Don't tell me -- the horse is almost dead, and there's no sense in flogging it much more. I know. The thing is, while you may think that I've made my point about race and related subjects (several times over), there's still one more contribution I'd like to make.I'd like to catalogue the images that were associated with -- and that associated us with -- savages and savagery. The reason? They haven't gone away at all. We use them today. And we use them on ourselves.A lot of the time, it's not a white-black thing at all. Most of the time, we're so comfortable with the images of savages we've inherited from our slave-ridden, anti-Enlightenment past that we take them for granted and think of them as fact.By naming them, maybe we can begin to erase them once and for all.So here goes. A savage was considered to be a lower form of human being, a creature that stood between "man" and "beast", a sort of link between the rational and the instinctive, bestial world. This concept remained constant over the roughly four hundred years that non-Europeans were being coerced into being Europeans' servants and subordinates, although its origins were considered to be different.At first, the difference between Europeans and others was believed to be religious in nature. In the beginning, the debates were held over the existence of the savage soul. Early imperialists justified their actions in one of two main ways, and both were hotly contested at home. On the one hand, the people of the New World were soulless beings, existing halfway between animal and man (rather like angels existed halfway between man and God). According to this reasoning, their eradication was a holy cleansing, and many native Americans were murdered in this vein. On the other hand, though, the people of the New World were believed to have souls, but inferior and sin-ridden ones. According to this reasoning, the imperialists' job was to save them, to convert them and baptize them and turn them into Christians.Later, though, the differences were considered to have a scientific basis. Debates were held over the place of these people in the evolutionary ladder. Although the discussion had changed, the place of the so-called "savage" had not moved at all; non-Europeans occupied different rungs in the so-called "ascent" of man. Careful attention was paid to slotting the right group of people into the correct place in this staircase of progress. Europeans, quite clearly the most advanced of all "races", were at the top, and looked down upon everybody else. But who was closest to them? Were the Chinese, with their ancient wisdom and their revolutionary inventions, like paper and gunpowder and noodles, the next most advanced people, or were the East Indians, with their ancient religions? What about the "Red" Indians? The Africans? The Australian Aborigines and the Pacific Islanders?Generally, the criteria used to assign people to their place on this staircase of progress were simplistic, almost childish. Oddly enough, in many cases the amount of clothing a group of people wore entitled them to be classified as more or less advanced. Civilization was measured by the covering of skin, while savagery was associated with nakedness (the one exception to this, of course, were those groups of people classified as "Eskimo", who couldn't help but cover themselves from head to toe). In many other cases, the kinds of dwellings that people built were also considered to be markers of civilization -- whether a society had something that could be called "architecture" was used to separate man from savage. Other things, like types of technology, land use patterns, modes of subsistence, and religious systems were used to classify groups of humans into degrees of civlilization; and even today, we use these very criteria to think about "progress" and "backwardness". Farms that grow one or two crops and sell them to other people are considered to be more "modern" than farms that grow everything that individuals need and sell a little bit to get cash; these are thought to be "backward". The use of fertilizers and pesticides and tractors are markers of "progress", while more ancient (and sustainable) technologies -- like mixed-use farming, shifting cultivation (otherwise known as slash-and-burn agriculture) and natural weed and pest control are considered to be reactionary and anti-modern.Even more insidious -- and even more widespread -- was the almost unspoken association of the intellect with whiteness and the body with negritude. And this is something that still flourishes today. I could talk about Black American culture, but I don't need to; it's alive and well in The Bahamas as I write. In contemporary Bahamian society, using one's brain is considered "soft" or "white"; using one's body -- whether it be for sports, or for fighting, for sex, or for working on construction sites -- is black and manly.To carry the association further, and to state what many of us believe in our hearts to be true: white people make better scientists and inventors and writers and academics, but black people make the best athletes and dancers and lovers.Â White people might be rich, but black people can fight.Â White people are cold and calculating; but black people can feel.Â On the other hand, white people are compassionate and "soft", and want to give everybody rights they don't deserve; black people are tough and know that punishment is far more effective than understanding.Â White people are smart, rich, and weak; black people are stupid, poor, and strong.I could go on, but I'm running out of space.Â My point?Â That these are all images that were invented to justify the domination of groups of people, and not truths that we must live by.Â People are people, and fundamentally people are all the same.Â The differences are superficial; underneath, we are more alike than we think.Â We don't need to remain bound by the images of savages that have been imposed upon us.Â It's time we invented some civilized images of our own.
