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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.

Defending the Indefensible

Dick Cheney has been busy. He spoke last Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute just a few moments after Barack Obama had made his wide-ranging policy talk at the National Archives.

Cheney criticized Obama on his National security policy, his desire to close Guantanamo and his reluctance to use the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation progam.”

And to call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness and would make the American people less safe.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney

This is simply breath-taking. How can he seriously defend torture? How can he defend the indefensible? It defies reason.

First to label the Bush administrations techniques, such as waterboarding “enhanced interrogation” implies that they work better than regular interrogation. There is no evidence that they do. In fact they produce lots of bogus information because the person being, yes I’ll say it, tortured, will say anything to make the pain stop. This is very well documented and should not even be up for debate.

Second, many of the inmates at Guantanamo, like most of the people who were thrown into detention in Iraq at places like Abu Ghraib, those who have been labeled as terrorists, have never even been charged with a crime, much less tried and convicted for anything and have limited or no access to legal counsel. So to say that these people are “terrorists and murderers” denies them the whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing. Have you heard of it Mr. Cheney? And to throw that out you also throw out due process, habeas corpus and most of the basis of western law. Yes Mr. Cheney, they are “innocent victims” until you can actually prove that they did something.

Third, how any of this enhanced torture makes Americans more safe is completely beyond me. It most likely does the opposite. A new study by Jim Walsh and Jim Piazza from the University of North Carolina indicates “that governments that abuse rights actually experience more terrorism.”

Cheney’s position perhaps also assumes that torture is the only morally dubious thing that the United States has done recently. Wish it were so.

Then there is Obama. Yes. It is a good thing that he is trying to close down Gitmo. Unfortunately the so-called Democratic congress might not let him meet his year-end deadline. And yes, he has banned enhanced torture. These are good things. But what else did we learn from his speech?

Well we learned that he also supports indefinite detention of some prisoners without trial. Huh?

In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. And so going forward, my Administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.
President Barack Obama.

So, let’s get this straight. There are people there that can’t be tried because of bad evidence (perhaps obtained through torture) or even no evidence but despite the lack of evidence you’re just going to keep ‘em locked up. Forever. Just in case.

And since there is no framework for indefinite incarceration you are going to invent one. And since more people are going to be involved this time around that makes it right?

How can you invent an appropriate legal regime for something that is, by the standard of your own laws, illegal? How can you expect to maintain your laws by finding legal ways to break them?

Simply breath-taking.

But what troubles me most about the double whammy of speeches from what is supposed to be the left and the right is what was not included.

We are confronting some of the most complicated questions that a democracy can face. But I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years. I want to solve these problems, and I want to solve them together as Americans.
President Obama.

I find it amazing that both speakers have such large blind spots. Blind spots big enough to cover the rest of the world. “The policies of the last eight years” includes not only Americans, but also wars in two other countries with Obama opening up a war in a third. “The policies of the last eight years” include wars that were by international law illegal, wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. How can that only be about Americans?

It is the arrogance so plainly on display that is perhaps most indefensible of all.


More at The Real News

Can’t have it both ways. Sorry.

Stephen Marche of the Weekend Post got off on the wrong foot apparently. He’s pissed at Greg Gutfeld’s remarks about Canada on a late night Fox TV show. You can watch the offending video above.

In a nutshell Gutfeld essentially calls the Canadian army “soft” in response to the announcement that the Canuck troops are “at the limit” and need to take a year off “to restore [their] full fighting capability.”

But does Mr. Marche go a bit too far in macho protestations?

Canadians are one of the rudest peoples on Earth. Outsiders simply don’t understand that “sorry” means “go screw yourself.”

Well. I have to really rethink my entire five years in this country now. All this time I felt when someone bumped into me by accident on the bus, and they turned and said “sorry” they actually meant “sorry.” Here it was they were really telling me to “go screw myself.” I’ll have to keep that in mind and wear a nice scowl on my face when I hear it again, cause now I know what they really mean.

