Between Christmas and New Year's in The Bahamas, barring any major unforeseen events, there is really only one story: Junkanoo. Traditionally, Junkanoo is held on Boxing Day and New Year's Day every year, and the competition is stiff â€” so much so that I've grown notorious for suggesting that Junkanoo is a great Bahamian sport, and not the cultural event that people love to claim.As far as I'm concerned, the core and the root of Junkanoo is its music. It's the music that sets us apart from all other New World street festivals. And for those of you who are under thirty years old, I'm not talking about the brass and the tunes that are played during the parades. These are recent additions, developments that have taken place in the last twenty-odd years. Junkanoo music at its core is rhythm.When I teach, I explain it this way. What do you need to have the Junkanoo sound? Some people, young people mostly, might say brass, but they'd be wrong. The brass, the tunes, are the embellishment of the music, and when you have nothing else, you don't look for a horn to make Junkanoo. You look for a drum. And on that drum you play a basic rhythm (in fact, there are a score of different rhythms that are incorporated into Junkanoo, but that's another story). To that you may add another drum or two, each playing a different rhythm (or not). And then you add the cowbell. Then you stick a whistle in your mouth, and you have the music. It's only after you have laid down the rhythm that you look for the brass.Think about it. That's why there aren't many true Junkanoo tunes. That's why the music that people put on top of the rhythm is usually adopted from somewhere else, and arranged around Junkanoo. In the past, the only notes in Junkanoo were those that could be blown with a bugle. For those of you who don't know your brass instruments, a bugle is a horn without valves, and like the conch shell or the sheep horn or the black horn. Those horns can only play one or two notes, depending on the skill of the blower. Well, a bugle can play several, but they're several notes apart - hence the traditional Junkanoo tunes like "A-Rushin' Through the Crowd".And that's it. You can make Junkanoo music with a drum, a pair of cowbells, and a whistle and nothing else. The last thing you make Junkanoo music with is a horn.And yet.For a quarter of a century - almost from the moment the Music Makers brought brass to the parade and played tunes and revolutionized the way in which Bahamians at large thought about Junkanoo - the Junkanoo parades have been sucking more and more brass players into their presentations. We are at an interesting time in the development of Junkanoo, and it's this. We're at a point where young people, the set who take part in Junior Junkanoo, seem to believe that the horns, the brass, are the central part of the music. I have been at celebrations for Junior Junkanoo - most notably at the most recent awards ceremonies - where the music was begun by the sousaphones.Hello.This frightened me no end. The sousaphone, for those of you who don't know, is an instrument that was invented by Americans to allow a bass horn to be carried for long distances as part of marching bands. They're named after the great American composer of band music, John Philip Sousa. They are not Bahamian; they are not African; they are not integral to the tradition of Junkanoo, having been introduced in the late 1990s by musicians who had cut their teeth on the marching bands of the Church of God and the like.Now there isn't anything inherently wrong with them. I like the sound that sousaphones make in a modern Junkanoo line. Not as much as I like the sound that the bugle used to make, or the rhythm and off-notes of the black horns, but that's me. If a sousaphone, or a trombone (my own brass instrument) or a trumpet or a flugel horn or a euphonium or a saxophone or a tuba has a part in a Junkanoo parade, that's fine. Change can be good, and change is often healthy. But when change is indiscriminate, when it occurs in a vacuum, when the core is not understood or worse, not respected, then change becomes more than change. It becomes do-it-yourself imperialism.Let me be clear here. I'm not anti-Sousaphone; I'm not even anti-brass (much, any more). Just as long as we remember that the core of the rush is the drum, the cowbell, the whistle, and the two-note horn. Just as long we respect the fact that Junkanoo music is complete without the tunes; just as long as we understand that our preference for tunes is in some way evidence of our distance from the Africa from which this rhythm sprung.For African music does for rhythm and percussion what European music does for melody. Please understand me carefully. I am not claiming that Africans don't understand melody, or that Europeans don't understand rhythm. What I am saying is that these societies privilege the different elements of music differently. Where African societies developed a whole range of percussive instruments, and made music around textured polyrhythms and drums that talk and beats that convey information, European