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My Two Cents on A Day of Absence

I am pleased to present the first ever guest essay on Mental Slavery.com written by prominent Bahamian architect and cultural icon, Jackson Burnside. This is the full text of Jackson’s speech, presented during the Day of Absence debate, held at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas on January 12, 2010.


BY Jackson Burnside III

“I can’t see anything,” he thought. “If I see nothing, that means I’m stupid! Or, worse, incompetent!” If the Prime Minister admitted that he didn’t see anything, he would be discharged from his office.
Hans Christian Anderson

Jackson Burnside IIIFirst I must thank both Nicolette Bethel and Ward Minnis for the opportunity to participate at this level in the ongoing debate about A Day of Absence. For some time now I have been following these two scholars on their blogs, on Facebook, and in e-mail discussing a variety of issues particularly important to the culture, arts and heritage of our country. Ward has been in several places including Canada and Eleuthera, and Nicolette has been at the Ministry of Culture and the College of The Bahamas and Shakespeare in Paradise. What is fascinating today is they could be anywhere and still be here, getting in the business of “Who we are and What we are all about”.

Both of these Artists have managed to draw me, and many others, into their musings on the state of Art and Culture in our Bahamas, and they have managed to maintain a mature level of discussion while throwing the kind of blows intellectually that would have knocked out the toughest head-fellas back in the days of the Cinema on East Street. Now you must understand that all this is happening on the Internet which opens up The Bahamas to expose ourselves to the world, to give and to receive, consciously and subconsciously. We seem helpless to control the volume of the information we are exposed to, and we seem to accept and wait for our opinions of ourselves and our worldview to come to us from those outside to whom we have given the authority to define us.

We did not always have the Internet, obviously. Less than twenty years before Independence in 1973, we thought that television was the limit of technological innovation and we accepted the intelligence came from Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite. Before television we were connected to the radio. Even before electricity was inside the house, we turned on battery charged radios on schedule to listen to the BBC and ZNS to hear the news and special stories.
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Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents

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A Comprehensive Critique of Nicolette Bethel’s 2009 Day of Absence.

 

Out of absence let the new day be born. — Helen Klonaris

The response to Dr. Nicolette Bethel’s Day of Absence held for the first time on February 11, 2009, was nothing short of amazing. I had almost lost faith in the desire of Bahamians to band together for a cause, and yet here they were banding. Nicolette deserves to be commended because she did something — she threw an idea into the void and the response to that idea proves conclusively that we, as an emerging art community, need something like this to rally around.

Nicolette Bethel and I have been friends since she taught me English 120 at the College of the Bahamas in 2001. When I was in Nassau this past January gathering research for my Masters thesis she suggested that we get together and share a coffee. We eventually met at the Starbucks across the road from the College of the Bahamas. At the time I had only briefly heard about her Day of Absence, I had skimmed over the press release cum manifesto and I thought then, much as I do now, that the idea had potential. Over lattes and tea we talked about her upcoming day, the need for art in society, the inescapable nature of design in every aspect of our lives, and the fact that a place like the café in which we sat, was what it was, in large part because of the art.

The warm and fuzzy feelings left me once I read what had been written about the Day of Absence more carefully. The more contemplated the ideas as presented, the more I was bothered by the incongruities in the project. This essay is thus my odd way of congratulating Nicolette on a job well done while taking her to task for ideas that are at best half-baked. Her Day of Absence clouds over and conflates many different and unrelated ideas while advancing an awkward historical agenda and a cumbersome theory of cultural development. It is political and apolitical, about something and about nothing, clear and blurry, all at the same time. I still believe that the Bahamian art community is in need of something like this though, and if we can begin a dialogue on what we really lack, maybe we can eventually get at what it is we really need.

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Coming soon…

Imagine a day with no artists.

On February 11, 2009, the first Day of Absence was observed in the Bahamas with the above tag-line. This event was the brain child of Nicolette Bethel, prominent Bahamian anthropologist, scholar and playwright. With a demonstration at the College of the Bahamas and numerous blog posts, interviews and radio appearances, the Day of Absence captured the imagination of the Bahamian arts community.

On December 31, 2009, Bahamian writer and artist Ward Minnis, (me, a.k.a. mainslave) will release a comprehensive critique of the Day of Absence on this website, and also an abridged version at Bahama Pundit.com. In the essay I question many of assumptions upon which the Day of Absence was based, and while I agree that it filled a need, I argue that it should not continue in its present form.

On January 12, 2010, at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas at 6:30pm, the merits of both the Day of Absence and its critique will be debated between Nicolette Bethel, myself and the Bahamian art community at large.

What is the role of the artist in Bahamian society? What part, if any, should the government play in the arts? Have Bahamian artists been absent from the wider society?

What do you think?

The Bahamian story needs a reality check

COB Alumni Magazine CoverThis is the guest editorial that appears in the Spring / Summer 2009 issue of The College of the Bahamas Alumni Magazine.

Way back in 2003, I presented my views on Bahamian national identity at a wonderful little conference held at The College of The Bahamas. In my presentation I used the metaphor of the “Bahamian-detector” to describe the process we go through to determine what is true true Bahamian and what isn’t. My problem, then and now, is that we are slowly wiping ourselves out of existence.

