own right, coming down on one side of the issue, some coming down on the other. (Both of those Bills were, to the best of my knowledge, presented in the House of Assembly in 2007 but which, for reasons presumably connected to the change of government in May of that year, are not functionally laws today. Perhaps they were not passed. Perhaps they were not ratified. No one seems to know.)I don't remember when or how my mind was changed; I don't think that it happened all at once. I do remember a moment, though, when, sitting in one of the symposia that accompanied the first Sidney Poitier Film Festival at the College of The Bahamas, I listened to an American academic who made a set of simple and clear points that I had never thought of before. Sidney Poitier changed the world for Black people in the 1950s. And he did it because he was from Cat Island. He did it because he was Bahamian.I don't feel the need to go through all the details that were given in that presentation. I'll just say it very simply. Until Poitier appeared on screen, the image of the black man that was circumnavigating the world was that of a shuffling, forelock-touching, yes-massa, servile sort of person, or else it was that of the cannibalistic savage dancing in a grass skirt around a fire, shaking a rattle and salivating at the thought of cooking up some prime white meat. There were some exceptions, like Paul Robeson in the 1936 film of Show Boat, but they were circumscribed by things that made them safe; Robeson's character Joe was, for all his strength and gravity, softened by the fact that he burst into song. Sidney Poitier didn't sing. He didn't take roles that made him out to be anything less than a man who deserved—and demanded—respect. Few black men, if any, spoke in Standard English on the silver screen. Poitier spoke English better than most Americans did. He looked into the camera, and dared you to call him "nigger" or "boy", and did it by using the dignity Cat Island instilled in him and not by inspiring fear.If that were all that Sidney Poitier did, I'd say that it would be appropriate for the land that raised him (and the land that he would also have been born in, if he hadn't arrived prematurely on that Miami trip) to honour him in some tangible and meaningful way. But I've learned that it wasn't all that he did. We tend to judge people's contributions to the nation by their notoriety, by their fame, and those people who simply do what they know to be right without looking for recognition seem to disappear into oblivion, while people who make a big fuss about their actions are placed on pedestals. Suffice to say that I'm convinced that Poitier has contributed, generously, to our nation through his support, financial and otherwise, of individual Bahamians.That said, I want to return to where I began—with reference to those people who mentored me in the performing arts. In all the discussion about why Poitier should or shouldn't be honoured and who should be honoured instead, I have not heard much mention of any of them. I wonder why. Like Poitier, they have all dedicated themselves to their craft, and have worked to make sure that whatever they produced was the best that they could possibly deliver. They didn't limit themselves by what they thought the Bahamian public would like or understand; instead, they pushed the envelope, tried different things, and inspired Bahamians to think differently about themselves, to dream better, to go further, to be better. They inspired me to do that. They taught the people they worked with to do it. They never thought that being Bahamian meant being second-rate at anything; the standard they upheld was universal and excellent. And yet their names are not called. Neither are the names of many others who worked, and work, according to the same criteria. I wonder why.So I am left, in all our discussion of respect for Bahamian artists, with the question of what it is we are respecting, and why. Is excellence one of our criteria? Is popularity? Is our discussion informed by a real appreciation for the work of all Bahamian artists, or only of those we know, recognize and support? Are we reasoning our way to our list of proposed honourees, or are we acting out of emotion? Are we seeking to rectify omissions of the past, or paving a pathway to the future?I don't know the answer to these questions. But I do know that now we have begun the discussion with Sidney Poitier we need to hold the discussion in earnest. And we have to hold it in the way I ask my students to write their papers—by establishing criteria and goals, by doing the research, by presenting the evidence, and by making our cases. And we have to do it as a nation, collectively, as a citizenry who know and articulate who and what it is we would like to be. By now it should be clear that we cannot leave it to others; we need to do it ourselves.

Nikki Giovanni writes: Politicizing black hair -

We all still have a long way to go. I've highlighted what I think is most critical about this point; I've made it bold below.

What’s particular to me in this narrative about blackness and beauty is the rather uncomfortable admission that we are overly concerned by how the world (white people) sees us and our own internalized narrative of the meaning of kinky, curly, (nappy) hair. Our hair comes in all textures and types. The resources and community support that are available to us today were absent in my earliest journey of ‘transitioning‘. Yet, we’re still policing each other on how to be and be seen. Solange Knowles has also had her share in engaging the hair policing this summer, took to twitter to hush her critics for calling her hair ‘unkempt’ and ‘dry as heck’. Key word: ‘unkempt’. The socialization around black women and our naturally curly hair centers around a perception that I have assume stems from our tortured racial history, that our hair, wild, tightly curled, textured hair means something that is ‘bad’, ‘unruly’, ‘uncivlized’ and ‘rebellious’. The legacy of language in this context sadly echoes more race talk but within our own community. ‘Unkempt’ is this context is another way to say ‘uncivilized’.via Politicizing black hair -

Go read the whole thing.

Elections—and beyond

So, in the parlance of the day: Papa done ring da bell.Whatever that means.Don't get me wrong. I can talk the talk like any other Bahamian in 2012. Papa = the current prime minister, Hubert Ingraham. "The Bell" = the announcement of a date for the next general election. I know how to translate the statement.I just don't know what it means.Here's why. Some time ago, I wrote up my own manifesto (since the political parties vying for leadership of the country hadn't seen fit to share any of their promises or policies for the next five years) as a voter, a participant in a process that is commonly called "democratic". Since that time, others have joined me in making similar statements, and a few voices have called for our leaders and other politicians to have the balls to step out from behind their carefully crafted propaganda and open themselves up to discussions of issues with reasonable citizens.But, disappointingly, and with one important exception (Branville McCartney of the DNA) they haven't.And this, to my mind, does not bode well for our future. This is, after all, not like any other election year. For one thing, there are three major parties contesting the general election, a broad slate of independents, and a few fringe parties as well; for another, the two oldest parties are in fact comprised of the political parties that have made some impact over the past twenty years—the BDM in the case of the FNM, the NDP in the case of the PLP, and the CDR split between the two. Even the DNA has absorbed at least one extant party into its ranks: Rodney Moncur's Worker's Party. For another thing, for any dispassionate person, it is very unclear who is likely to win the next election. Popular support for both parties seems to have declined since 2007 and 2002. Back then, both the FNM and the PLP had trouble finding public spaces that were large enough to hold the assemblies of their supporters, and ended up taking turns on Clifford Park itself, which was packed with bodies sporting the shirts of the party colours: red for the FNM, yellow for the PLP. This season, however, the largest gatherings in Nassau have taken place on beaches—which, thanks to the generosity of both parties in giving away Bahamian beachfront property to foreign investors, are relatively small spaces in our city-island. This past Easter Monday, the FNM repaired to the Montagu foreshore, (for which it seems to have no trouble taking credit, but which was actually renovated by a private concern acting, at least officially, in a non-partisan manner) and the PLP occupied the Western Esplanade. Photographs have been circulating around cyberspace in an effort to compare the two gatherings and suggest that one was bigger than the other. There is a sort of frenzy on Facebook and other places Bahamians gather, where people engage in heated and emotionally charged exchanges of—what else?—propaganda, hurling the same invective our MPs have been hurling at one another across the floor of the house of assembly. But there is also a very large silence as well, and it is this silence that makes the outcome of the election so difficult to determine.I'd like to consider that silence at some other time, because I find it very interesting. It's a silence that sits in judgement, that does not buy into the insult-trading or hop the partisan bandwagon. It's the kind of silence that affected the outcome of the Elizabeth by-election, where a seat was won because the majority of registered voters did not turn out to vote. I know that Larry Smith has argued that low voter turn-out is not uncommon for by-elections, and I agree to a point, but I also sense (as does he) that there is more at work here than that; it seems to me that there is a growing group of Bahamians who watch the antics of all the political parties with a mixture of disgust and despair, because all politicians alike are missing the point. Which is that no matter who wins on May 7th, 2012, we will all have to live in this country together on May 8th.So my question is this. Given the passion and energy being expended in tearing down the other parties, or the other leaders—in dismissing reasonable questions and observations as "FNM" or "PLP" or even "DNA"—each of these being intended as insult, what happens the day after elections, when one party has won and the other(s) has/ve not? How do we work on building a nation of Bahamians? I have heard absolutely nothing from any party about what the future holds. The PLP has crafted some very general principles for the next few years, but these, when decoded, seem to amount to a reinstatement of what was in the works between 2002 and 2007 when they were in power. The FNM has focussed very much on vague generalities like "proven leadership" and "deliverance", and what has been done, largely in material, infrastructural terms, in the very recent past (one or two years at most). The DNA speaks in broad terms, pushing the buttons that they feel gain them support, but not showing any real coherent ideology about which their philosophy has been crafted (well, OK, to say that the PLP and the FNM have any coherent ideology would be being too kind, but at least their track records suggest that one group makes noises that are vaguely populist while the other tends to appease the local business community).Election seasons last for no more than six months at best. The remaining four and a half years require some measure of governance. And what frightens me the most in this election is how much it seems to be a game to those who are playing it. It's entertainment, a sport, which involves the kind of trash-talking that one expects to hear at a football game (American or soccer, makes no difference) or before a boxing match, but which has very little place in the governing of the country. One could argue (and I certainly would) that for four of the past five years, there was no governance at all, but just more of this sparring in the house of assembly, just more trading of insults back and forth across the floor, while the world got on with changing its foundations all around us and the ground on which our society and economy rest crumbles away. I am not impressed by the roads and the harbour or the extension of the hospital, as every one of these, no matter the expenditure, represents to my mind a kind of patch on a society whose foundations are in danger of falling apart. Nor am I impressed with the way in which the opposition opposed these things, because, well, whining and insult do not an opposition make. And I'm also not impressed with the kinds of "solutions" proposed by either of the opposing parties, because no one is explaining how they are going to implement those solutions. I would venture to suggest that it is time that the era of development-by-foreign-investment come to a close in The Bahamas. But I see no evidence that the parties who have governed for the last twenty years in that climate have come up with any ideas about how to manage this country all by themselves.So as we stare down the home stretch, as we slide into these last three weeks before Bahamians go to the polls and cast our votes, I would like at least one day to be dedicated to having the people who are contesting the elections to tell us what their vision is for this nation. Where do we go from here? How do we find our place in the twenty-first century? Why should I cast a vote for men who were educated before Bahamian Independence, and whose philosophies are, must be, out of place in this digital, global age? Why should I cast one for a man who has ridden the wave of dissatisfaction with our leaders to prominence as a real third-party contender, but who has not yet crafted a vision of his own as to how the country might be different?Do I have hope for the Bahamian future, no matter who wins the next election? I can't honestly say that I do. I have seen no vision from any of our prospective leaders, but see divisiveness and excess among their followers. So I'm preparing for five more years of struggle, no matter who wins or doesn't win this election; for five more years of escalating violence in our society; for five more years of a contracting economy, traffic problems, and decreasing revenues. I'm preparing for five more years of governmental desperation, of prostitution of the country to the biggest donor (China seems to be the crowd favourite right now), of undereducation and of brain drain, no matter who wins. Because the governing of a country—and of a postcolonial, neocolonized country on the edge of America at the turn of the digital age—is a delicate, precious business; and, because governing in such a climate requires more than snap decisions made by a despot, the demurring of a wannabe democrat, or the pontification of a malcontent, I have seen no indication that any of our prospective leaders are capable of governing at all.May 7th can't come soon enough. But, people, think what May 8th will bring. 