societies did similar things for their melodic instruments. (In Africa, too, melody was often carried by the voice, just as it was in the Junkanoo parades of the early twentieth century.) In the Caribbean, we marry the two, often seamlessly. Hence the famous Nettleford reference to "the rhythm of Africa and the melody of Europe".We Bahamians pay homage to Europe in different spheres - in our marching bands, in our choral traditions (which follow both our major cultural influences), in our popular music, in our ringplay and some of our dances. Our African heritage has been under threat for centuries. In the beginning, it was outlawed by our white brothers; later, it was out-preached by our own black selves. Until the 1980s, though, you could hear its rhythm in Junkanoo, in the drum.In Junkanoo, once, we remembered Africa. In Junkanoo, once, when the lead drum rolled over and the other drums joined in, we celebrated the land where the majority of us came from, and by which all of us have been changed. This still happens, by and large, in the senior parades. But in the junior parades, where we're grooming the Junkanoo of the future, the sousaphones start the rush. In our future parades, will our drums be drowned out by the brass our colonists brought?I trust not. For to believe without question that Junkanoo music can be started by a sousaphone - that symbol of the USA, the cultural imperialist par excellence - is a clear demonstration of how little pride we have in what is truly ours. I'm not talking about feelings of pride here; you can feel proud of many things that don't really deserve that feeling. I'm talking about real pride, the kind that transcends emotions and resides at the level of the brain, of consciousness. Not to know what a betrayal of Junkanoo it is to have the music start with an American brass instrument that was invented in 1893 - two generations after the emancipation of the Bahamian slaves, and easily a hundred years after we began celebrating Junkanoo - is a failure of some magnitude on the part of the Bahamian society and culture as a whole. And perhaps, just perhaps, it's an indication that slavery never really ended at all.
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 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 â€” 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 â€” and the reason that Jamaica, for example, chose it as its Independence Day. We donâ€™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 â€” slave and master alike â€” 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 thatâ€™s about as far as it goes. Indeed, considering the amount of time we spend speaking of such things, itâ€™s possible to imagine that if a Bahamian child didnâ€™t grow up watching American television, they might be surprised to learn that Bahamians were once ever slaves.And yet.As Iâ€™ve written before, slavery is not over in The Bahamas. Iâ€™m not talking about the kind of â€œslaveryâ€ that people like to raise when making these kinds of statements â€” a â€œslaveryâ€ 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 â€” 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. Iâ€™m talking about the kind of slavery Bob Marley recognized in his own people when he wrote and performed his â€œRedemption Songâ€ â€” 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 â€” the concept that Bahamians arenâ€™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, Iâ€™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 â€” particularly in the civil service, but not only there â€” 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 canâ€™t â€” or wonâ€™t â€” 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 didnâ€™t mean that there was a corresponding psychic and mental freedom that came with it. That has to be worked on.So itâ€™s August; itâ€™s our freedom time. Massaâ€™s long gone. Itâ€™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 isnâ€™t good enough, is in need of emancipation still.Itâ€™s time we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.
I have an uncle who was once Bishop of Nassau, The Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. When I was a child, he was Father Eldon, priest of West End, Grand Bahama. I never saw him. He came to Nassau on one or two occasions a year only, because he was living and working and teaching and building in the West End community. He left West End to be made Bishop in 1972, and what he did from there Anglicans other than myself will be able to say better.The point is this. West End, Grand Bahama, was the first place outside of Nassau I heard of as a child, because my uncle lived there. And he loved it with a passion others reserve for the places their navel strings are buried.I had the opportunity to go to West End for the first time at the end of the 1980s, where I visited a school friend from Freeport and where we drove out to the settlements that had been part of my imagination since I could think for myself, Eight Mile Rock and West End. The drive, as many drives in Grand Bahama were and remained until the flooding of