The thing about writing about race and related stuff, it seems, is that it stimulates considerable discussion. I'm not at all sure that everybody who wants to say something has said it; but the number of comments I've received to my face and on the blogs where my essays appear suggest that there's a need -- if not exactly a desire -- to talk about this stuff.Even when people claim that there isn't.The thing is, though I started out by talking about race in the Bahamian context, this topic is far bigger than any of us. The real reason we have to talk about who we are, who we are assumed to be, and who we are expected to be is that what happens here in The Bahamas is one small piece in a huge global jigsaw. It's perfectly true that up to now many of our public discussions about this difficult topic have been politically motivated, and politically motivated on the most destructive level. One party says race is irrelevant, and this gains them points in some circles. The other party says race affects every element of our current life, and this gains them points in other circles. The problem is, a discussion such as this is not a discussion at all; it's a form of political campaigning that doesn't tell us anything at all about who and why we are.And so back to the images of savages.I didn't invent the term, by the way. I took the name of this article and the one before it from a book written by an anthropologist who traced the origins of racial stereotyping to ancient Europe, and who linked the development of the concepts we carry with us in our minds and our bodies to their roots. And he found some of those roots at a very interesting time in history -- during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.For those who donâ€™t know what the significance of those centuries is, consider this. These were the years in which Europe was reforming itself, moving from the so-called "Dark" Ages into the so-called "Enlightenment". Rather than getting rid of its own "darkness", however -- the ignorance, superstition, and fear that it considered synonymous with mediaeval times -- it instead shifted that "darkness" geographically outward. By the time Columbus was setting sail to find the short road to China, Europe had already prepared itself to see the people he would meet not just as having stepped onto a beach, but having stepped out of the past.By so doing, Europe had laid the foundation for the development of an idea of "savagery" that would enable them to categorize the people they met in the Americas as lesser beings, people who God intended to be conquered, to be evangelized, to be subordinated, and to be enslaved. And by so doing, Europe turned the conquest and rape of the New World into a divine project of civilization and transformation. The enslavement of Africans in the old world followed almost seamlessly behind.It's become commonplace to observe two things when defending the position that we really shouldn't be talking about this -- about things that are long past and faded away.The first is that none of this is relevant to us today. Slavery is over, and everybody's now equal. Crying victimhood does nobody any good, and casting blame doesn't help either. We're Bahamian, after all, and we run our nation now. Let's not cry about the past. Let's just deal with it.The second is that slavery has always existed, and people have always been slaves. It doesn't do us much good to focus solely on one kind of slavery; we have to acknowledge that the Africans themselves kept slaves, and even sold those slaves to the Europeans.There's a lot to be said for this position. Crying victimhood is not an answer to any problems, for while you can't always change the bad things that happen to you, you can control how you react to them. And slavery did exist, not only in Africa, but all the way up to Rome and Greece and even Russia. But there's a little more to be said.The institution of slavery that affected us most here in the new world was a slavery that was fundamentally different from the slavery that existed in the ancient world. While that had a place within the societies that practised it -- slaves were got through conquest or debt or some other process that was shared by the dominant society, and every member of the society, if they were unlucky, ran the risk of being enslaved as a result of war or misfortune -- TransAtlantic slavery involved the enslavement of other people far away from the societies of the enslavers, and enabled otherwise decent people to be complicit in a huge dehumanizing effort. What was not permissible in Europe was perfectly fine when practised on other people. In the words of "Rule Britannia": "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves"; but until 1834 people of other "races" could be, and were.In order to justify the enslavement of other human beings in a society that was engaging in discussions of humanity and civilization and progress, a distinction had to be made between types of human beings. Hence the promotion of the idea of the "savage" -- it helped make the Enlightenment practice of slavery fit with the ideas of freedom and equality that were being taught at the same time. And the results of that idea are with us today. While the institutions that that distinction created have been officially dismantled, the psychic residue of those institutions has not even begun to be addressed.I would argue that the current "gangsta" culture of the Black Americas -- which draws upon and embodies much of the worst of the imagery of savagery that was developed to describe people of colour -- is a playing out, an internalization, of those ideas of savagery that were used to justify the enslaving of Africans, the indentureship of Asians, and the subordination of mestizos and mulattos throughout the Americas. The word we use to describe our own ghetto young women -- jungless -- is derived, whether we admit or not, directly from that whole battery of images of animality, brute force, and stupidity that were projected upon the so-called "lesser races" during the enslavement, forced migration, and subordination of the people who were used to build the American colonies. I'll say it again, and without apology. We cannot even begin to address the problems that afflict us today, therefore, without understanding, and making peace with our past.