On the mis-education of the Bahamian citizen

One of the reasons I am unmoved by either any of the current political parties' manifesti, plans or proposals, is that I have the pleasure of teaching new groups of young Bahamians every year. This is a pleasure, because they are far more open and interested than they have any right to be, given the abysmal neglect of their generation and those immediately preceding them by the governments of our nation; but it is also a scandal. They know so very little about their country, themselves, and the world they are expected to navigate.We came into our own as a nation in 1973, almost 40 years ago. The generations that straddled that watershed were erudite, educated, aware of the world and our place in it, bent on changing the world they had grown up in, and educated to do so. The generations that they produced, by contrast, are none of those things. There are of course pockets of erudition, handfuls of individuals who can be considered "educated" in the democratic sense of the term, but these are not common. They are usually the products of families for whom The Bahamas matters, who may have earned a critical place in Bahamian history, who invest in education for themselves and their children, not because of what they perceive that education might earn them but for its own sake. More damningly, they are all too often also the graduates of private schools, hailing from the middle class or the upper middle class, children of privilege. Ironically, our self-rule and our independence, bought at some cost by people for whom education was by no means a given, to whom education was prohibited, has created a society in which the so-called "universal" education has bred a population whose ignorance is legion.As I tell my students, I don't blame them for reaching voting age without knowing anything important about themselves or their country. I can't; the fault is not theirs. But as I also tell them, I will blame them henceforth (to invoke the one-word motto of my alma mater) if they maintain that ignorance now that they know they possess it. That it should proliferate after a generation of Bahamian scholars, all of them investing their time, money, and energy into writing our stories, in penning our histories, in telling tales about us, is an indictment on every single government of The Bahamas since independence.But even that indictment cannot be evenly spread. Different administrations bear different kinds of guilt. The first Progressive Liberal Party administrations must shoulder the responsibility for skewing our history, for telling only part of it, for erasing whole chunks of Bahamian life and experience from the spoken record. Even given the fact that there is something understandable in the fact that the first decade of community building in the wake of majority rule was given over to the Black Bahamian experience, the continuation of that bias into the third decade after Majority Rule is unconscionable, given the fact that The Bahamas was the site of not one but two important republics in the New World, and a site of a very ancient, if politically skewed, democracy. The myth created out of the PLP rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s was that Black Bahamians had no vote and no voice in the pre-PLP era. The result of this half-truth is that young Black Bahamians were never made aware of the role of free African settlers in the Eleutherian Republic—the second republic in the new world—or of the Pirates' Republic of the end of the seventeenth century, which, though branded as lawless and rebellious by a Britain intent on global conquest, was also multi-racial and strangely democratic. The other result of this half-truth is that successive generations of Black Bahamians were created who had, and have, no comprehension of the actual composition of the Bahamian population, who take fair-skinned Bahamians of colour for the "whites" who controlled the nation in the past, and who take actual white Bahamians of ancient pedigree for tourists; and this serves to disenfranchise otherwise productive Bahamian citizens, to render them invisible, to remove from them a real stake in the fortunes of the nation.The first Free National Movement administrations, on the other hand, must bear a different responsibility. Perhaps coincidentally, the change of government from PLP to FNM occurred in the same year as the complete phasing-out of General Certificate of Education, the international school-leaving qualification previously earned by Bahamian students. The creation of the BGCSE was not the doing of the FNM, but the way in which it was administered must be. It is on the doorstep of the FNM that we must lay the blame for the continued miseducation of Bahamians. The miseducation of Bahamians with regard to the Bahamian citizenry and the place of whites within the Bahamas was addressed, but was done so as destructively as the miseducation of Bahamians under the PLP had been done. Instead of increasing the knowledge of young Bahamians about their nation and the world within which it existed, a choice was made to decrease that knowledge. History was not only made an optional subject, but even the origins of the Bahamian nation itself were concealed. It is impossible to recount the story of the rise of universal democracy in The Bahamas without privileging the role of the PLP; and so the history of the post-independence Bahamas was not taught at all. It is impossible to talk about slavery without acknowledging the oppression of Africans by Europeans; and so the history of Bahamian enslavement was not taught at all. By erasing critical eras of Bahamian history, by valourizing pre-1967 heroes such as Stafford Sands and Roland Symonette, or by recognizing (belatedly) other pre-independence heroes such as Cecil Wallace-Whitfield,  the first two FNM administrations effectively blotted out the story of the Bahamas that obtained between 1967/73 and 1992.I am told—I wasn't there, but have no reason to doubt the source—that during the 1990s, attempts to address living Bahamian history were actively discouraged by serving educators. I am thinking about an incident recounted by a colleague of mine, who told of a time when he stood up to make some reference to the days of Black Bahamian oppression at a school assembly where he was a guest speaker, only to be rebuked by the head teacher, who told him that teaching young Bahamians about the past would encourage racism against white people. That helps to explain the huge gaps in the knowledge of the students I teach today, some twenty years after that most recent active erasure of our selves. These are students who have heard of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, of Barack Obama, but who have no idea of who Lynden Pindling and Milo Butler and Cecil Wallace-Whitfield were, much less having even heard of other great Bahamians like Randol Fawkes, Etienne Dupuch, or Roland Symonette. They do not know what was suffered to give them free access to education, or what it means to be able to earn a college degree. They have barely heard of apartheid, the Holocaust, or colonialism. They do not know that the red, white and blue they associate with the Stars and Stripes were also once the colours of the Bahamian colony, not because of our American proximity, but because of our annexure to Britain. They have never heard of the Haitian Revolution, or know that Haiti was the first and the only successful ex-slave republic anywhere in the world. They do not know that, when he was released from prison and knew that victory for native South Africans was assured, Nelson Mandela came to The Bahamas to study the way in which we had achieved majority rule without bloodshed and created a successful society in its wake. They do not know who Nelson Mandela is. They do not know, and yet they are expected to become full citizens of this African-influenced, slave-shaped, postcolonial nation. The idea is absurd.And so I regard the incoherencies that pass for election rhetoric with a sense of disgust. These people who are now on their game, who are engaged in the grotesque performance that passes for "democracy" in the voting nations of the late capitalist era, are either complicit in the creation of the mass ignorance of the voters, or they are the products of the skew-eyed histories that have shaped our existence since independence. How can anyone who believes in democracy as the expression of the will of a people, support any set of politicians who have so completely seen to the erasure of the kind of knowledge that best informs that will? How can one, with good conscience, cast a vote in this climate? Why should I care about the leaders of the parties, when I know that they will all come out the same in the wash—blustery, misinformed/misinforming, irresponsible?Somebody tell me why.