that island during the hurricanes, was long and wooded: pines and their companion palms (mostly the favoured silvertop, the best material for our straw industry) for miles and miles and miles. It wasnâ€™t the most auspicious or beautiful scenery, but it was ours. Not mine, specifically, but Bahamian, Grand Bahamian, and â€“ by extension â€“ my uncleâ€™s.All that land. Just waiting to be developed.Well, development has come to West End. Itâ€™s developed every tree away from the South Side of the settlement, and, Iâ€™m told, itâ€™s hungering for more.Now lest it seem that Iâ€™m standing in the way of Progress, let me step back a moment. (In truth, I actually donâ€™t believe in Progress; but thatâ€™s another story, for a later date.) Iâ€™m not going to say that developments shouldnâ€™t take place, that they shouldnâ€™t happen; they do, and they should indeed. Iâ€™m not even going to say that clear-cutting of trees is wrong and shouldnâ€™t take place; some things ought to be evident. What I am going to say is that if we believe that we can hand off our responsibility to determine what form that development should take place, we are making a fundamental mistake.And thereâ€™s more. The development in West End is not only foreign investment, itâ€™s an investment that the people who are most affected have the least involvement in. While we can celebrate and publicize the size and the magnitude of the project, we need to consider very carefully the impact of the investment on the nearest community. The entire south side of a deeply-rooted settlement with a richer history than Freeport itself is going to be turned into second homes for non-Bahamians â€“ for people for whom the richness of West Endâ€™s history will have very little relevance indeed. Like the ancient Freed African settlement of Delaporte or the fragmentation of the Fox Hill Creek, in five yearsâ€™ time West End may become the bedroom community for people who may be hired as servants and gardeners for the super-wealthy and the over-privileged.And really, the problem doesnâ€™t lie with the developers. Itâ€™s easy to blame them, because they are often interlopers, foreign, and rich. But really, itâ€™s our problem. If we are going to pursue an economic policy that relies on external investment to take care of some of our infrastructural and employment needs, we have to understand both the benefits and the challenges of that policy. We have to look beyond the material and the economic, and understand the full implications of the thing.For instance, we need to recognize that while The Bahamas is economically sound all by itself (foreign investment or no, The Bahamas has been, and remained the third richest independent nation in the entire Western Hemisphere in purely economic terms; our per capita GDP places us ahead of every other country in the region except Canada and the USA), our quality of life is nowhere near so illustrious. We live in a high-crime society where many of our fellow-citizens feel displaced and unimportant, and consider that they have nothing to lose by responding violently to minor actions. We pay too much for basic necessities, our cities are congested (while Freeport may be an exception, Marsh Harbourâ€™s traffic is growing, and George Town is laid out in such a way that its increased population has already placed challenges on the settlement that have yet to be resolved), we have no sensible means of dealing with waste, our environment is both beautiful but ecologically fragile, and our cultural identity is insecure.While unchecked foreign investment may yield high dividends to the Government in real and imagined financial gains, it does little to address the problems listed above. In fact, it exacerbates every one of them â€” with the possible exception of the traffic problem (which is solved in several cases, such as the West End case, by the application for, and approval of, the building of alternative ports of entry, thereby creating colonial-style enclaves of non-Bahamians in our very midst).And I am not so sure that I believe in half the dreams that are presented, in maps or publications or ads. We live in a global economy, after all, and we must not be carried away by the idea that Bahamian real estate is irresistible in its own right. We are simply an extension of an America land boom, which is rife with speculation and which is selling ideas and concepts, not development. Our desire for quick fixes is likely to end in more disappointment than achievement in the long run.What am I calling for here? A clarification and a firming up of the policy that governs our foreign investments. While it may have been wise a decade ago to invite all and sundry to consider The Bahamas as a good place to do business, we are no longer in a position to have to offer the kinds of concessions that brought the investors back. Foreign investment cannot remain an end in itself. Now that we are on the map, we need to remember what can only be the real purpose of that investment â€” the development, advancement and integrity of the Bahamian nation and its people.