This continues a topic I started last week.In November 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring March 25, 2007 as the International Day for the Commemoration for the Two-hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. That the resolution was put forward by the CARICOM states is remarkable. That it was supported widely by other members is important. But what we do with it here in The Bahamas, where we are generally unaware of our role in the international community, and where we are usually ignorant of our place in history, will demonstrate, and perhaps determine, who we really are, and in which direction we are heading.We live, you see, in a society for whom the history of slavery is palpably uncomfortable. For many of us, it’s preferable to forget our slave past, perhaps because we’re ashamed of having been enslaved. For others, we’d rather forget the fact that we owned slaves. For still others, we are torn – some of our ancestors were slaves, and others were their owners.We also live in a society whose images of slavery have been shaped almost indelibly by the depictions of the slave pasts of other people – of the USA, or of the West Indies. We imagine plantations and overseers and whips and brands, but we don’t know that there were fundamental differences between slavery in The Bahamas and slavery in the West Indies and in the southern USA. We don’t realize that our plantations failed miserably, making our slavery quite a different animal.In the first place, although cotton was grown here for a mere thirty years, slavery was legal in The Bahamas from 1648, when the Eleutherean Adventurers settled in Eleuthera, until 1834, when it was officially abolished altogether, and the slaves technically set free. In these 186 years, only thirty of them involved plantation slavery. So what about the remaining one and a half centuries?According to Gail Saunders, large numbers of Bahamian slaves worked alongside their masters in any number of professions. Many were skilled labourers – bakers and masons and carpenters, cooks in people’s houses and cooks on boats, bosuns and mates and fishermen, farmers and scribes, and seamstresses and laundresses. Bahamian slavery involved the kinds of people who might in other societies be called “house slaves” – people who were able to gain diverse skills and glean some education to give them some standing in the world. So we might be forgiven for thinking that Bahamian slavery was relatively kind.But it isn’t what Bahamian slaves had to do that was important. What made slavery evil was what it said slaves were. Although on the surface Bahamian slaves were better educated and better treated than others to the north and the south, we cannot overlook this one fundamental fact: that slavery made people, into objects, things that could be owned and bought and sold.So in tandem with the sense of independence and individuality that Bahamian slave ownership bred, there was also inculcated in Bahamians the same sense of basic dependency, the very self-denigration that all slave societies create. Bahamian slave society may well offer fewer examples of brutality to the historian; but at least one the examples of brutality was outstanding. The story of Kate Moss, the young slave girl who was so badly punished by her owners that she died at their hands, became one of the examples used by British Abolitionists in their arguments about the inhumanity of the institution.And the closer relationship between the Bahamian masters and their slaves, while appearing to be kinder and gentler on the surface, had its own insidious result. You might say that on the plantation the relationship between the master and the slave was clear-cut, and this enabled the slaves to come to terms with their condition in such a way that they were able to rebel against it – and did, in many places. In the Bahamian situation, though, where slaves were often very closely connected with their masters, and where they often forged friendships and partnerships with them – at sea, at home, in the yard, in the shop – the line between property and owner became blurred, and made the struggle for freedom far more complex and difficult.You see, it’s often easier to fight one’s enemies when they’re obvious. When the person who is defining you as a piece of property is also the same one who is feeding you and clothing you, from whose very hands you might accept the gifts, and beside whom you might work, day in, day out, it becomes very difficult to separate the kindness of the individual person from the fundamental injustice of the system. When the person who is keeping you in your “place” is also the one who offers you assistance, and whom you might like and respect and even emulate, it becomes almost impossible to seek freedom. The comfort brought by the relationship you have is often too much to put at risk.Perhaps that’s why we Bahamians today are so uncomfortable with remembering that we were once slaves. