On Images of Savages, Part Three

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

On Images of Savages, Part Two

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

On Images of Savages, Part One

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

More On Why Race Matters

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

On Why Race Matters

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

On Commemorating Abolition

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

On Emancipation

In 1833, the British Parliament passed an Act to abolish slavery in the British Empire. As of August 1, 1834, all slaves throughout the empire were to become free to some degree — if they were under the age of six, they would become free immediately, but if they were over six, they were to be apprenticed to their former masters. Apprenticeship was finally abolished on August 1, 1838.It is partly for this reason that Emancipation Day is a holiday in The Bahamas. It is a holiday throughout the former British slave colonies of the Caribbean as well — and the reason that Jamaica, for example, chose it as its Independence Day. We don’t celebrate our holiday on August 1, although we remember the date; rather, we have chosen to make the nearest Monday the holiday.Here, then, together with hot weather, rain, and hurricanes, the summer months bring the twin holidays that commemorate our freedom. As a nation, we have the opportunity of remembering how far we have come, of honouring our ancestors who — slave and master alike — were dehumanized by the institution of slavery and indentureship.So far, though, we have not made the most of this opportunity. Oh, we celebrate all right. We have a Junkanoo parade on Independence Day, and two Junkanoo parades on the August Holiday weekend. We have cook-outs (what better way to party than eating?) But that’s about as far as it goes. Indeed, considering the amount of time we spend speaking of such things, it’s possible to imagine that if a Bahamian child didn’t grow up watching American television, they might be surprised to learn that Bahamians were once ever slaves.And yet.As I’ve written before, slavery is not over in The Bahamas. I’m not talking about the kind of “slavery” that people like to raise when making these kinds of statements — a “slavery” that assumes that every Black Bahamian is subordinate to and poorer than every White Bahamian, that assumes that all Whites were slaveowners and all Blacks slaves, that believes that Black Bahamian slaves were captured in African jungles and transported to The Bahamas on slave ships — an image of slavery that has more to do with history as outlined in the ABC miniseries Roots than our own story, which is far more complicated and interesting. No. I’m talking about the kind of slavery Bob Marley recognized in his own people when he wrote and performed his “Redemption Song” — the mental slavery that continues to dominate our society.What do I mean by mental slavery? It manifests itself in a number of different ways. There are the obvious — the concept that Bahamians aren’t able to do things very well, and the resultant habit of looking elsewhere for models and expertise; the preference for hiring consultants from abroad to give advice that Bahamian experts have already considered and rejected; the willingness to privilege outside plans for development over local ones; the general contempt for anything home-grown, and the overconsumption of anything from across the sea. But as common as these tendencies are, I’m thinking of other, smaller, more insidious actions and habits that show the residue of slavery in our everyday lives.The biggest one is the apparent reluctance of the ordinary employee ever to make a decision. Decisions, you see, require that one take responsibility for those decisions, and if one is wrong, one gets in trouble. The result — particularly in the civil service, but not only there — is that for too many people, there is only one way of doing something. How many of us have found ourselves in a situation where we make a request that is unusual, that takes a salesperson out of her comfort zone, that surprises her, forces her to think? The result: roadblock.Another one, though, that I get to see often in my line of work, is the tendency of many people who are possessed with a good idea to seek first and foremost the kingdom of Government Money. Despite the fact that we live in a society which welcomes millions of tourists every year, in which money flows like water, in which Bahamians as well as visitors are willing to spend good cash on things they enjoy, we seem to believe that our enterprise must first and foremost be supported by handouts from the public treasury.A third is the paralysis that I also witness, as a manager of a department and as a teacher of students, among people who seem to be waiting for someone to tell them What To Do. They can’t — or won’t — act unless they get an order or a clearance from above.All of these are examples of the mental slavery from which we continue to need emancipation. Emancipation, you see, only begins with the awarding of political freedom. It is true that on August 1, 1834, slaves were given the gift of themselves; they were able, for the first time since their enslavement, to own their bodies, their loved ones, their offspring, and their possessions. But the residue of slavery lingers still. The political and physical emancipation of the slaves didn’t mean that there was a corresponding psychic and mental freedom that came with it. That has to be worked on.So it’s August; it’s our freedom time. Massa’s long gone. It’s time for us realize that every Bahamian who refuses to make a decision, every Bahamian who seeks a handout, every Bahamian who looks outside the country for validation, every Bahamian who believes that what we do isn’t good enough, is in need of emancipation still.It’s time we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.

On Race

Before I begin, let me make one thing quite clear. I'm writing about race, not racism. The first one is the idea that human beings, like animals and plants, are members of different groups that are physiologically and genetically different. The second one is making distinctions -- social, political, economic and otherwise -- based on these differences.I'm writing about race.It's an idea that has been around for a while, but not forever. It's an idea that can be traced back to a specific political point in history -- and by history, of course, I mean the history of the world, and not of the Bahamas. The idea of "race" was invented, and its invention had a function. That function: to conquer the world.

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