Answering the challenge: a consideration of patriotism, democracy, and voting - part I

Of all the responses to the Voter's Manifesto I received, it was the one that challenged it that I appreciated the most. Not that I didn't welcome the people who commented and wrote in support of the Manifesto, or that I am not happy to know that the original seemed to have struck a chord with several other voters; but at the heart of democracy is, and must be, the ability to disagree. A space for dissent, for disagreement, for debate, must be built into any democratic system; democracy cannot hope to be achieved when no debate takes place.And it's not enough for room to be left for debate; that's only the first step in the democratic process. Unless debate happens—and debate that is rational, not polemic, slander or other forms of empty political rhetoric—unless, in other words, the group of people for whom democracy was provided do not exercise their freedom to speak, the process cannot survive. Silence paves the way for tyranny, and so also do name-calling and mud-slinging. There is very little that's democratic about a host of people, all clad in rainbow-coloured clothing, gathering insults into a pile to throw at one another. In that scenario, Ian Strachan's comment that no matter who wins the general election, the losers will be the Bahamian people is spot-on. What's missing from our political discussion is any reference to real, debatable issues, and any honest debate about them; and if we hope to maintain our hold on democracy, already tenuous in several respects, blind agreement can be as unproductive as senseless personal attack.So to the critique of the Manifesto, which was described by its critic as "ill-conceived, emotive, and racist". The main area of contention was the "I do not believe" section, which rejected the ideas

In response, the critic observed that

  1. the Bahamas already has a fully democratic process for electing its leadership 
  2. it is arrogant to suggest that a population of under 400,000 people has every single skill, knowledge and experience to address the issues faced by the country

and concluded that these statements "seemed designed to elicit anti-foreigner responses". The response challenged me "to defend your words and demonstrate the error of my interpretation".Here is my defence. To the first, the claim that the electoral process in The Bahamas is "fully democratic". This I challenge on many levels while at the same acknowledging the core of truth in the statement. On the one hand, we have a right to be proud of our electoral record. Great changes have taken place in The Bahamas via the ballot box, without bloodshed, and with a relatively low incidence of coercion, fraud, or corruption, the common understanding of all of the above notwithstanding. One could of course argue that there is a long-standing practice of wooing voters with cash incentives or of rewarding them for their support with gifts of food, or, apocryphally, large appliances; I could counter that with the challenge that the twenty-first century has seen an overall reduction in the value of these incentives, given the fact that neither of the two latest elections resulted in any major hiring of supporters to work in the absolute security of the Government Job. But I digress. We have a strong democratic tradition when it comes to voting for people to sit in Parliament. But we have a very poor democratic tradition when it comes to raising, debating or considering issues that have relevance for our nation; what passes for "political" discussion in our country is really personal attack and gossip dressed up in cotton tees.There are several areas in which we fail miserably in the development of the democratic tradition. The first is in the fact that, unlike other democracies, Bahamians have only one tier of representation. In our elections, two-thirds of the population may vote only for the national government. The city of Nassau has no local government, and there is no talk of any serious nature of creating one any time soon. Although we talk about urban renewal and the regeneration of downtown Nassau, the agency that we imagine will be given the responsibility for this is a corporate entity appointed by the government and accountable to no ordinary citizen. Family island communities have a measure of local governance, but urban Bahamians are governed by corporations—the Port Authority in Freeport, and whatever the title of the proposed agency will be for Nassau.The second is in the method by which our representatives are chosen. It's not good enough to invoke the Westminster model of parliamentary governance here; I am arguing that no matter where it came from, it does not meet our needs. In Nassau (where, I repeat, our Members of Parliament are the only voices we have at the governmental level), our much-touted ability to vote is seriously compromised by the fact that voters have the very last say in choosing the candidates. There are no primaries, no public weeding out of candidates, no debates, no means by which the average person can vet the candidates before they are presented to us. The selection is in the hands of the political parties alone. This dilutes the democratic process. I'm going to quote Pat Rahming here, because his poem "Power", now four decades old, continues to resonate:

cuz vot’n ain’ much powerif somebody else guh choosethe choice

The third is that the representatives are not answerable to the people from the time they are elected to the time they begin to campaign for votes three, four or five years later. Voters, having gone to the polls, made the best choice they could from among a group of (generally) unsuitables, are obliged to sit back and live with what they have done for five years. We cannot recall our representatives. Our representatives have no obligation to report to us what they have done with our trust. All we can do is watch them make fools of themselves and a mockery of our state on the Parliamentary Channel, and at best talk behind their backs—or on the air, sometimes—while smiling and kowtowing to their faces. Our so-called full democratic process has succeeded in making passive hypocrites of too many of us.The fourth is that in order to create democracy, more than a vote is needed. A voice is also not enough. We got our vote in the 1960s when women were allowed to cast ballots, and we got our voice in two parts: in the 1960s when we elected the first majority government of The Bahamas, so that the faces that ruled us looked like ours, and in the 1990s second when the Free National Movement made it possible for different perspectives to be heard on the airwaves by breaking the broadcasting monopoly that had hitherto been held, by law, by the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas. Neither fact seems to have prevented us from enacting the same dumbshow of electing and revering individuals who by their greed, lack of exposure, lack of knowledge, lack of morals, or lack of sense of self have proceeded to disenfranchise the average citizen even more. We need more than a voice; we need to be given the kind of education that breeds a sense of pride, a sense of honour and a sense of integrity so that we, the citizens, can exercise that voice in such a way that democracy is strengthened. That is clearly lacking. The very real oppression of the 1970s and 1980s—by which dissent by ordinary people was silenced in numerous ways, not least among them the very real activity of victimization, when opponents could be, and were, stripped of their livelihoods, their positions, and their reputations—has given way to an oppression of the mind. We have the channels and the means to speak, but what we have to say is ignorant of Bahamian history, lacking in substance, and small-minded.And so. We live in a nation that is nominally very democratic, but that is actually little better than any tyranny—and perhaps worse, because we are comfortable with our situations and so prefer not to rock any boats. We live and die by our passivity, and when things don't go well for us, we complain, we moan, or we lash out with knives and guns. Our democracy is a veneer, and a thin one at that.End of this part of my response; more to come

A Reader Responds to the Voter's Manifesto

Got the following response to my Voter's Manifesto. It was sent privately, for reasons the writer makes clear, but as that individual has encouraged me to post the response and to respond in my turn, I'm honouring the request.

Happy New YearI wish to challenge your Voter’s Manifesto as ill-conceived, emotive and racist. You will notice that I am doing this in a private message rather than a post.I would rather post and challenge publicly, however, unfortunately, foreigners do not have freedom of speech in the Bahamas without fear of consequences, and so I am forced to challenge you in private.I request that you honour my request for anonymity, but I encourage you to post (anonymously) and respond to my challenges in public.I have no argument with your ‘I believe’ section.I suggest that you are being intentionally emotive and encouraging misunderstanding in your ‘I do not believe’ section.‘I do not believe that Bahamians need help, time, or training to deepen and strengthen the democratic project’ I am not sure what you mean by ‘project’ but the Bahamas already has a fully democratic process for electing its leadership so this statement seems gratuitous and a little divisive to me.‘I do not believe that Bahamians need help, time or training to address those problems that our country is struggling with now’ Wow this is an arrogant statement, to suggest that a population of under 400, 000 people has every single skill, knowledge and experience to address the issues faced by the country. In this context I am reading ‘help’ as ‘help from non-Bahamians’ as I don’t see what else it can mean.Let me take an example that is close to your heart ……. COBCOB has been struggling for over 10 years now to transition from a community college to university status.• I question what percentage of Bahamian lecturers at COB became qualified for their job in the Bahamas? I believe over 98% of Bahamian COB lecturers gained their education abroad.• There are a number of foreign lecturers at COB. According to work permit requirements, COB was unable to fill those posts with Bahamians or work permits would not have been granted.Did you mean that you want to get rid of all the foreigners from COB and stop Bahamians going abroad for their education?Let me take another example………. The economy.The two largest industries in the Bahamas are tourism and off-shore banking. Both of these industries rely on foreign investment and international interactions.You might not like Sol Kerzner building Disney Land on Hogg Island, but it is one of the largest employers in the Bahamas, and there were no Bahamians in a position to build at the same level, as proven by Baha Mar, which tried for a number of years to elicit Bahamian investment and failed, and also could not generate the skill set required for high rise construction within the Bahamas.The off-shore banking industry functions through cooperation between the government of the Bahamas and international banks, who generate significant income for the Bahamas.These two industries between them generate the majority of the wealth of the Bahamas and the majority of opportunities for Bahamians. Take away the foreigners and the money of the foreigners and both will collapse, along with the economy of the Bahamas.You may not like the Bahamas’ dependence on foreign industry, but the Bahamas cannot do without it until it generates a broader economic base.Your statements seem designed to elicit anti-foreigner responses.What does it say about a country who shows such little respect for the foreigners legitimately living there?“If you want my vote don’t come waving flags or t-shirts or offering promises of more jobs laying cement, gathering laundry or taking orders for rich white people from abroad.”Are you saying it would be ok if they were rich black people from abroad?I do not think you intended to be so disrespectful to those white foreigners living in the Bahamas, but it is significant that, whilst addressing your agenda of quality of jobs provided by the government, you are comfortable using derogative phrases like this.This document does not match your usual quality of work in my opinion. I think it is significant that you published it on MLK day in the USA and its style is derivative of the ‘I have a dream’ speech.I invite you to defend your words and demonstrate the error of my interpretation.I moved to the Bahamas because it is a country that still values family, community and humanity. As you correctly state, it is a country full of people with talent and creativity. I love the Bahamas and the people of the Bahamas and I believe I make a positive contribution to this country, so I find it hurtful to hear ‘getting rid of the foreigners’ as an election platform.


A Voter's Manifesto

With elections around the corner and three political parties, none of which appear to have formulated, much less articulated, any new or credible plan for Bahamian development or growth in twenty-first century (and no, planning to beg more rich people for more money to buy up more of our precious archipelago does not count), I think it's time for the average Bahamian, the voter, to exercise her democratic right and put down in pixels what will or will not get her vote.I am a Bahamian who has never been represented by any party that has held power in The Bahamas to date. I am a woman, middle class, neither black nor white, a cultural worker and intellectual, a citizen and a voter, an ordinary Bahamian who does not campaign, carry a voters' card, attend rallies, or otherwise show her face during the silly season that surrounds politics.I pay my taxes in every way they are presented to me. I have never sat in a politician's office to beg for anything when doing so was not part of my job as a civil servant. I have been eligible to vote in the past 6 general elections but in that time I have only once been visited by a prospective MP, who believed that he was making a social call on old friends, my parents. I have never,  in my civilian position, called any sitting politician for a job, for a handout, for a favour, for any sort of help. I do not work in the tourism industry, real estate, the construction industry, or any other other area that figures in political discussions of "jobs" and "economics" or anything else.I am one of thousands of productive, independent, patriotic Bahamians who make this country run on a daily basis. I took the opportunities offered to my by the first independent government of The Bahamas and went off and earned a college degree. I came home because I wanted to serve and build my country. To date, my country has not put in place anything to serve and build me; to every politician who has served in parliament in the time I have been voting, people like me have been invisible. In our democracy, we do not count.And so: a voter's manifesto.