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our freedom is only half-here; for we are still quick to surrender our identities and our sovereignty for a taste of the comfort offered to us by the masters of today. There’s nothing new for us to be asked weigh the tough realities of forging our own way against the ease offered us by people who come in from abroad, smiling and handing us treasures we don’t truly understand. Old habits are hard to break, after all, and it’s happened to us before. The Lucayans lost their islands, and their culture; the slaves and their descendants got material assistance in the place of freedom. Why should we be any different?And so, the commemoration of abolition in The Bahamas has got to be a very serious, a very solemn thing. We must recognize what the process of abolition began, while recognizing too the role we – black, white, slave, free, cruel and kind – all played in the dual struggle between servitude and liberty. And above all, we must recognize that that struggle is not over, and steel ourselves to continue it for as long as it takes for us to be truly free.
In 2007, we in the British New World will observe a bicentenary of great significance. The anniversary I’m talking about is the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain. That is a different thing from the abolition of slavery, which made it illegal for anyone throughout the British Empire to own other human beings. Rather, it was the abolition of the practice of sailing to other people’s countries and enslaving their people to provide free labour on land appropriated from yet another set of people.In 1807, the British Parliament made it illegal to enslave human beings afresh. The Abolition Act didn’t grant immediate freedom to those people who were already slaves; but it put an end to the profiteering that came from capturing new people.We know slavery was bad. We know it’s an indelible part of our history. But it’s over, and it has been in our country for almost two hundred years. So why should we commemorate Abolition, when it didn’t actually erase the institution of slavery or free the slaves?The short answer is that it marks the beginning of a process of emancipation that involved all parties -- the slaveowners as well as the slaves. The long answer is that Abolition created a culture that provided the foundations of the one in which we live today. If we begin with the question about who enslaved whom and when that ended and who ended it, we begin in the wrong place. We already know those answers, and we tend to use them to justify weaknesses and cast blame. The commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery, however, allows us to approach the institution in a different, and, it’s hoped, more constructive way.Currently, we’re taught to consider the institution of slavery as an unrelieved victimhood, with the Bad White Oppressor and the Poor Black Oppressed -- Simon Legree, for those of you who still remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Uncle Tom, Topsy, and company. But what we overlook is that the real institution was far more complicated. The slaves themselves struggled for their freedom from the moment of their capture, and their activity in that struggle for freedom contributed to importantly to the Abolition movement. The slave-owners, on the other hand, were not all greedy and cruel, and several engaged in the education, religious and otherwise, of their slaves. Not all people of colour were slaves, not all white people were slave-owners, and not all slave-owners were white; some, like the Fox after which Fox Hill took its name, belonged to the group of people known as Free Coloured People.So we have to approach this bicentenary of Abolition in a spirit of openness. We need to understand the processes of emancipation that began with/led up to/culminated in the passage of the Abolition Legislation through the British Parliament in 1807, and to recognize that those processes must continue; for two hundred years later, we are still not entirely