Although, the converse to that is also true, cause when I accidentally bump into a Canadian, I will really enjoy saying “sorry” now. Ha ha. Nice to finally figure out the language. Thanks Mr. Marche.

But wait. There’s more.

If you took the Canadians out of American comedy, it would be like taking African-Americans out of the NBA: still the same game but you wouldn’t recognize it and you wouldn’t want to watch it.

There is a lot of lunacy in that statement. Yes, Canadians have produced a lot of great comedians. Jim Carrey, ironically now a US citizen, comes to mind. But he ignores the point that like the NBA, American comedy is also dominated by blacks. What would happen if you took all of the black people out of American comedy Mr. Marche? Would you like to watch that? No Bill Cosby, Sinbad, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Katt Williams et al?

The crowning nut on the fruit cake though has to be the equation of Canadian comics, all of the ones he names are white, to black athletes. Maybe Mr. Marche really has bought into Canadian multiculturalism and is so color blind that he doesn’t see the inappropriateness of his own comparisons.

Even if you put that aside, he’s still off. Yeah, I’ll say it, Canadians are not as important to American comedy as black athletes are to the NBA. Bad analogy.

What amazes me though is how Canada gets its knickers in a collective twist whenever its ‘macho-ness’ is called into question. Look here Canada (and you too Mr. Marche). You can’t have it both ways; you can’t be perceived as the nice guy on the block, Mr. Humanitarian, Mr. International Do-gooder, and be the macho Terminator at the same time. It just doesn’t work like that.

Sorry.

Signs of the Times

Since it is the capital of Canada, Ottawa has a lot of Museums. I have visited none of them. However, their signs do lend themselves to humor once you take them out of context.

With that in mind, enjoy the following:

To Civilization!
Memo from Canada to the third world: This way please.

under construction
Just one catch…

Meh seh War!
Do you think we can we get rid of this one in 2009?

No changes

And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President
Tupac Shakur

They might be ready now.

In a few hours, assuming there isn’t a repeat of the drama of 2000, it should be clear whether or not the United States will elect a black man as President for the first time in its history. Judging from the polls and from all that I have heard it seems likely that Barack Obama will indeed win.

But I’m not here to talk to Americans about their own business. I’m not an American citizen so I can’t even cast a vote. However, as the United States is presently the most powerful and the most wealthy nation on the face of the earth, their election result will have an effect on the rest of the world. This is what I want to discuss.

Michael Parenti, in his book Democracy for the Few, describes the US election process as “the greatest show on Earth.” This time, however, they really have outdone themselves. This show has gone on for years. From the early speculation about who would run for the Democratic nomination to the long battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the last minute wild-card insertion of Sarah Palin, there has been no shortage of drama. However the lesson Parenti wants you to draw from all the political pyrotechnics is that it’s all a diversion.

Did you ever wonder how a country as massive as the United States can only have two parties? That in a country with 305 million people there are only two choices? Well unbeknownst to the majority of Americans, they do have more choices. Have you heard about the Green Party presidential candidate, a black woman named Cynthia McKinney? What about Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr, and Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader? Yes. I’m not making this up, they are all running for President of the United States today along with Obama and McCain. Why haven’t you heard about these people? Simply put, they have been made invisible by design.

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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.

Disney Princesses

Thought I would share this from the March 18th Metro, Ottawa edition. This from the director of the movie Enchanted, which is not a bad flick by the way. The director of the film Kevin Lima is talking about the moment he first met Amy Adams. Listen to this:

She looked like a Disney Princess to begin with — she had the big round eyes, the fair skin, the little perky nose.

Isn’t that just down right white and dandy. If you check it he’s right though. Disney has been making animated films since 1937 and they haven’t ever thought to include a black heroine. Should we count Jasmine from Aladdin? Or did the Anti-Arab sentiment of that movie cancel her out? Hmm.

But wait! There’s a big fuss about Disney’s newest traditionally animated film coming out in 2009. It’s called the Frog Princess and guess what? It includes their very first African-American princess character. It’s set in New Orleans and …

Don’t you already know?

The main villain is a voodoo priest. I really didn’t see that coming.