I believe:
  • that Bahamians are as intelligent, as resourceful, as industrious, as talented and as deserving as any other group of people on the planet;
  • that Bahamian innovation, creativity and adaptability carved this nation out of these scattered rocks in the sea, and that that innovation, creativity and adaptability will make flourish in the twenty-first century;
  • that Bahamians are full human beings, with needs that go beyond the merely material;
  • that The Bahamas is as important as any other nation in the world, and should be treated as such;
  • that our human capital -- the ingenuity, intelligence, talent and independent spirit of the Bahamian people -- is the most important resource that our nation has.
I do not believe:
  • that Bahamians need help, time, or training to deepen and strengthen the democratic project;
  • that Bahamians need help, time, or training to address those problems that our country is struggling with now;
  • that Bahamians need help, time, or training to make our country better.
And so:
  • I, the voter, do not care what colour T-shirt you offer me or what three letters you cast before my face.
  • I believe in democracy.
  • I do not care nearly as much about the history of your particular party (or of your opponents) as you think I do.
  • I do not care about how good (or bad) you look in a suit, how well you speak off the cuff, or whether your leader is God incarnate or the Devil himself.
  • I care about this country we all share.
  • I care what you and your party are planning The Bahamas will look like tomorrow.
  • I want to know the details.
  • I believe that it is the right of a people to elect a government who will represent them and not the foreign interests who come offering the latest wads of cash or promises grander than the grandest Prime Minister's.
  • I believe that is the obligation of a government to seek out and hear the needs of the people whom it represents.  All the people, not just the vocal few at the bottom who have depended thus far on their crippledness to coerce their representatives into enact ill-thought and hurried acts of bribery-in-return-for-votes, or the fatcats at the top who enact coercive acts of bribery of their own.
  • I believe in governments who represent and serve the people who vote for them, not the people who pay them, or bully them, or frighten them.
  • I believe in equality. That is not to say that I believe that all people are universally idiots, or that we must make all decisions according to the lowest possible common denominator. Rather, it is to say that I believe that all citizens—and, indeed, in a truly civilized nation, all people within our borders—should be equal under our laws and treated as such. No better, and no worse.
  • I believe that our ideals should be more important than individual exceptions.
  • I believe that a nation should be founded on ideals. Tell me yours.

If you want my vote:

  • Don't come waving flags or t-shirts or offering promises of more jobs laying cement, gathering laundry or taking orders for rich white people from abroad.
  • Don't come not debating policy.
  • Don't come bad-talking the other politicians around you.
  • Don't come not knowing basic things about this country, about governance, about policy, or the world of the twenty-first century.
  • Don't come expecting my political philosophy to do the trick and make me vote for you party because it happens to be the next best thing to the ideals I hold.
  • Don't come expecting your track record to move me.
  • Don't come expecting my colour, my family name, my friends, my profession, or any other attribute to influence the way I vote.
  • Don't come trusting in your personal political arrogance and my continued political passive stupidity.
  • Come talking to me about the Bahamas you will create the day after Election Day, and come telling me in detail how we are going to create it together.

It had better be a different Bahamas from the one I live in today.•••More links:A Reader Responds to the Voter's ManifestoAnswering the challenge: a consideration of patriotism, democracy and voting - Part IOn the mis-education of the Bahamian citizen

Hurricanes, Governments and Other Little Things

So I started writing this offline during Hurricane Irene and her immediate aftermath. (It seems as though "so" is the conjunction of choice of the second decade of the twenty-first century; I have heard countless interviews where the answerer starts with a long, meditative "So". Just between us fellas, it drives me crazy. Nevertheless: ) So our cable service was down for a lot of yesterday and therefore our main internet was out. The only way we could get in touch with the world beyond our walls was by cellular data network, which in The Bahamas is not 3G or 4G or any other kind of G but which slowness aside, was working throughout Irene. Props to BTC for staying up all through the storm.That being the case, we were all forced to revert to twentieth-century one-way methods of communication for necessary information. Specifically: we were obliged to turn to the radio and our local TV station (which broadcasts locally as well as uploading to a satellite for conversion to a cable feed) and find out what's been going on.Twenty-first century Americans and other undemocratic people may need some kind of introduction to the kind of world we live in, a world inherited from the British, who despite all their numerous flaws and failings as imperialist conquerors share a couple of assumptions about democracies and government with their European fellows. The most fundamental of these is an understanding about what a government is and what a democratic government is obliged to do. Strangely enough, some of those ideas took in their ex-colonies. After all, they were the only ways by which the empire was justified. The main one, though, is that it is the responsibility of a democratic government to provide certain services for its people. Those services facilitate and encourage and strengthen the democratic experiment. By ensuring that all citizens are provided with at least the basic necessities for life, health and education, they create an environment in which democratic activity can flourish. For democracy is hard work. It is not a privilege; rather, it is a set of rights and duties, and it cannot survive where people are so unequal that they cannot participate in the democratic project, or where people are so involved in scraping a living on the edges of society that they do not have the luxury of thinking about their place in that society.One of those services, and the one I'm most concerned about at this moment (though there are many others) is the provision, especially in the twenty-first century, of balanced, accurate, official information. Now in our country we appear to provide for that. We Bahamians, contrary to our private beliefs, pay taxes, and a good portion of our tax money supports a public broadcasting station whose sole job it is to provide that balanced, accurate, official information. All too often the information offered by the BCB (otherwise known as ZNS, its original call title from the 1930s when it was established) is partisan, press-released, irrelevant or outdated. Still. Where ZNS has been excellent in the past (and as recently as 2005 with the passage of Hurricane Wilma) has been in times of national emergency, such as during hurricanes. Throughout the twenty-first century, the BCB has provided unparallelled service in keeping all Bahamians connected through the most trying circumstances. For me, some of the most memorable hurricane broadcasts were during the passage of major storms through the various islands, when Nassauvians, sometimes unaffected by the weather but hugely concerned for family and friends elsewhere, were kept informed and reassured by newspeople who went above and beyond the call of duty to make contact, shoot video, and send word to the Nassau stations of what was happening in the affected areas. The most memorable of these for me was the coverage of the passage of the monster storms Frances, Jeanne and Wilma through the northern Bahamas, especially through Jeanne, when the Freeport newscrew remained on the air and broadcasting even as water was rising in their studios.Nothing in our recent history, therefore, prepared me for the absence of any such reporting by the BCB during Hurricane Irene. We learned about the fate of Acklins and Crooked Island not from the news station we had learned to trust, but from the online tabloid Bahamas Press, which is notorious for breaking news that is grounded in truth but which is not always so accurate in details. Witness, for example, BP's insistence that St. Paul's Anglican Church at Clarence Town, Long Island, had "collapsed", when in fact the church had lost part of its roof but remained standing; had the BCB been doing the job most citizens expect of it, that story would have been accurate from the start. BP may have exaggerated the story a little, but at least it provided information—information for which we citizens pay every year through our customs duties and our other taxes, but information which, during the passage of Hurricane Irene, was sadly lacking from our national broadcasting corporation.For most of the first day of Irene's passage, the BCB appeared, with the National Emergency Management Agency, to be following Bahamas Press instead of collecting and disseminating its own information. While this is excellent for BP, it is not so good for ZNS, which styles itself "the people's station"; it has failed the people. This was not entirely the case. The discrepancy between the television coverage and that on the radio was all too clear; the radio provided some of the same sort of coverage as we had been accustomed to expecting, but the television was a dire disappointment, showing reruns of file footage from other storms and only going live for regularly scheduled programming. No doubt the excuse will be a lack of a budget for emergency broadcasts. That in itself, to my mind, is the supreme failure. I would prefer for ZNS to be silent throughout the year if I only knew I could count on accurate, live, and to-the-minute real-time twenty-first century video coverage in times of emergencies. After all, if citizens can provide their own media—if the American Weather Channel Twitter feed can feature video and photographs from around the Bahamas during the passage of the story, why cannot ZNS do the same for its own citizens? Rerunning footage from Hurricanes Michelle (2001), Frances (2004) and Jeanne (2004) seems an insult rather than a service.I have far more to say on this matter, but I fear that if I try to say it all it will never be finished. I'll post this for the time being in hopes of engendering some discussion here and now. But I'll just return to my initial premise. It can't just be a matter of budget at times like these. National broadcasting stations, as they exist in countries whose democratic infrastructure is European rather than America (and therefore, to my mind, more truly democratic in fact—more on that later) do not have the option of jettisoning such coverage in lean times. The fact that they exist is just for a purpose such as the passage of a hurricane; I see no other good reason for my tax money to be taken to keep them alive.