free.So what should we commemorate about Abolition?Well, to begin with, (and for this article, I’m going to end here too; I’ll continue in other articles, and the one after that) though it didn’t do away with slavery, it changed the face of the institution in very important ways.Politically, Great Britain’s Abolition of the slave trade had the interesting side effect of making Great Britain the protector of the innocent on the high seas. The abolishing of the slave trade made it possible for British ships to police the Atlantic, capturing slave ships and setting the people on them free. The impact that this practice would have on The Bahamas for the rest of the ninetenth century was huge; if the slave ships were captured on the western side of the Atlantic, the likelihood that they would be towed to Nassau and the slaves on them set free in The Bahamas was high. The result was that the black population of The Bahamas was augmented throughout the 1800s by the arrival of Liberated Africans, and these people, who had never had their cultures stripped from them by the institution of slavery, contributed to the development of many particularly Bahamian traditions, such as lodges, Junkanoo, asue and so on. These people were responsible, further, for the creation of many of the villages we currently celebrate; Bain Town, Grants Town, Delaporte, Gambier, Adelaide, Carmichael and Fox Hill all had as their origins villages created for the Liberated Africans.Culturally, perhaps, the greatest legacy of the Abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was the stabilizing of that language that we now know as “Bahamian dialect”. There were other things, of course, but as I believe that a language is a basic cornerstone of identity, I’d like to focus on it for now.The creation of new languages is an interesting process. In the British West Indies, until 1807, the pool of Africans was constantly being added to by new arrivals. These people had diverse tongues, which meant that in order to communicate with one another and with the whites, an intermediary language, structured around African grammar systems but using English words, was established.When Abolition put an end to the fresh enslavement of people, the result was simple and interesting: the language that the slaves and their masters used for communication began to stabilize. In the absence of new languages being added to the pool, and in a situation where people were learning the intermediary tongue as their first language, a dialect was born. After Abolition, the creole languages that developed in the New World were the foundations of today’s various Caribbean and Latin American dialects -- fundamental markers of local identities.So why should we commemorate Abolition? For our culture and our language, at the very least. And of course, for all the ancestors who were changed by it, and who by that change changed us -- African, Creole, White, liberated, slave, and free.
Something happened recently that went without much comment. A building that once stood at the northwestern corner of Mackey and Shirley Streets was bulldozed down to rubble. The reason? To create a turning lane. The building? A milk stand.Before I go on, let me say that I donâ€™t have a problem with the bulldozing of the milk stand. Oh, I felt a twinge of regret at seeing it go. But this isnâ€™t going to be a polemic on the evils of tearing down historic buildings to ease traffic congestion. I recognize the need for a turning lane right at that point, and I applaud the decision to make that corner more efficient for traffic. The decision was a pragmatic one, and it was a good one, as far as it went.What I do want to write about is our capacity for bulldozing that building without understanding â€” without even asking â€” what a milk stand is and why itâ€™s significant for the city of Nassau. So I want to give a little history about the milk stand.Before I do, let me say that I am not a historian, so this article isnâ€™t going to be giving dates and full names and all the written facts. Iâ€™m an anthropologist, and have the luxury of regarding history as one of a set of stories that people tell themselves and their children to make sense of the world, to make sense of themselves. All too often we live in blessed ignorance of our ancestors and their lives, their struggles and their needs. We Nassauvians are still fortunate enough to inhabit a city in which our forefathersâ€™ stories are written in the very buildings we see around us, but we