Just recently I had the privilege to spend considerable time visiting Paradise Island. In part, this was because I had several friends and acquaintances in town, and one of the sightseeing must-dos is to show them around Atlantis, as far as possible. In part, it was because of meetings that took place there over an extended period of time.I have to say that I travelled there without much of a second thought. This occurred to the wonder of some of my friends, who asked me whether I needed my passport to go there. I told them I didnâ€™t need anything except to toss one dollar of my money into the till at the tollgate. (Ministry of Tourism officials, I learned, are provided with passes, which probably means that the government puts its money directly into the tollgate. I donâ€™t know where that money goes. Perhaps it goes back to the government, which would defeat the purpose of my putting the dollar in â€“ but never mind that.)There was the fact that in some places in the hotel my husband and I were asked for our room key or fat wads of our cash. As far as that goes, thatâ€™s fair enough; itâ€™s the people hotel after all, and they have the right to charge for certain privileges. What you donâ€™t pay for on the swings youâ€™ll spend on the merry-go-round. No; within the confines of the four hundred walls of Atlantis, thatâ€™s fair enough.I didnâ€™t need a passport. Most of the time I wasnâ€™t going to Atlantis, or to Kerzner land at all. But what interested me was what I saw in the open air. Other people, especially those who worked there, needed a passport of sorts.Before I elaborate, let me explain a little about Paradise Island, which was the site of my recreation when I was a child. I grew up in the east of the island, and after the weather got warm my friends and I spent our free time on Cabbage Beach and wandering around Paradise like bands of bush urchins in our various brownnesses. When I was growing up, P.I. was mostly pine forest and mysterious trails leading off towards beaches and revelation (or, if you like, towards the beach facing Athol Island or towards the Holiday Inn). Now itâ€™s a bustling city-unto-itself.Oh, people live there. Itâ€™s not all Atlantis. There are apartments and luxury homes all along the roads and side roads to the east. Kerzner has not got hold of every acre yet. But what struck me about most of the faces that I saw there, on Kerzner land and off, was this: either they were white, or they were black â€“ and uniformed.I can hear you now. â€œThatâ€™s not unusual,â€ youâ€™re protesting. â€œThey work for people over there, and they have to wear uniforms as part of their work.â€ Or youâ€™re saying, â€œMost service industries require their staff to wear uniforms or identifying clothing.â€ And youâ€™re right, of course. Uniforms are both necessary and helpful; they instil pride in oneâ€™s position, they instil confidence among the clientele, and they may even be aesthetically pleasing overall.Itâ€™s not the fact that people are required to wear uniforms on Paradise Island that piqued my interest enough to write an article about it. I get the concept of uniforms, and I even like it in certain times and places. No; what arrested me was the fact that virtually the only black people I saw loose on Paradise Island â€“ not driving cars, or sitting eating in the Hurricane Hole plaza, or behind the counters in Marina Village â€“ were uniformed. Almost all the other faces were white.I can only presume that thereâ€™s something very comforting about black people in uniform. Uniforms make black faces look as though they fit in. They allow for categorization, and for control; each uniform tells you where this person is supposed to be, and whoâ€™s responsible for this person. All very comforting indeed.And all very odd, to my mind, in a country which gained majority rule without bloodshed, under the leadership of a party who stood for the achievement of equality for all Bahamians, regardless of the colours of their faces. Because the relegating to the black face to its appearance above a uniform smacks to me of a structure of class and race that Majority Rule was supposed to dismantle. It makes me think of slavery, of course; but to make that comparison is too facile and too expected for my main point. What it really suggests to me is that we have moved from an era where black faces were confined to uniforms because they were considered inferior to an era where black faces are confined to uniforms because itâ€™s better for the bottom line.And it seems supremely odd that we appear to have no collective discomfort about this fact. Rather, we seem to be embracing it, welcoming investors who will replicate the â€œsuccessâ€ of Kerzner and Paradise Island, and spreading it all around this archipelago of ours. It seems crucially odd to me that we have had no true discussion of the implications of what I noticed on Paradise Island â€“ implications that suggest that itâ€™s all right for us Bahamians, particularly (but not exclusively) Black Bahamians, to be considered so out of place in our own country that we are expected to be uniformed to move freely around it.And it seems entirely odd that our governments â€“ black, educated, wealthy, and stuffed with people of good conscience â€“ have no problem with the concept at all.Perhaps we are all, fundamentally, prostitutes. If what it takes to provide jobs and â€œdevelopmentâ€ and a better performance on the tourist charts and money and children in private schools, then so be it.But Iâ€™m left very uneasy. History shows very clearly what the love of profit can breed. So I wonder. Is the phenomenon of blacks in uniform all that different from the past we thought that January 10, 1967 was supposed to erase? And by acknowledging the profit inherent in the practice, are we all that very different from the West African coastal businessmen who sold their people to slavers in exchange for guns and rum and cold, hard cash?