Hurricane Irene in The Bahamas[View the story "Hurricane Irene Slams Bahamas, Turks & Caicos" on Storify]Not much to report from Nassau -- some wind, a little tiny bit of rain, and frogs. Photos and video from yesterday will get uploaded over time.News coverage from national TV station disgraceful. Limited to the regular news at 7 PM, some specially focussed regular programmes during primetime and reruns from past hurricanes; no ongoing commentary on TV at all. Radio is better. Not sure what the problem is but am certain the economy will be blamed. But with all this foreign investment going on how is it we don't have some $$ to invest in information for the Bahamian citizens throughout the archipelago? Why should we depend on private news sources, especially as we pay taxes to keep the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas afloat -- and because they always seem to have news and cameras enough to cover the politicians when they speak?Just sayin'.Stay safe Bahamas.

Evangelicals Looking Beyond a Literal Interpretation of Genesis?

According to the Bible (Genesis 2:7), this is how humanity began: "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." God then called the man Adam, and later created Eve from Adam's rib.Polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center find that four out of 10 Americans believe this account. It's a central tenet for much of conservative Christianity, from evangelicals to confessional churches such as the Christian Reformed Church.But now some conservative scholars are saying publicly that they can no longer believe the Genesis account.via Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve : NPR.

First of all: wow.Second of all: welcome to the Christianity of the post-industrial world, guys.Third of all: time to start teaching literature so that the reading of sacred texts can be approached in such a way that meaning can be gained without having to believe that every word written is literally and completely true on the human, physical plane. Time to start understanding some symbolism.The article is interesting but doesn't go nearly far enough. First, it assumes that evangelical Christian theology is the core of Christian thinking. Second, it takes the position taken by many evangelicals that the literal story of a man, a woman and a snake in a garden whose existence has a geographical place and a historical time is crucial to Christian belief, but is it? And third, it misses a point that has rarely been discussed in all the heat generated by "creationism", the only Christian philosophy that really requires the existence of a literal Adam and Eve for its existence—that the moving away by certain evangelical intellectuals from their indefensible scientific position that rests on the creation of the earth and of humanity in seven 24-hour days also implicitly allows for the rise of a neo-Darwinism among those same intellectuals. The danger inherent in the American evangelical movement's acceptance of the symbology of Genesis (rather than its literal truth) lies in the fundamentally political (and economic) expression that American evangelical Christianity has always had. I have never been convinced of the theological soundness of that strain of Christianity, as its manifestations have been peculiarly political. This change can also express itself politically; and I would not be surprised if it took an even more fascist turn than it currently has.Just sayin'.

Riot, Uprising, Protest? Reaping the Sown in London 2011

(started on FB but truncated -- thanks, BookFace)

Historian David Starkey has told BBC's Newsnight ''the whites have become black'' in a discussion on the England riots with author and broadcaster Dreda Say Mitchell and the author of Chavs, Owen Jones.He also hit out at what he called the ''destructive, nihilistic gangster culture'' which he said ''has become the fashion.''

For an education of how a tiny island took over the entire world and managed to subdue whole nations, watch this. The concepts being expressed by Starkey are the residue of a construct that *justified* the conquest of entire peoples by any means necessary -- force, coercion, enslavement, genocide, eradication, cultural domination, you name it -- in the name of "civilization". It's a lie, but the lie was necessary in order to allow good people to sleep at night.When you are in the process of building an entire economy/civilisation/empire through the enslavement and mass transshipment of people while at the same time building a nation/civilisation/tradition that enshrines the principles of democracy and enfranchisement, there is a fundamental gulf that has to be crossed. What we are not taught about the history of the modern world (the world in which we find ourselves, where western = normal/civilised/modern and everything else = exotic/savage/primitive) is that it is the product of a struggle for political power and economic domination that occurred basically within Europe, but using the rest of the world as its battleground. We continue to buy into the ideas that were spawned at the same time, that were connected but not connected to this struggle, but which had to make sense of the struggle. For while the western European governments were engaged in their battles of one-upmanship, their mapping of "the world", their determination to claim every inch of the globe as Spanish, English (later British), French, or Dutch, their intellectuals were engaged in defining and imagining the human being. As the writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment were advancing ideas of democracy, equality and brotherhood, laying the foundations of a universal charter of human rights, merchants and mercenaries were making economic alliances along the coast of Africa, trading guns and rum for human beings, invading India and South-East Asia and those parts of China they could penetrate, and colonising the rich lands of the so-called "New" world.Thinkers and bureaucrats alike had to reconcile these two radically different impulses. How could Europe advocate the universal rights of man at the same time as they were enslaving Africans or making entire peoples the servants of a small group of privileged rulers in whole nations? How to make sense of this disjuncture? The problem was especially difficult for those people who had principles, who bought into the notion of human rights, who believed in the rights of man, who fought for democracy, for liberté, égalité, fraternité.The answer: to define different groups of humans as fundamentally different kinds of people, to separate the human tribe into distinct species (called "races") who were intrinsically suited for different kinds of behaviour and different kinds of life. Thus democracy and human rights also gave birth to the ladder of humanity, which placed different groups of people in a hierarchy of development or evolution, which posited an inherent difference in the ability of "races" to attain certain kinds of order. This was expressed in the concept of the savage and the civilised, the primitive and the modern, and gave rise to the concept of the "white man's burden" -- i.e. the responsibility of the "fully evolved" European to civilise, educate, save, or elevate the lesser "races", to speed up their evolution, to teach them the benefits of civilisation. Always a top-down beneficence. Always a sense of inherent entitlement coming from inherent superiority. Always (and most evilly) the sense that some human beings are more naturally suited to living in harmony, prosperity and social order than others—that these virtues must be taught to other humans as they are not inherent in them. All humans are equal, yes; but some are more equal than others.The ideas that are being expressed by people like Starkey as "white" and "black" culture, therefore, are rooted in this concept. The idea persists that "black" is savage and "white" is civilised—that "black" culture is intrinsically disposed to erupt in violence and disorder, and that when "white" people do the same they have been contaminated by that inherent savagery. This is what lies at the bottom of every expression of outrage at the growing prominence of the non-white and non-European: the sense, often unexamined, that the whole natural order of things has been upset. That to have people of non-western traditions or non-white skins attain positions of power is to fly in the face of nature, or of God. The colonisation of the entire world was so complete (as it had to be in order for European empires to attain the power that they did) that it is virtually unthinkable to really believe that all humans are fundamentally alike, are really, intrinsically equal, no matter what their appearance or their wealth or their culture might suggest.The irony is, that much of so-called gangsta culture buys into the same imperialistic lie. The images of the "gangsta" and the "thug" do not challenge this hierarchy. Instead, they simply overturn the hierarchy and place value on the very things that European imperialistic thinking assigned to the "lesser races". So-called gangsta culture does not question the idea that these activities must be assigned to specific groups of people, or that they are somehow inherited through genetics; it does not challenge the view that "black"=savage/violent/physical and "white"=refined/peaceful/intellectual. It does not attempt to break down these categories and recognize that behaviour is often the result of environment and of choice, not of "race", and that these groups of traits do not necessarily have to be linked to one another at all. Rather, it accepts it, and simply redistributes its value. In this way, the "gangstas" and "thugs" speak the same language as Starkey, albeit using very different tones, vowels, and consonants.You know what they say. You reap what you sow. What was sown in the 19th century is being harvested in the 21st. It's time for us to raze the fields and plant a whole new crop.

The Global War on Drugs Has Failed, Leaders Say

Let's think about how we can make twenty-first century policy that makes some sense now -- like considering exactly what is recommended here -- the legalization of certain drugs.

A new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy excoriated traditional approaches to reducing drug abuse, saying, "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." The commission, which includes such world leaders as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, recommended that governments begin to consider the legalization of some drugs and the end of criminalization for drug users.via The Global War on Drugs Has Failed, Leaders Say.

And no, I am not a pot-head. But let me tell you this: you try take my caffeine away from me, them's fightin' words.Off to the coffee shop now to get my fix.

Please. Don’t Call Me White.

