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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.

Obama commentary round-up.

A few weeks have passed since the historic US election on November 4th and the dust is still settling. Derek Walcott wrote a poem, Alice Walker wrote a letter and everybody in between is wondering what this election actually means.

I thought I would share with you some of the best commentary on the election and the impending Presidency that I had read around the net.

This article / interview from CNN is quite interesting. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a one-time script analyst on the Cosby show, looks at the impact of Obama as a symbol for young black children:

We’re going to have a generation of children — if he’s in there for eight years — being born in 2009, looking at television and images, hearing before they can talk, absorbing it in their brain and being wired to see the visual images of a black man being president of the United States and understanding very early that that’s the highest position in the United States.
– Dr. Alvin Poussaint

This comes in video form from my new BFF’s at the Real News Network. It’s a commentary by Pepe Escobar entitled “The shock of new: the popular president-elect meets the all-time unpopular president at the White House.”

When Barack stepped inside the Oval Office for the first time, he had to be thinking, “How on earth am I going to undo this legacy?”—crimes against the Constitution, crimes against human rights, crimes against US and international law, war crimes, shock and awe, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, extraordinary rendition, torture, Arabs as terrorists, the separation of powers thrown down the toilet, a US police and surveillance state, a monster financial crisis caused by excessive deregulation.

Quite so.

Again from the Real News Network a video interview of 2008 Presidential candidate Ralph Nader speaking on an Obama presidency. They filmed this as the results of November 4th were coming in. A tad ironic, but as always Nader is spot on with his analysis:

NADER: That’s the first tip that you get: you see who he surrounds himself with.

The interview is in three parts, so collect them all!

Using the Nader quote as a segue, I’ll move onto this piece from Democracy Now. Please watch this lively debate between Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now correspondent and David Corn from Mother Jones Magazine. They called the melee “Agents of Change or Hawks, Clintonites and Neocons? A Discussion about Barack Obama’s Advisers and Transition Team

Exhibit A: Yes there is Change.

So, while, you know, we can argue and scream—and I’m not a fan of the possible Hillary Clinton appointment to the State Department—you know, the transition team does include people who are genuine policy advocates, who, if they get a chance to have any authority, could indeed be agents of change. – David Corn

Exhibit B: Um. Look again.

I think, you know, you have Obama, the orator, and you have Obama’s rhetoric. And then you have what I think is more important, which is who is he surrounding himself with and what are his actual foreign policies.
– Jeremy Scahill

Very interesting stuff.

We will know soon enough what an Obama Presidency will bring, but in the meantime, I agree with Scahill and Nader that the best way to see the future is to examine closely the pasts of the people Obama puts in key positions of authority.

Scahill has more detail in his article here. And David Corn’s view from the other side of the fence is here.

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Race and Gender in US Presidential Politics

Democracy Now! | Race and Gender in Presidential Politics: A Debate Between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: And so, to pretend that we can somehow take [race and gender] out of the conversation when a white woman runs against a black man, when she tears up at being sort of beat up by him, when her husband can come in and rally around her and suggest that we need to sort of support her because she’s having difficulties, while Barack Obama is getting death threats, basically lynching threats on him and his family…

I’ve been meaning to put this up for a while. It’s still an excellent debate with some good points to ponder… Is there still a race now anyway?

Pimping Black History Month

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Pimping Black History Month

Was led to this link and just had to share it. Now that I think about it haven’t seen much about Black history at all so far up north…

Racist graffiti at York University

CityNews: York University Students March After Racist Graffiti Attack:

Hundreds of angry students at York University gave their president the boot from a meeting to talk about racist graffiti found on school grounds.

The “N” word, along with “Go Back To Africa”, were scrawled on the door of the Black Student’s Alliance (BSA) on Tuesday.

Even more upsetting for the students was the University’s lack of response. E-mails and calls to York Administration went unanswered, and when the school’s president showed up to the rally, he was asked to leave.

And this at my alma mater. sigh. The conversations written on the washroom walls and cubicles around York has been dredging this territory for a few years now, so I’m not surprised. (Yes, I do read that stuff) However, for someone to write it on the Black Student Association’s (BSA) front door after Martin Luther King day is, as they say, taking it to a whole ‘nother level.