I had trouble with the title of this one. I wanted to call this article "On Hegemony". To be truthful, I almost did. What stopped me, though, was the vision that assailed me as my fingers hovered over the keyboard -- the vision of my faithful readers picking up the paper, seeing the title, and throwing it down again unread.So I changed the title. But I still think that "On Hegemony" would be better. The word "hegemony" -- which sounds, by the way, like a cross between "hedge" and "anemone" -- refers to a way of seeing the world that's created by a small group of people who are in power. In the past, people might have called it "brainwashing", but it's far more friendly than that. Very specific and subtle ways of viewing the world are created by any number of means, from the spread of world religions to the sharing of philosophies to the coverage of news by the mass media. Hegemonies masquerade as truth, and they govern the way in which we see our world in ways that are often so subtle we aren't aware of them.In The Bahamas, hegemonies undermine our sovereignty in ways we may not even be aware. Because we are so ignorant of our own history and our social context, we are often governed by realities that are not our own. For instance, many of us seem unable to draw distinctions between the Bahamian experience of race and the American one. It has become commonplace to conflate the two. Especially among young Bahamians, who are far more exposed to American constructions of the world than they are conscious of Bahamian realities, there is a persistent belief that "white Bahamians" are controlling the lives of "black Bahamians". This is a belief that, to my mind, is an extension of an American hegemony or worldview that has very little meaning in our country.Unlike the USA, where there was one society of oppression and exclusion, in The Bahamas there were two separate societies. While it is true that for much of the first half of the twentieth century, there was an unofficial code in Nassau that permitted the existence of whites-only clubs and hotels and restaurants and bars, that code was never written into law.Now the difference may seem minor -- after all, when you can't go somewhere, what does it matter if the reason is a legal prohibition or a lack of welcome from the powerful? But it is fundamental. The passage of laws has the effect of enforcing a worldview in such a way that one has to become a criminal to want to change them. In The Bahamas, the racial debate of the 1950s and 1960s was a question of common sense and morality rather than a question of law.What existed in Nassau were two societies, each equally stratified by class. White Bahamian society was never the unified monolith that we like to imagine. While it is true that the richest Bahamians were White, they accounted for only a handful of White families in the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, some of the rest were so poor that the term "conchy joe" had been invented just for them -- they could afford to eat nothing but the conch they dived from the shore. Black Bahamian society overlapped with White Bahamian society economically. At the top were Black (and "coloured") Bahamians of relative wealth and standing like the Adderleys, the Norths, the Isaacs, the Dupuches, and the Butlers, an upper class of blacks that could share some of the economic and educational privileges of the upper classes of whites, but which could not share their social -- or political -- space. This didn't mean that they were excluded from the House of Assembly, either. The Hon. Paul Adderley, currently Acting Governor-General, is the fourth generation of MPs in the Adderley family. What it meant, though, was that until the 1960s their political power was neutralized by the political and economic bloc that was made up of that small group of White Bahamians known ultimately as the "Bay Street Boys".In this scenario was a third class of people, the "Out Islanders", who were all disadvantaged. If you were a white Out Islander, you would have more of a chance to make it in Nassau than if you were black, but your poverty and lack of connections often made that more difficult than the same kind of advancement would be for the Black Nassauvian upper classes. Race in The Bahamas was not the unifying entrÃ©e to power or oppression that it was in the USA.So for us to imagine today, in the twenty-first century, that "race" in The Bahamas was (or is) in any honest way comparable to "race" in the USA (which shares similarities with the Indian caste system), is a function of a hegemony, or worldview, that is as dangerous as it is invisible. It's dangerous because -- as I've said before -- it erases the differences that come from class, and that transcend many considerations of race.There's something else that we tend to ignore in the acceptance of that hegemony, something with which I'll leave you to think about, because I haven't made any fast conclusions about it yet. It's this: the people who disseminate the Bad-Whitey rhetoric that so many of us grow accustomed to swallowing, largely through channels like BET and Tempo, are white Americans. And they control, ultimately, the kinds of information and images that get broadcast.It's no accident, to my mind, that the debate that takes place about race these days is a pretty simplistic debate. It's a debate that focuses on victimology, and it obscures -- deliberately, I believe -- references to the strength and power and intelligence and dignity of people who are not white. By far most of the music and images played on so-called "black" channels are misogynistic and violent; on the other hand, most of the sit-coms that focus on "black" people are stereotypical in terms of the attitudes and achievements of their members. Tempo profiles the great entertainers, but does not feature so prominently great Caribbean thinkers like Eric Williams and C.L.R. James and Rex Nettleford and Arthur Lewis, or great African leaders like Jomo Kenyatta or Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere. To do so, I believe, would create a worldview in which people of African descent are far more varied and valuable to humankind than the current hegemonies allow.And so we have to be careful whose worldviews we consume. We need to be ready to question them, to analyze their messages, and not to be blinded by the colour of the faces they feature. Because it's just possible that those worldviews, those hegemonies, are the new masters -- and we are the slaves.