exist in such studied ignorance of what those stories are that when things happen to change that environment, we have no way of knowing what has changed.Hereâ€™s my version of the milk stand story.Once upon a time, there was a man named Harold Christie. Now he is incidental to the story of the milk stand, except in one respect â€” he invented the first Bahamian model of development-through-foreign-investment. Thanks to H. C. Christie, during the 1920s, when other countries in the region were struggling with post-war poverty, industrial unrest, and hardship, The Bahamas flourished. Part of this was due to the transhipment of liquor to the USA. But part of it, thanks to Christie, was the first Bahamian land boom since the Loyalists. Long before the UBP or the PLP or the FNM were ever dreamed about, Harold Christie was selling Bahamian land, water and climate to the first foreign investors to line the governmentâ€™s coffers with gold.Enter Austin Levy, who bought huge tracts of land in Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera, to start a dairy farm. He started big by Bahamian standards, and grew huge. By the time the Second World War rolled around (and go look up the dates if your history education was faulty and you have no idea when that was), the Hatchet Bay farms were producing enough milk and eggs and cream to feed a nation.And feed the nation they did â€” the nation as it existed in the capital city. At the same time that bootlegging was making the city rich, the out islands were struggling. The poverty that fell upon them in the post-war years was not helped by the rash of hurricanes â€” rather like the ones weâ€™re having now â€” that swept through the colony between 1926 and 1935. Out islanders were migrating to the city in droves, settling areas like the Valley and Englerston and the Grove and Chippingham. The city of Nassau, whose public infrastructure stopped at the ridge we call the Hill, was straining under the growing population. One major concern was sanitation. Most of those who lived in the Over the Hill area â€” our ancestors â€” lived in one- or two-room houses with no plumbing or electricity, and everyone washed and lived in the yard. The country was wealthy, but many people were poor. And by the time the Duke of Windsor came to Nassau as Governor, the poverty and the well-being of the average Bahamian were starting to become serious concerns.Enter Austin Levy with his dairy farm and a plan to create a healthier population by providing people with fresh dairy products to build strong bones and teeth and to keep the illnesses at bay. In those days, the Bahamian diet consisted of fish, grits, and what people grew in their own back gardens. Lobster was dirt-cheap, an everyday dish, and chicken (which you killed and cleaned yourself) was reserved for Sundays. Fresh meat was to be had only on high feast days like Easter; eggs were things that came out of chickens, and milk was something you poured from a can.So Mr. Levy built a dock on East Bay Street where he brought his produce, and he erected little stone booths at intervals throughout the city, placing them on intersections where people could get to them. From the 1940s until the early 1970s, the milk stands were places where you could go to get fresh milk and eggs, things most Nassauvians had never had before. They were distinctive for their rounded corners and their walls half covered in thousands of tiny tiles, and for their service windows and their little steps that allowed people to purchase what they needed as they passed.Thanks in part to Mr. Levy and his milk stands, Nassauâ€™s population became better nourished and healthier. Now Iâ€™m not claiming Mr. Levy was a local or national hero; what was good for Nassauvians was equally kind to his pocket. And so in the demolition of the milk stand at Mackey and Shirley Streets, history is repeating itself in a strange sort of way. The stand was put up by a foreign investor whose kindness to us helped his own bottom line; it was taken down with the assistance of another foreign investor whose helpful nature is equally good for business. Making traffic move more smoothly at Mackey Street will not only ease congestion on our side of the bridge; the hope, of course, is that it will affect Paradise Islandâ€™s traffic jams as well. This is not to say that any of this is a bad thing. Itâ€™s simply to tell us a little more about who we Bahamians are.And so the story of the milk stand: a story of our past, a story of our selves.