It's become fashionable for youngish Bahamians (people in the mid-30s range or so -- people born since Independence, that is) to call individuals whose skins are cork-brown, tawny, biscuit brown, tan, paper bag brown, teabag, beige, coconut bark, gumelemi, tamarind, mango, eggshell, café-au-lait, milky tea, carnation, condensed milk, or thereabouts "white". To be a "white" Bahamian, it seems, one has to be only slightly paler than the perceived "norm"; if your skin has sunset or sunrise tones, if your eyes are green or copper or amber or grey (or not), if your hair is curly or crimpy, or if it has a brown or gold-ish cast, or if it can get long on its own without external aids, you will be labelled "white".Well that's all very well and good, but it's not particularly accurate or helpful in the national context. Bahamian history, which is not taught in schools with any reliability or coherence, and so which the average young citizen picks up on the fly, from conversations and snippets of information only partially digested, particularly the most recent political history, is all about black and white. Race is part and parcel of our politics, our economics, and our collective psyche. But the "race" that has historical significance and the "race" that we appear to practice today are two very different animals indeed.If, for instance, young Bahamians imagine that they can take their twenty-first century notions of black and white and translate them into what they may one day read about the history of this nation, they will never fully understand their country and its rich and difficult past. If they imagine that I am a white Bahamian, or that a person with light brown skin and curly hair is a white Bahamian, or that a person with one white parent, or a person with a "white" name is a white Bahamian, they will miss the significance of Majority Rule, of Independence, of the psychic power of the Progressive Liberal Party and the origins of the great divide between FNM and PLP. They will not understand the revolutionary importance of August 19, 1992 or the magnitude of the fact that this year, National Pride seemed to be a movement that started from the street, on Facebook and all Bahamians seem pleased to identify themselves with the colours of black, aquamarine and gold at this time of year. They will not comprehend the One Bahamas experiment of the 1990s, nor will they understand that, at least on the surface, that experiment has finally succeeded in 2010. And they will not understand, fundamentally, the challenge, the strength, and the revolutionary significance that being a product of the Caribbean (which, all protestations to the contrary, we Bahamians are) can bring to this 21st century, globalized world. Their concept of "race" erases both our history and its power.Here's the reality of the situation. The Bahamas, along with Bermuda and Barbados, was one of the handful of British West Indian colonial territories to include among its population a sizeable number of settlers of European descent. We are not talking, as many younger Bahamians appear these days to believe, about of people of mixed African and European heritage who appear to be white; we are talking about European settlers of the same kind as the people who settled the Thirteen Colonies of the United States. In the "Three Bs" of the British West Indian colonies, as on the American mainland, white settlers moved to Bermuda, Barbados, and The Bahamas with a view to creating societies of their own. Change came in the end to Barbados, where sugar eventually took over as the mainstay of economic activity, and the society took on the characteristics of a full plantation society; but in The Bahamas, as in Bermuda, the plantation system never thrived.For the first 150 years of Bahamian settlement, therefore, African slaves composed a minority of the population. Young Bahamians learn about this period most fully, it would appear, in their history classes; when I grill my college students on our histories they seem only able to recall piracy and the Lucayans. It is this period of history that they are considering -- the period from the earliest European settlement, in 1647, to the wake of the American revolution in the 1780s, which proved revolutionary for the entire Caribbean basin. But it's not a period with which most of today's Bahamians will have any actual connection through descent or otherwise, as during this time the population of African-descended peoples never exceeded the population of European descent. For those of us who believe that true-true Bahamians are, or must be black, the reality of the first 150 years of Bahamian settlement may provide a subtle shock. For that period, the demographics show that in fact The Bahamas was primarily a white colony, and not a slave-holding one.Let me give you some idea. In 1670, the Eleutherian Adventurers were two-thirds European, and most of the non-white settlers were free people rather than slaves. In 1722, the population of African descent stood at 28% of the overall Bahamian total, the remaining 72% of the population being of European stock. Moreover, of the 28% of the Africans, many were free; thus the total of the enslaved population was remarkably low. By 1731, the black population had increased, thanks to the importation of slaves by Governor Phenney, to 32% of the overall population. The society and culture of The Bahamas at that time, therefore, must have resembled those of many of the Thirteen Colonies: with a sizeable European majority and a minority of people of non-white origin.In a land without major plantations, slaves were used as household servants, boat crews, skilled labourers, and manual workers on the construction of homes and the like, and large numbers were not required by the Bahamian settlers. What was most interesting about the free population, though, was that it was not all white. There were a number of black and mulatto free settlers as well, and many of them were people of social and economic substance. Several, indeed, owned their own slaves.By the 1770s, the investment of Europeans economically and culturally in the institution of slavery, and the normalizing of the idea of the right of Europeans to enslave Africans and people of other "races", had led to a shift in Bahamian demographics, so that the population was divided equally between whites and non-whites. However, this change in designation might have been the result of new laws that had been passed defining who was white and who was not as well as evidence of a real increase in the non-white population. Even at this time, the overall percentage of slaves in the population was still a minority. Many of the non-whites -- Michael Craton and Gail Saunders 1 estimate up to 20 per cent of the total population -- were free people "of colour", people of African descent who were not slaves, or free people of mixed African and European heritage.Towards the end of the century, when skin colour and origin had been transformed from aesthetic and cultural differentiators into  markers of a natural right of some people to assume dominance over others, this free coloured population were causing some confusion in the appropriate social hierarchy. Two laws were passed with particular significance to the resolving of this confusion.The first was an Act in 1756 whose purpose was to define who was a "white" Bahamian and who was a person of colour. According to this law, only those persons who were "above Three Degrees removed in a lineal descent from the Negro Ancestor" could be called white. In other words, everyone who had a single parent, grandparent or great-grandparent of African descent was classified as not white, no matter what they looked like or how much money or education they might have. Despite appearance, custom, or connection to white families (as many people of mixed descent were the cousins or "outside" family of people of white Bahamians), these free people of colour were defined by this law as second-class citizens, and prohibited from sharing in "all the Privileges and Immunities of His Majesty's White Subjects".2The second was an Act, passed in 1767 and amended in 1768, "For the governing of Negroes, Mulattoes and Indians". This Act governed not only the activities of slaves, determining what they could do and how they could be punished -- and for what -- but it also limited very specifically what "Privileges and Immunities" were available to free people of colour. Of particular interest was the fact that the punishments prescribed for slaves offering violence to white Bahamians were exactly the same for those free people who were not white. To be precise, these punishments consisted of:3

  • first offence: public whipping
  • second offence: mutilation -- the slitting of the nose, the cutting off of the ears, or the branding of the face
  • third offence: execution

The only difference between the punishments given to a slave and a free person of colour were that free coloured settlers had the right to be tried in open court, presumably with legal representation before they were sentenced (and presumably they had the right of appeal), while slaves did not have that right; slaves who were guilty of giving offence to whites were to be presented to a special tribunal of five people, two justices of the peace and three freeholders. In addition, a free person could be fined £15 instead of being whipped.4 This wasn't much consolation, though, because under the same law, the evidence and oaths of free coloured Bahamians were not considered binding or valid, thus making their ability to appear in court more of a facade than anything else. They were prohibited from gambling, selling liquor, and were restricted in what they could trade or plant. Most important, though, was the fact that they could, for certain crimes, forfeit their freedom; the punishment prescribed for any free person of colour (African, mulatto, or Amerindian) who harboured a runaway slave was slavery and deportation -- a harsher punishment than that given to whites (who would be fined) or slaves (who would be whipped).5Now although these laws were repealed in 1824 during the gradual movement of the British colonies towards freedom for all persons, their impact on the society and its definition of black and white, of coloured and non-coloured, was long-lasting. Indeed, it lasted well into the late twentieth century; even in 1967, the "majority" represented in "Majority Rule" was in fact the non-white majority, most of whom were defined as they had been defined two hundred years before by the 1756 Act -- as having a single great-grandparent, grandparent or parent who was black -- and for whom, although the laws had been changed, access to political power and equality under the government had consistently and systematically been blocked.So. To call me or any other Bahamian of partial African descent "white", then, is to deny this historical truth. Some of us who fall into this category may be in the business of denying it for ourselves; but that will not change the reality of our history, nor will it change the reality of the oppression meted out to those of us whose ancestors did not all hail from Europe for well over 350 years of Bahamian settlement. It will not change the facts on which the Independent Bahamas was founded, and it will not help to heal the wounds that linger from that difficult past.I plan to continue this discussion, going further into the subtleties and complexities of this history, but for now: Please. Don't call me white.

This is just to say

that I have been silent for the past couple of weeks largely because, well, I have a job and commitments and the kinds of things I want to write on this blog take Time and Effort and Thought.And I've got myself in well-justified trouble by posting off the top of my head recently. By doing what? Posting half-digested half-rumours on a fellow blogger's blog.Specifically that Pierre Dupuch had the same issues with citizenship as Ryan Pinder (on the basis of the fact that they both have American mothers) but served in the Cabinet nevertheless. I have been roundly criticized and thoroughly corrected on that score!So as a result I have determined to think before I write. Which means that you will not hear from me in any serious capacity unless I have had the time to do my research and blog responsibly. Which means in turn that you will probably have to wait till after April 19 for that -- April 16 being the end of the semester.In the meantime, though, I think I'll be vaguely frivolous and post some (very old) poems for general comment, if people who read this blog are so inclined. If you're not, I'll cease and desist.But in the meantime, y'all, content yourselves with my weekly twitter digest.Cheers.

February 11. Day of Absence. All day.

The idea behind the Day of Absence is political because all of the above are connected. The oppression shared by Haitians in The Bahamas (and the Americas), and by African-Americans in the USA in the pre-civil rights era is the same oppression that makes the arts irrelevant to us today. They all stem from the same origin: the need to justify the widespread enslavement and maltreatment of a group of people in order to create an empire or a world for oneself. The first is the economic end-product of that original sin, if you like. The second is the political end-product. The third -- the place, or lack of place, of art in our society is the psychological by-product.In order to enslave an entire "race" of people, you have to displace them, you have to deprive them of their possessions, you have to deprive them of their rights, and -- most insidious of all -- you have to deprive them of their sense of who they are. The last is, like art in The Bahamas, invisible, and so it is the hardest of all to counteract. You have to tell them, and tell them so they come to believe it, that they have no culture, that nothing good ever came out of their country of origin, that they are fortunate to have been enslaved, so that they might learn culture and art from the enslavers. (For those who find this language offensive, I apologize, but if you know some other way to say it without lying about it, I'm interested to see it).

Read More

Peter Hallward, "Securing Disaster in Haiti"

Well worth reposting, reading, and savouring in days to come. Sobering commentary indeed.

Nine days after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010, it's now clear that the initial phase of the U.S.-led relief operation has conformed to the three fundamental tendencies that have shaped the more general course of the island's recent history. It has adopted military priorities and strategies. It has sidelined Haiti's own leaders and government, and ignored the needs of the majority of its people. And it has proceeded in ways that reinforce the already harrowing gap between rich and poor. All three tendencies aren't just connected, they are mutually reinforcing. These same tendencies will continue to govern the imminent reconstruction effort as well, unless determined political action is taken to counteract them.via Peter Hallward, "Securing Disaster in Haiti".