It's commonplace for us to believe that we Bahamians do not inhabit a third world country. We might be forgiven for believing so; to be fair, when we judge ourselves by economic indicators alone, as if money is all that matters, we don't qualify.But we would be wrong.Being first, second or third world isn't simply a matter of economic wealth or poverty; it has to do with the way the world distributes its power. It's deeply rooted in history, and the insidious thing about it is that today's world is so designed as to disguise some of the weakest of us as the strongest. It makes no difference, though; rich or poor, we're still part of the third world.Think of it this way. The terms "first", "second" and "third" worlds originate in Europe, which naturally thinks of itself as the origin of everything civilized. (The fact that we still believe this as true should clue us in to our third-worldness.) In colonial times, the world was divided in two, Old and New, and everything on our side of the Atlantic was considered "new". There were gradations of oldness. There were the countries that were old but "uncivilized", like every country in Africa that doesn't have the luxury of touching the Mediterranean; because of its "backwardness" Europe was obliged to take Africa over, teach it How To Behave. There were countries that were ancient but "traditional", who had got lost in their own civilizations and had not learned how to become "modern", like China and India; these too, begged for Europe to go in and teach them How To Progress. And then there were the apparently empty lands of the Americas, whose people were so insignificant to the Europeans that they could be enslaved or murdered to make room for Europe's economic needs.After the Second World War, when it became evident that empires of the sort Europe had been managing for four hundred years were dying, the terminology changed. As the people who lived in backward and traditional lands asserted their desire to progress by setting up nations â€” first India, then Israel, then Ghana and the rest of black Africa, then these islands of the Caribbean â€” words like "old" and "new" no longer made sense. The "Third World" came into being to describe how much further away from true civilization people who lived in coloured countries, who had either severed their links with their original civilizations (as India was forced to do under 150 years of British rule) or who had had their original civilizations atomized by colonization (as was the case in the Americas). It also helped to distinguish the so-called dark races from the light ones, and ensured that no country run by people whose faces grew brown, not red, in the sun could ever gain influence in the world at large.The world we currently inhabit is governed by economic, not political, power these days. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that economic power is political power; the United States' dominance of the world is far more deeply rooted in the fact that American products form the foundation of every nation's political, economic and social stability than the fact that the American army is the only one left standing with any real clout. The latter is nice to think about, but it isn't so; American security is far weaker than it would like to imagine, despite the rigmaroles and hoops that will meet any traveller who passes through US airports these days. But American products, American culture â€” well, now, those are different things. Today's world is built on American innovations, from the telephone to the Microsoft Word programme on which I write this article to the electricity that powers my computer.This world no longer depends on military power and European governors and apparently democratic administrations; rather, it depends on who produces the stuff that makes the world turn and on who buys it. The producers are the first world people. The people who can copy the producers' stuff, who can carve out for themselves a little space where they can be a little independent, inhabit the second world. We, who produce nothing but only consume, are the Third World.And it doesn't matter how much money we have. In fact, the more money, the better; the more we can consume, and the richer we can make the producers. Our wealth or poverty are illusions. As long as we buy stuff we do not, and cannot, make (can any computer software compete with Microsoft?), the world we inhabit comes Third.Don't feel too bad about it. This is how the Caribbean came into being. From the moment Columbus took his stroll on the Guanahani beach, our region has existed to do two things: to fuel the economies of the "first world" with raw materials, and to fill the pockets of their producers by consuming what they produce out of them. Now, as then, nothing much is processed here. Our riches â€” gold, silver, sugar, coffee â€” are mined for export, sent away, and then sent back to us in packages for which we pay the same cash money that we got for them in the first place. It's a cycle that ensures that the profits always end up far away from us. We've exchanged our local slavery for a global one and have not yet discovered that consumption is the true opiate of the people.There's no question, after all, about our world status. We're rich. We produce nothing. We aren't awfully educated. And given the fact that we spend over $7 billion of our own money in South Florida, we are, most definitely, Third World.