See, national identities are contrary and complex things. They are imaginary entities that exist in our heads that have tangible real world effects. If I had to define what it is, I would say that national identity is the sum of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In the process of figuring out what tales are to be told, both the teller and the audience are brought into being. Of course, this also means that the stories are constantly changing, that there is eternal conflict over which story should be told and when, and the audience isn’t sure, from one minute to the next, if any of it is meant for them.

The Bahamian national story, and the concept of self embedded within it, has gone through some dramatic rewrites in the last fifty years. Before 1967, the rulers were the minority white population and they defined us as British-not-American and not-West Indian. After 1967 we were told that we were Black-and-British-but-not-American and-not-West-Indian. After independence it turned to Black-and-kinda-British (maybe we’ll just keep ‘em for their awards) not-American and not-West-Indian and sure-as-hell-not-Haitian.

We have had to figure out who we are on the fly while the ground was shifting beneath our feet. All while we felt under siege, first by Buckra, then by Britain. Once we wrote them out of the story, we felt under cultural attack by America and then by immigrants. And we have had to deal with all this while always having a tale or two to give to tourists who were looking for an authentic holiday experience. The end result of all that bombardment is the story we now have; a story that is more about what it isn’t than what is. This, in a nutshell, is the problem.

What’s wrong with the current national story, and the Bahamian that exists within it, is its narrowness. That story’s only Bahamian is charcoal black, male, aggressively heterosexual and he lives over-the-hill. He is a bush medicine expert who talks endlessly about going back to the island while eating scorched conch and fish after church on Sunday. He spends most of his time in the Junkanoo shack and on the walls of his clap-board home you will find post-card paintings of Poincianas…

That story is completely out of touch with reality.

Is there room in the national narrative for a Bahamian who grew up middle-class-affluent in the suburbs? Or can a white Bahamian find themselves represented there as anything other than a tourist? Can Bahamians with Haitian blood even exist in that tale without becoming a cuss word?

The problem here does not lie with those Bahamians who are excluded; the problem is the story itself. We need to see that the conception of self that that story perpetuates is slowly strangling us to death. Bahamians are black, white, gay, straight, Haitian, Jamaican, American, Jungless, upper-lower-middle class and everything else in between. We are not one thing, we are many, many interesting, contradictory, beautiful things. We can’t keep denying parts of ourselves, hating our own face, our own skin, our own lives and expect to go anywhere worth a damn.

In short, it’s high time for a new story.

Looking in the Mirror

Who am I? Bahamians are a sensitive lot when it comes to identity. I am one of the foremost sufferers from this anxiety of being. This comes from my mulatto / mangra / light brown skin.

As it stands the Bahamian identity is constructed as black, ghetto and male. This construction ignores, deliberately I believe, the 20 percent or so of the country that happen to be white. I have inadvertently asked a few white Bahamians “so, where are you from?” It’s polite conversation with a tourist but it’s the surest, most direct way to insult a native.

To be called white in the Bahamas is another way to say that you do not belong. Those who don’t belong are tourists. Visitors. Just passing through. Seaweed. Driftwood. In Nassau the quickest insult is usually to call me “white boy”. Hit a shot on the basketball court and I will hear “buhy! You let white-boy-archah score on you” or something to that effect. They know that I’m not white, but my skin-color places me in a liminal space. I’m not white, but to their minds I’m not black enough.

This color line is tricky. It’s no where near as rigid as the “one drop” rule that governs blackness in the United States. The Bahamian black/white line is a fluid boundary that varies in different islands and even in different settlements / villages on the same island. For example on the same island of Eleuthera, I am read as black in Tarpum Bay and white in Lower Bogue.

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The passing of my Grandmother

It was a nice funeral.

In the Bahamas we have this strange habit, and I don’t know how many other societies do this, where we let the body repose. This basically means that the dead body is made up to go on display and just sits there in the coffin.

This is seriously freaky shit. The coroner basically becomes a taxidermist. Sometimes they make the face look all rubbery and fat and they put on too much make up. In this case, with my grandmother, who died in December, they made her up so that she looked like she was still alive. I swear that I saw her breathe.

Why they do this, I will never know or understand.

The service was interesting. Nice, as they say. This was the first time that I stepped foot inside a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall since I left that religion five years ago. Nothing had changed. Nothing but the paint on the walls and some of the plants lining the driveway, but that same feeling was there.

I felt a lot of eyes on me though. Judging, probing eyes looking for flaws. It’s so awkward now.

Mum had converted to Jehovah’s Witness in her later years, I’m not sure exactly when. Let’s say the last fifteen years or so. At the time, I was one of them too, so it was a happy day when she got baptized.

When I left the church, she never cut me off like the others did. She always said she was praying for me everynight and when I grew my hair and braided it she never liked it, but at least she talked to me.

Somehow she found a way to stay in the JW church and get her cake too. Birthday cake that is. As JW’s aren’t supposed to celebrate birthdays or Easter, or Christmas or just about anything, she was able to keep one foot in the door and the other with her ‘worldly’ family till she died. A real smart woman. I still wonder why she converted. I wonder what her reasons were. Guess I can only speculate now.

Even after all this time, I still don’t know what to feel. Death is a funny thing. To get through a day of this life we build up walls of clichés, throwing around little stock phrases to stand for actual thought, to simulate actual feeling. Death breaks that wall down and leaves you as you really are. Naked, alone and afraid.

I never know what to say at funerals. I never know what to do. All I have is a terminated relationship and a hell of a lot of questions. Could I have done more? The answer is always yes. Did I ever want to?

That one takes a bit longer to answer.