How not to lead a nation

Before I post this, let me say two things. First, I have been informed by a reliable source (one of the editors) that the Tribune was not responsible for writing the article whose headline I slammed; it was an AP story that they re-ran as the lead.And second, I am trusting that by reposting this I will find someone who will tell me that this is not what my Prime Minister actually said (the emphases are mine).

Ingraham added: "It is not appropriate for us to be collecting goods to send to Haiti because there is no means by which we can get [them] there. The port is in terrible shape. The airport is difficult to navigate. The ground transportation is terrible. The extent to which we in the region can provide assistance in terms of medical support, doctors, nurses, public health, pay for medicine, food, water, whatever it is, we are clearly prepared to do so."via The Nassau Guardian Online

Here's my problem. If this is what he said, the message that our Prime Minister is sending is that it is all right to allow practical impediments get in the way of help. It is OK to let the fact that it's difficult (not impossible, as Miami has demonstrated by getting Channel 10 news crews in and survivors out, or as Jamaica has demonstrated by flying its PM and the leader of the Opposition in) to get planes and boats into Haiti stop us from giving whatever we can. It's OK for us, the wealthiest and most fortunate independent nation in our region, to keep our wealth and fortune to ourselves in this time of great need because it's hard to do something different.I cannot think of a worse message to be sending to a group of people already hidebound by greed and fear. I hold my leaders responsible for setting standards of behaviour. If this is what he said, our Prime Minister just gave his people license to exercise selfishness, to continue to breed prejudice, to continue to choose greed over generosity, to continue to seek the easiest paths to comfort.I hold our leaders responsible for the way in which some of us behave. The stands they take influence the attitudes we display; monkey see, monkey do after all. I am calling on all responsible Bahamians in positions of influence and power to behave as they know we should all behave, to encourage us to make every effort to find ways to get to Haiti, to encourage us to give and give and give until it hurts, to ask us to share our wealth a little more, to ask us to give up a little of our comfort and safety to build true community and nurture compassion with our neighbours. I am calling on all talk show hosts to refuse to allow more hate and fear to infect the air waves, on all politicians to think about what is right instead of what is expedient and to model it, to all teachers to model the highest standards for behaviour, to all administrators to exercise fairness and compassion. I am not giving any of these people a free ride any more; real change comes when individuals take risks. From here on in, let us call them out.

Day of Absence 2010: Third Response – Investment

If the Day of Absence is really about tourist’s pleasure, if this iswhat we really care about, let us at least be honest about it. Isincerely believe that we should deal with our own cultural hungerbefore we worry about how to provide better shows for our visitors.Confusing the two will eventually bring us right back to the sameemptiness, no matter how much money we throw at the problem.

Ward Minnis, "Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents", p. 7

Now I'm not really sure where the idea comes from that Day of Absence is about the tourists' pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my own vagueness about the idea, which Ward has very succinctly dissected and served up, but I'm not so sure about it. I'm not so sure because the tourists are rarely in the back of my mind when I think about Bahamian art and culture. I happen to be of the view that we need to create for ourselves, and that visitors will appreciate what we create for ourselves far more than they appreciate what we make for them. For one thing, we know ourselves a little better. Whenever we think we know what the tourist wants, we generally end up holding the wrong end of the stick.

But perhaps it comes from the implication, which is probably clearly present in my original articles and responses, that Bahamian taxes ought to be invested in Bahamian cultural production. In the original exchange a year ago, some of my readers, one or two in particular, protested that implication, crying out that it should the onus should not be upon the government to support culture, that we pay too many taxes already, and we should not expect the government to pay more. My initial response, a year ago, was that I wasn't asking for more money to be collected from Bahamians to be spent on culture; I was asking for a reallocation of the money that is already being collected. But in responding that way, I made it seem as though I agreed with the idea that it isn't part of the government's responsibility to support indigenous cultural development. I may have been ambivalent then; I was certainly not interested in waiting for our government to move. However, a year has passed, and that ambivalence has passed.

Of course our governments should support our culture. Cultural expression is as fundamental to human existence as anything else that our government does support. I might even argue that it is more so; the collective creative production of any group of people is what lays the bedrock, in concrete terms, for the identity of that group. As an anthropologist who teaches sociology, I teach students that humans are social animals, that humans have culture, and that the process of cultural production is as fundamental to a society as the process of reproduction is to the continuation of the race. That we seem to think that culture (of which "the arts", I would argue, is a sub-set) is an optional investment demonstrates to my mind how deracinated we are as a collective, how unserious we are about our unity as a people, and how little we seek true nation-building.

For it is a lie that big (should I say real?) countries (the USA is generally pulled out of the hat at this point) don't invest in their cultures. I cannot think of a single important civilization that does not have what we would categorize as vast investment in cultural production.

Let's just take the USA as an example, since it is often hailed (can't always fathom why) as being the proper model for economic and social development.

I often hear the argument that because the USA doesn't have government investment in culture, we ought not to have it either. There's no need really to strip away the absurdity in this statement -- no need to do the standard parental "if your friends jumped off the bridge would you jump too" schtick. What I'd prefer to do is to poke holes in the assertion itself; for anyone who truly looks at the USA with unprejudiced eyes will realize that the statement is profoundly untrue.

The point about the USA that we often overlook is that it is a country that positively brims over with government. There is the federal government, to begin with, which is located in Washington and headed up by the President and the Senate and Congress, and which is governed by the philosophies laid out in the American Constitution. And it's true to say that at this level, there's relatively little apparent investment in culture. (We can get away with believing that if we never go to Washington D. C., but that's another story -- what Americans have invested in their monuments, their libraries, their museums, their galleries, their theatres, and their symbols of power would power the Bahamas for many budget years.) We can get away with saying it because the USA doesn't have any minister or ministry of culture -- no federal agency that sets cultural policy, pays bureaucrats to do cultural things, or make collective cultural decisions -- other than the National Endowment for the Arts, that is.

But if we stop there we miss the point.

What people who have convinced themselves that the USA does not invest taxpayers' money in culture fail to mention is that the smaller and more localized American government structures become, the more investment in culture there is. It is most apparent at the municipal level, where every city has a library, a theatre, a gallery, and cultural companies of every kind, and where businesses, taxpayers and bureaucrats alike invest millions into cultural activity. Where high schools can boast better theatres than exist anywhere in The Bahamas -- anywhere, not excepting our local plantations (hotel resorts), and where individual artists make their living off of cultural grants of every description. But counties make their own investments, and no state exists that doesn't have its own local state-sponsored cultural cluster. Nowhere else in the world, except here (and perhaps in our sister slave-fragment societies), is culture expected to flourish in a vacuum, nor does it. On the contrary; in many places, the strength of a locale's culture is often used to measure the strength of the place itself.

In The Bahamas, though, we do not protest investment in tourism, which usually means investment in inviting other people from other countries to come and set up things -- hotels, shows, cruises, film series, what have you -- here. We do not think twice about the need for new roads or new stadiums or new schools, though new hospitals and prisons seem to be as remote from our possible reality as the first state theatre, concert hall, or school for the performing arts. We are a people who invest in our front room, where the strangers sit, while we languish in poverty in the rest of the house, and we are a people who choose to defend this habit.

I do not believe that it is optional that our governments invest in the creative output of their people. I do not believe that we are whole as a nation when we still, after all these years, have no national library, no national theatre, no national school for the arts, no national concert hall, no national performance arena. I do not believe we are truly independent without such things, for we have not provide ourselves with the space or the ability to create, to celebrate, our own indigenous, vibrant and ever-changing realities. I do not believe that roads are more important. I no longer believe that schools are -- for what can schools teach our children without Bahamian cultural production? I no longer believe that hotels or harbours or airports are worth the continued starvation of the Bahamian spirit; I'm not sure if I ever did. The Day of Absence, and the call for some thought to be given to an investment in Bahamian art and culture, is not about tourism at all. It is about finding, and reminding us of, ourselves.

Day of Absence 2010: Second Response - Quality

... are all Bahamian artists worthy of respect?

The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals? ... Allow me to suggest that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians, on the whole, have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art. The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good.

Ward Minnis, "Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents", p. 2

Lest it be thought that by calling for a Day of Absence in honour of artists and cultural workers I'm seeking in any way to recognize those who produce poor work, let me say right now I'm not.* We Bahamians have cultivated the habit of supporting certain cultural endeavours simply because they are produced by Bahamians, regardless of quality. We have suppressed our critical faculties in these arenas, clinging to the idea that (somehow) because we are all Bahamians, we should not point out failures or weaknesses. The result is that a whole lot of sub-standard stuff gets lauded and magnified in our country because we have one standard for Bahamians and another standard for everybody else. The further result of that is that we come to expect sub-standard work from Bahamians, so much so that (whether we admit it or not) the very adjective Bahamian stands for mediocrity. The default assumption about, the knee-jerk reaction to, all Bahamian cultural endeavour is Ward's reaction -- we are not that good.

I want to turn this around. Yes, it's true that we Bahamians produce a lot of crap and pass it off as "art". But it's equally true that we Bahamians produce quite a bit of stuff that is world-class as well. Rather than starting from the common default, that we aren't that good, I want to make it a question. Or rather, two.

The first question is: how good are we?

In asking it, I'm not accepting the default -- that "we" are not that good. Many of us are not. But this is no different from any other country on this earth. Most creative endeavour the world over is crap. Much of what we consume from other countries, if we were to strip away the packaging and the marketing and the little stickers that we use in our brains to signify not-Bahamian, is crap too. Most of the movies we watch are crap; most of the music to which we listen is crap; most of the TV shows we watch are crap; and most of the clothing we buy is crap. Crap is not unusual. Nor is it limited to The Bahamas.