We're all familiar with the idea of the American Dream. Who isn't? In the musical Miss Saigon, which was written by two Frenchmen about the Vietnamese war, there's a song that bears that name. And for those of us who live on the periphery of that grand ol' country to the north, the American Dream pervades almost every cranny of our reality.You see, the American Dream is part of the myth of the American nation â€” the idea that a person can go from rags to riches in the grand ol' USA. And it's a myth that's founded on a sort of reality. Examples of successes abound, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump and John H. Johnson. We don't talk all that much about the failures.The idea of the American Dream (let's call it the A.D. from here on in) is a simple one, a strong one. No matter who you are, what you start with, the USA is the Land of Opportunity, the one place in the world where hard work and innovation can move you from nothing to something, can take you from zero to a million in the short space of a lifetime.What we don't talk much about is the Bahamian Dream.Thing is, it exists. More than that, it's a far more dramatic reality for the majority of Bahamians than the American Dream could ever be. To hook into the American Dream, we Bahamians would have to emigrate, fight for status, and then dive into that fast-flowing stream that is American business life to struggle with all the other hopefuls to try and come out victors. This doesn't mean that many Bahamians don't partake in the dream; every day young Bahamians leave this country to go (mostly) to the USA, where they believe the opportunities are greater and the possibilities for living out the A.D. more plentiful.But look at our Dream this way.The present black Bahamian upper class is comprised of people who were born into poverty, or of people whose parents were raised with next to nothing in their pockets. For some of them, they have gone from zero to a million in the space of three and a half decades â€” the precise time it's been possible for a Bahamian of any complexion, but especially of African heritage â€” to participate creatively and meaningfully in the economy. We can name our own successes: entrepreneurs like Tiger Finlayson and Franklyn Wilson and Myles Munroe and Neil Ellis spring immediately to mind.They are not alone. Between 1967 and now, countless Bahamians of eminently humble backgrounds and limited prospects have drastically improved their standard of living. Men and women who, when they were born, could look forward to little more than a basic education in one of the few public schools have become doctors and lawyers and politicians and preachers and stars.In June of this year, the Pompey Museum downtown reopened for the first time since the fire of Sepember 2001. In commemoration of the 170th anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves in this part of the world, and of the 2nd centenary of the struggle against slavery in general, the first exhibit in that museum featured an actual slave ship that was recovered off the waters of Key West.If you haven't yet had the chance to visit the Pompey Museum and see the exhibition of the Henrietta Marie, know that it will close at the end of November. And know, too, that if you miss the opportunity to go, the point of this article is going to be blunted in some small way.You see, the Bahamian Dream is, to my mind, a far, far greater dream than the American one. It's not how far we can go that impresses me; it's how far we have come.The awful thing about slavery, I believe, isn't the condition in which a slave finds himself. It's the fact that there is no self. Slavery is the institution of taking from a human being the most basic thing that make him human: the right to own himself. The physical conditions that complement slavery are to some degree incidental. Many Bahamian slaves lived in conditions that we might imagine that slaves on the American mainland and the rest of the Caribbean should envy. Not all Bahamian slaves lived on plantations. Those who lived in Nassau might not even live with their masters; some were permitted to live in their own quarters Over the Hill, and they might even have their own plots of land that they could use to grow food.But their lives were not their own. Nor were their spouses, their children, or their labour. Their apparent material security was fragile. If their master died, or fell upon hard times, they could be sold into a completely different situation. There was no security, no room to plan for the future, no real hope, even, to place faith in the present.The Bahamian Dream is so powerful, to my mind, because as a society, we started not from zero, but from a negative number. To be a society based on slavery, and whose hierarchies perpetuated the inequalities derived from slavery for another 130 years, and to have created from that a society in which we can grow our own millionaires is a dream indeed.But let me not sound too smug, It's possible to have a society in which a group of people benefit from a change as fundamental as majority rule, but in which that group do not pass on the benefits to those who come behind. And I believe that, in some ways unlike the USA, we run the risk of becoming that kind of society. The achievements of the first generation of Independence were remarkable; but are we perpetuating them? As I write, too many young Bahamians are choosing not to return home because they are finding our society closed to their contributions. Could it be that the Bahamian Dream is as fragile as a slave's sense of self?