There is a village in Jamaica called Martha Brae. It is located today in the heart of the tourist playground of the island's north coast, and if you look its name up on the internet, most of the links that come up will be tourist-related. Most of them will speak of Martha Brae as a river, and will say nothing about the village. Most of them expect tourists to be living in Montego Bay, the nearest city. But as is the wont of the tourist industry, which is in many ways the plantation writ new, very few of them will lead the curious to anything that talks about the people or the culture of Jamaica.We live in a world of unequal wealth and power. We happen to live in a part of that world that balances on the cliff-edge of prosperity. There are few, if any, sovereign Black nations that boast more than The Bahamas does in the way of wealth, comfort, infrastructure and standard of living. Nevertheless, our wealth, our way of life â€” which the vast majority of us take for granted â€” are more precarious than we imagine.The recent study on poverty levels in The Bahamas indicates that 9% of the population lives below the poverty line, which is calculated at $7.84 per day ($2,863 per year). It further reveals that the distribution of the Bahamian poor is uneven; that the poorest Bahamians live on the southern Family Islands, where the poverty rate is 21%. A closer look at the statistics proves interesting. Only 6% of the total population of poor Bahamians lives in the Family Islands; the majority of the poor live in the cities of New Providence and Grand Bahama. Moreover, the gap between the two largest ethnic groups whose people live in poverty is wide; 25% of the Haitian/Haitian-Bahamian population live below the poverty line, compared to 8.7% of Bahamians.Now when compared with the poverty rate of the Latin American and Caribbean region as a whole, which stands well over one-third, we are doing well. That isn't to say that we must be complacent about our poverty rates; the fact that 76% of our poor live in our cities, where our affluent also live, suggests that we have plenty of work to do. But I would also suggest that we consider something else. The study calculates poverty in terms of cash income, and assumes that one needs cash to purchase everything that one needs. Now as far as Nassau and Freeport and perhaps Marsh Harbour go, that is true. But in the case of the southern islands, where the cash poverty rate is the highest, that is not so.You see, people in the Family Islands still fish and farm. Now that may be a foreign idea to those of us who â€” like me â€” make their living by getting into cars or buses and travelling to jobs, the most preferable of which involve sitting in air-conditioned offices making contact with other people by telephone, and spending our cash to eat our breakfasts, lunches and dinners. But foreign as it may be, many Family Islanders still have less need for cash on a daily basis than we do here in New Providence. So while $7.84 a day per person may not buy very much in New Providence, and while it may buy even less on a Family Island, the need to spend that $7.84 is less crucial. As long as Titta is growing her corn and grinding it into grits, as long as Pa is fishing â€” off the rock or on the shoals, doesnâ€™t matter, or Co'n Slim is conching, as long as the whole family is crabbing when it rains, the basics of nutrition are cheaper in cash terms than they are in the cities. Bahamians in the southern islands may be poor, but they don't have to starve.Not yet, anyway.It's important, when looking at statistics and working out what to do about them, to remember that numbers aren't people. Numbers lie there on the page and let you look at them, while people get up each morning, pray to God, and go about their business. Bahamians have been doing that for centuries. It's important to remember that the last sixty years of our history mark the first time that two whole generations of Bahamians have had the ability to live a better life than their parents had. And it's important to remember, and to celebrate, what it was that allowed us to survive back in the days before the tourist dollar never done.It was land.You see, The Bahamas has only become cash-rich since we've discovered the benefits of prostitution. I am not talking about the literal exchange of sexual favours here. For the past sixty years, we've been placing a price tag on land â€” the very thing that saved us from poverty in the past. These days, we're selling everything that we previously considered useless, from the powdery white and pink sand that can't grow anything good to eat, to the arid hills that have no water beneath them, to the marshland that is impossible to farm, to the mangrove stands that are difficult to fish. Our newest policy: to sell off empty land throughout the Family Islands to wealthy northerners for their second homes. The idea is to get chunks of cash for land that isn't being used, and to generate jobs for the locals, thus raising their daily cash income. It's a bit like mining; you go into spaces no one would ever go to dig out the gold, and get rich quickly in the process.It's a good idea, especially for politicians, who work in five-year increments and rarely calculate beyond the nearest election or two. But, like most easy things, it's a bad idea in the long term.You see, the village of Martha Brae is a very special place, because it is a plot of land that Jamaicans who were formerly slaves bought for themselves. They bought it collectively, painfully, over a period of years; but it means everything to them because there after slavery was no good land left for the ex-slaves to live on. The best land on the island was owned by people who lived far, far away. Martha Brae was an affirmation of independence, a celebration of freedom and sovereignty, and poor as the inhabitants are, they have the dignity of their history, and they have their pride.We, who are still land-rich, must be careful in our quest for quick cash. Our zeal to eradicate the poverty rate in the Family Islands must not lead us to make the mistake of thinking that cash is the only way of measuring wealth. We must always remember the fundamental truth of all ex-slave societies: that prosperity built on servitude is not prosperity at all.