What would appear to be more home-grown, though, is the conflation of this universal truth with being Bahamian, and the conclusion that because most of what is produced creatively in The Bahamas is crap, "we" are not that good.* Like Ward, most of us choose the worst of our cultural product to make our argument, and to justify our non-support of Bahamian artists.

We also use the mediocrity of the majority to cultivate laziness on our own part. Very few of us invest the effort in trying to define what makes Bahamian art good, and prefer rather to allow the Wide World to decide that for us. It's an interesting strategy, because it assumes that quality will always rise to the top, no matter what. Because Bahamian art has little international recognition, we argue, it's clearly not that good. Because foreigners don't know where we are and what we have to offer, we are quite naturally second-rate.

That's one way to look at it. But if we choose that method, then we really ought to be consistent. Not to be too outlandish, but we ought also to assume that because the world doesn't know about Junkanoo, Junkanoo must be a second-rate carnival, as global fame is the most important criterion that there is to judge quality. We ought to assume that before Tonique was a star, she wasn't that good -- for it's fame, not her ability, that denotes quality. Or, to push it even further, we ought to assume that if nobody in the world acknowledged the physical beauty of our nation, that beauty would be non-existent. It's global fame, after all, that matters, not our own ability as individuals to judge what is excellent for ourselves.

So I'm turning the challenge around, because I don't think that it's in anyone's best interest to accept the word of pundits like Ward and me or to judge Bahamian achievement on the accident of fame. Before we get too wrapped up in the condemnation of the worst of Bahamian culture and creative ability, perhaps we should discuss, or consider, the best.

How good, for example, are Cleophas Adderley, JoAnn Deveaux-Callender, her husband Lee, Audrey Dean-Wright? How good is Alia Coley, or Naomi Taylor or Ralph Munnings? How good is Ronnie Butler? Max Taylor? Robert Bain? Philip Burrows? Paul and Tanya Hanna? Ian Strachan? Fred Ferguson? Isaiah Taylor? The Burnside Brothers? Gus Cooper? Vola Francis? Ward Minnis? Nicolette Bethel?

Suppose I say that Cleophas Adderley (to name just one of the above) is one of the most outstanding musicians of the Caribbean region, if not the world, and should be recognized as such by all -- and suppose I supported my contention with concrete examples taken from his work and the work of others. How would you answer me? What criteria would you use in making your argument? At the very least, you should be familiar with the broad canon of his work; you should be aware of the work of his peers on the global scale; you should have some musical exposure to be able to judge his reach, his aim, and his achievement of that aim; and you should be able to articulate that answer using evidence of a sort. If you aren't, there's little chance that I'm going to accept any contradiction in the matter. Most of us, though, aren't in a position to judge Mr. Adderley fairly because most of us have not got the exposure to do so, or have not cultivated the habit of credibility when it comes to judging Bahamian art. What we have got is a preconception, and it is this that we use to make easy pronouncements -- that we're just not that good.

Part of the purpose of the Day of Absence is to raise these very questions and to put the consumer, not so much the artist, on the spot. By seeking respect for Bahamian artists and cultural workers, I'm really seeking respect for the arts as a whole. Very few people would make the kinds of pronouncements about athletes that they do about artists, in part because we understand and respect sport. Art and culture are a different matter. We do not put the effort into judging either because we do not think they can be judged; at the same time, though, we undermine this idea by accepting others' judgement in the matter. By choosing not to develop our own critical eye, we disrespect in the most fundamental fashion art, culture, and the people who produce it.

The second question is: how do we get better?

So I start from the perspective that not all Bahamian art is "not-good-enough". That doesn't mean that we are as good as we could be -- not at all. So how do we ensure that the quality of our achievement (which, collectively, is low) measures up to our promise (which, collectively, is high)?

When a child is born, he or she has the potential to develop in many different directions. It's the responsibility of the adults around that child -- the parents, the teachers, yes, even the state -- to provide that child with the tools required to develop that potential. And so the child is schooled and tested, is given instruction and taught skills. If the adults do their jobs well, that child will be equipped to succeed, or at least to make a go at success.

We do not do the same with Bahamian creativity. Ours is a nation that abounds in talent of various kinds. I happen to believe that this is not incidental to our geographical and historical realities; we have, after all, carved a living out of rocks in the sea that for most of our history were judged unprofitable and barren, useful only as a strategic holding in the British empire, and left largely to themselves. To survive we had to be creative, with the result that creativity is all around us. Perhaps because of this abundance, though, we tend to take talent for granted, and to assume that it will take care of itself.

The truth is, it won't. Study after study demonstrates that no matter where you are in the world, the creativity that abounds in childhood wanes as people age. Abilities must be cultivated through exposure and training, through example, criticism, testing, and practice. Voices change; vision fades; bodies grow weaker and stiffer, words become harder and harder to string together. As time passes, abilities die.

And yet every one of the above requirements to make creativity flourish is in short supply in The Bahamas. Young creative Bahamians find themselves in a vacuum more often than not. People who want to act are not exposed on any large scale to Bahamians who are acting in world-class facilities or with world-class standards. There are no acting schools, and no acting programmes in the public schools either. Young Bahamians who are musically inclined have to feel their own way, modelling themselves on recording artists whose voices or talents may be very different from their own, rather than on Bahamians whose face-to-face contact can give them direction that would be more appropriate to their inclinations. Dancers copy what they see on TV without realizing that dance is a long process of cultivating the body to obey what the mind tells it to, and perform at considerable risk.

We have consigned the achievement of quality very much to chance. Very often, this is because too many of the people who say they seek quality are the most reluctant to assist in its creation. It's not their job, they say, to help artists with anything at all. Nor is it the job of the state. Taking refuge behind the cloak of "not good enough", they play the game of Catch-22 -- get good and I might supportcha, but ine ga help you get good. The same people who wouldn't dream of expecting a budding sailor to prepare for world-class competition without a boat, or to ask a triple-jumper to compete in the Olympics without training, think nothing of telling Bahamian creative artists to do the equivalent in their fields.

This is what the Day of Absence concept is all about. It isn't about withdrawing the arts from society; it's about imagining a society without the arts. It's about taking our collective inclination to its logical and absurd conclusion. Ward and others' opinions notwithstanding, Bahamian society is not art-less. But we are blind to the arts that do exist; we are oblivious to their quality, assuming a universal lack thereof; and we accept without question the error that great art grows out of nothing, demanding to reap where we have not sown. The Day of Absence does not have to be about activism to succeed. It succeeds if it inspires a new way of seeing. It's about changing the mindset of us all.

For I'm not merely talking about artists here. I'm talking about art itself. In calling for a Day of Absence in honour of cultural workers and artists I'm not suggesting that we honour them for what they produce. Rather, I'm asking for us to honour their choice of the arts, and that we honour the creative process itself. To do so requires that we cultivate the ability to recognize quality in the arts, and to insist upon it from our artists -- to demand the best of our Bahamian artists, to set standards by which we abide, and to take the time to develop those standards for ourselves.

The real default is not lack of achievement; it is a refusal to recognize achievement that exists, and it's the tendency to give respect according to personal allegiance instead of quality. I'll close with one small example. The discussion regarding Day of Absence has spread to Bahamas B2B, where Ward's critique is recognized and a further critique developed.

The critique is by and large a solid one, and it carries the argument even further, calling for young artists to respect their forefathers and to reach for excellence by recognizing artists who have gone before. Throughout it all, the writer reiterates Ward's comment that quality or achievement should determine a public response to Bahamian artists. This is a position with which there should be no argument; respect and/or adulation should be earned. It also takes issue with the Day of Absence concept, questioning the idea that Bahamian artists should be automatically respected, and that they should be judged on their achievements. "Some Bahamian artists," s/he writes,

think that because they are Bahamian, their art should be respected and command high prices. This, despite the fact that their work is often uninspiring, lacks originality and shows poor craftsmanship..

Is the respect they seek based on commercial success, or artistic acclaim?

Making art to make money isn't the same as making art to make art. Art that comes from within isn't always commercially successful. People may not want to display your inner demons on their living room wall. Meanwhile, producing commercially successful art might make an artist rich but not necessarily earn them respect from the art community.


If certain young Bahamian artists are bitter thinking they deserve more respect, they might be wise to show established Bahamian artists more respect, instead of dismissing them as "old school", while demanding their place above them.

Absolutely. The call for respect for Bahamian artists is a blanket one. It cannot expect respect from others if respect is not also accorded to those who have gone before. At the same time, though, and in a strangely subtle way, the writer reinforces my own position -- that Bahamians do not always to give respect to one another in cultural and related fields (in this case, intellectual) when it is due. For while making much of Ward's Master's Degree from Ottawa's Carleton University, s/he consistently refers to me as "Ms Bethel". That I happened to earn a doctorate from the University of Cambridge seems incidental to the discussion. Not that I make a big deal out of the title as a rule; but as the article devotes an entire paragraph to Ward's qualifications, a little consistency might be expected.

Let's return to Ward's comment.

Seeking respect before it is due and other such nonsense is putting the cart too far in front of the horse.

I might agree with him in specific terms -- no one should respect "bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals", not even (or especially) when they are produced by Bahamians. Seeking respect before it is due is not what Day of Absence is all about. However, as the writer of the column of Bahamas B2B has demonstrated very succinctly, neither quality nor achievement appear to determine the according of respect even after it's due. Allegiance -- which Junkanoo group we support, which political party we favour, whose family we were born into, whether we like sports or culture, whose opinion diverges from ours the least -- seems far more important in the end.


*some edits made Jan 4, 2010