I sat down to write on 9-11 with the commemoration activities for the World Trade Center bombing going on in the background. From time to time I would look up at the television or pull up a website and be reminded of the magnitude of what happened on September 11, 2001. Three years have passed, and no American â€” no citizen of the world â€” is allowed to forget that date.I couldn't help but contrast the American commitment to remembering with our own approach to significant dates in our history. We all know the saying unless we know where we have come from we cannot know where we are going, and we have become very good at mouthing it. But putting it into practice is a far different matter.I say this because we are nearing the end of 2004, a year which has â€” or should have â€” particular significance for Bahamians. When we talk about freedom, democracy, liberation, or any other lofty ideal that has basic resonance for post-colonial peoples, the significance of this year is fundamental. Let me explain why.August 1 marked the 170th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.January 1 was the 200th anniversary of the creation of the state of Haiti, a republic that was founded by slaves who fought, successfully, for their freedom against one of the greatest European empires of the time.September 29 is the 275th anniversary of unbroken parliamentary democracy in The Bahamas.Now I ask you.How many of us, besides the intellectuals and oddballs like myself, have any real awareness of these events?I'll wager you this. If I were to walk into any classroom in this country and ask the students there to explain to me the importance of September 11th, I would find no shortage of people who could do so, just as I suspect that the numbers of people who could tell me of the achievements of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or Malcolm X would far exceed the numbers of people who could tell me about Cyril Stevenson or Milo Butler or Arthur D. Hanna.And I bet if I asked them, or anyone on the street, or regular callers to radio talk shows, or other average Bahamians â€” why 2004 was a significant year, they would have a similar difficulty. You see, we Bahamians are generally able to speak to the triumphs and challenges of our immediate experience, but when it comes to remembering the triumphs and challenges of the past, we are hard-pressed.Unlike our American neighbours, who approach the dates that are important to their history with a sense of reverence that subsumes everything else, we in the Bahamas practice a kind of collective amnesia that enables us to move forward at a rapid and bewildering pace, but that erases from our identities the memory of those things that make us who and what we are.The year 2004, you see, is a year whose significance goes far beyond the glory and devastation of August and September. In addition to the dates I listed above, there are others. For example:In 1844, the Nassau Guardian was established, which marks 160 years of unbroken press coverage in the Bahamas. The fact that 2003 was the centenary of the establishment of The Tribune has its own significance. For 160 years, Bahamians have had the opportunity of being fed news, of being served by writers who enable us to look at ourselves in all our aspects.In 1929, Nassau and Andros were struck by a hurricane even stronger and more devastating than Frances. Like Frances, the hurricane of 1929 parked over the capital for days â€” three days and nights to be exact â€” but unlike Frances, it was estimated to be a Category 5 hurricane. No building in the capital was unscathed. The impact on the Bahamian economy was far-reaching. The cost of rebuilding Nassau was such that none of the other islands that were affected by the various hurricanes that struck the Bahamas between 1926 and 1932 could adequately be supported. This fact, combined with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, changed the demography of the Bahama Islands forever.It behooves us to remember these events. 275 years of unbroken parliamentary democracy, 200 years of the struggle against slavery, 170 years of emancipation, 160 years of consistent press coverage, 75 years since the devastation of the capital by the 1929 hurricane â€” these dates matter. They matter because they form the bedrock of our existence, whether we know it or not, and they matter because they tell us who we Bahamians are: a people born from slavery and colonialism, a people who have faced adversity and who have triumphed without outside help, a people who have plenty to celebrate in our past, our present, our selves.Next week we will celebrate. We will acknowledge our most recent athletic achievements, and we will use our celebrations to expand our local hurricane relief efforts even further. Let us do both with our whole hearts. But let us also take some time to look behind us, to mark our milestones, to reflect on our past and on our ancestors.And let us mark this date in our history somehow as well, or else our commitment to amnesia may mean that in five years' time the events of this year may have faded into the background as well. And to do that will serve none of us well.
October, we are learning, has been dubbed Bahamian History Month. As a result, the airwaves have been resonating with talk about national heroes, honours, and heroes' parks.At the same time, though, I'm sure there are some Bahamians out there who are observing these activities with a jaded eye. What national heroes? What's all the fuss about? Why shove aside Columbus, for heaven's sake, who is a hero of universal magnitude (having put our islands on the European map) for a clutch of Johnnies-come-lately in three-piece suits?Too many of us, still, thirty years after independence and thirty-six years after we began to govern ourselves, believe that things Bahamian are second-class, gauche, nothing much to write home about. And too many of us who think that are black.
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