There's a song out there that those of us who were around on July 10, 1973 could once be heard singing. My favourite part of it goes like this:We been standing up to a different flag, Union Jack in the skyBut we ga have our own flag come the 10th of JulyThe chorus is less subtle. "Independence," it sings,Independence for the Bahamas,Independence, people, come sing a new song.Well, that was then, wasn't it? And this is now. We are singing a different song, all right, but I'm not so sure that it's all that new. And we're certainly standing up to a different flag, but it's still red, white and blue.You see, colonialism isn't simply a matter of governors and who gets to vote and prime ministers and having representation at the United Nations. All of those things are important, but in the end they're trappings. They do for a nation what jewellery does for a woman; they adorn, they define, but they can't really make her into anything if there's nothing there. A woman of substance, is accentuated by those trappings; but a jungless is nothing but the bling.I want to write about colonialism, because it seems to me we're more colonized than we ever were before. Last week I talked about Thanksgiving, which is only one manifestation of that. This week I want to give you a couple of other things to think about.For instance.There's the story of the witness in a criminal trial who, when called to testify, chose to plead the Fifth in his defence.There's the story of the man who, when stopped by American Immigration at the airport and asked for his passport, asked, "What I need a passport for? I only going to Miami!"What's so peculiar about these two incidents?They're all elements of American law, of the American culture, that are not part of our legal system. That is not to say that our legal system is inferior â€” not at all. But it is different. Our Constitution has never been amended, and so to plead the Fifth (which offers Americans the right to avoid self-incrimination) is irrelevant here in The Bahamas â€” just as we most definitely need passports to go to Miami. The freedoms guaranteed our press are not absolute; we have laws about what can and can't be printed. In Canada and Britain, their presses are enjoined not to print any material that can lead people to hate; here in The Bahamas, we have prohibitions about obscenity. But far too many of us assume that there is no difference between our rights and those accorded to Americans.The fact that we have trouble distinguishing where the border falls between our nation and the American nation tells me that we have not got rid of our colonial past. No; we have brought it with us into the present, and we have simply exchanged one garment for another.Now some of you may be thinking what's wrong with putting on the American cloak. After all, the USA is the most powerful, the richest, the greatest country in the world, right? (Well, no, not necessarily; it might be the most powerful country, but it isn't the richest, and it could be argued that the fact that Bahamians have better access to basic health care than Americans should suggest that there are limitations to the United States' greatness.) But that's not my point.My point is that we are not American. Certainly, we are brothers under the skin; we are far closer to the States, and to the Southern States, than our Caribbean counterparts, because most of our ancestors came from there. But our paths and theirs were different. In our country, the slaves and their descendants ended up in the majority; in the USA, people of African descent make up about twelve per cent of the population. In our country, emancipation came in 1834; in the USA they had to wait until 1865, and fought a bloody war to achieve it. In our country, people of colour could vote (as long as certain conditions were met) from before Emancipation occurred; in the USA, those rights were abandoned and had to be fought for, complete with martyrs, during the 1950s and 1960s.And what we don't recognize, or perhaps don't know, is that the American Civil Rights movement drew its strength and inspiration from us. So why should we be prepared, now, to surrender our sovereignty to American culture?Colonialism, you see, doesn't come in just one form. It can be social and political, as it was when the British were in charge; or it can be economic and cultural, as it is today. The latter is more subtle. The Americans don't have to be here physically for us to be colonized. Their television, their products, their food, their outlets, their computer programmes â€” all of these are making us American from the inside out.The problem isn't theirs at all; it's ours. We have retained the habits of colonialism. We like having someone bigger and stronger and wealthier to tell us what to do, and we seem to find comfort in the fact that we aren't as good as They are. We got rid of one colonial master, only to invite in another.I'm reminded of a comment Jesus made, about the unclean spirit that, having been cast out of a man, wanders around until it decides to return to the place from which it came, bringing seven other spirits more evil than itself.It would do us well to remember that. In the words of Our Lord, if you get rid of the spirit, but keep the same mind, the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me: "If you aim for a star, you might hit a tree." Being a rather literal-minded child, I used to imagine myself in a gigantic catapult, aiming at Polaris, and crashing into the dilly tree in our back yard on the way.The point is you need to dream big dreams to accomplish even a little bit of them. The bigger your dreams, the higher your goals, the further you are going to go. But if you begin with small goals, you will go nowhere at all."If you aim for the tree," she'd tell me, "you'll probably hit the ground."
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