However, the BSA’s decision to shut out Mr. Mamdouh Shoukri, the new university president, from their awareness event seems shortsighted. First, it wasn’t him who put up the racist graffiti. Second, the man was born in Egypt. Last I heard, that was still in Africa; so the graffiti is as much against him as it is to any of the students in the BSA. Third, the time between the incident and his response was a reasonable 24 hours. Yes, it is a very short response, but the “its too late” rhetoric is way too melodramatic and OTT. Reparations are also ‘too late’, but we’d still take ’em; why not this little olive branch? And fourth, if they were as interested in getting his response as they claim, they would have let him talk at the event. Seems like a lot of unnecessary grandstanding going on. Maybe they thought that he was trying to steal some of their thunder and the publicity that they drummed up. Fair enough. But haven’t we come far enough to be just a little open-minded? Hear another side, maybe?

What I’m really curious about is a counter-factual. Imagine if the female and white Lorna Marsden, – outgoing York president – was still in office, what would the official York reaction have been? Would she have gotten the statement out sooner than Mr. Shoukri? Would she have even attempted to walk into that gathering? On both counts I’m pretty sure the answer would be NO. And would the BSA members have been so strident in their disrespect had it been her instead of Mr. Shoukri? Again, I think not. Why? I’ll let you think about that one and tell me what you come up with…

But BSA histrionics aside and back to the main point: Anti-Black Racism is still here in the 21st Century. Even in multi-cultural Canada. Shock of shocks.

Debate on Barack Obama.

Democracy Now! | Barack Obama and the African American Community: A Debate with Michael Eric Dyson and Glen Ford:

The above link will take you to an excellent debate on DemocracyNOW concerning the impact of Barack Obama and the implications of an Obama presidency on black people.

I especially like this quote from Glen Ford:

We’re in this era of firsts, and the ultimate first, a first—possibly a first black president. But we already had two firsts. Colin Powell was one of them, and Condoleezza Rice, his successor as secretary of state [was another]. How did that redound to the benefit of black people for the United States to have a black – put a black face on imperialism, on aggressive war, on violations of international law? How does that make black people look better in the world? Is that the kind of burden that black people want to carry around?

Again, a problem is that Obama, through no fault of his own, has to carry a burden for ‘black people’. And this is whether he wants to or not. Just ask Tiger Woods for his opinion on this. I believe that Obama does deploy his blackness strategically, and so the criticisms are warranted. But as Ford points out, a black-face (I mean this in both senses of the term) on imperialism is not something to hope for.

On the Victory of Barack Obama in Iowa

Visual diversity means little.

The white man has convinced us, and some of their own no doubt, that they are a homogenous group. Believe me, if black people did not exist in the world, white people would get on with the far more important work of killing other white people. However, since we do exist and enter their space, we suffice as target practice.

You could have a perfectly mixed and ‘diversified’ sample, and have no actual diversity. Or put another way, a room full of white people can be incredibly diverse. In that room you may have some Jewish people, some from Russia, an Irish descendant from New York, English nobility and members of the Canadian working class and they would in all likelihood, disagree on everything. The myth of racial solidarity is exactly that: A Myth. It was created out of necessity in and around the Caribbean sugar plantations, and has persisted until today. I say this in the hope that Black people will stop talking about “white people” as if they were some monolithic political party, but also in the hope that I can remember to stop talking about “black people”.

If there were no white people in the world, Blackness would not matter, and we would then get to the more important work of remembering why we hate each other. Similarity of color means nothing. Two black people may have nothing to talk about and nothing else in common. The sooner this truth hits us, the sooner we can move on to more profitable stereotyping.

The smokescreen of visual diversity and the political cushion it provides should not be underestimated. People generally assume that color of skin comes along with an ideology. To be Black is to be liberal, and if one lives in the US, a democrat. Black people have rhythm, are athletic and listen to rap music. Right. We also assume that because a certain government administration has x amount of Blacks in high positions, x amount of Latinos, z amount of “non-white” people, it is diverse. You can hire as much of these people as you want and engineer complete visual diversity with every shade of skin under the sun and it could, I emphasize could, mean nothing. All of these visually diverse people who look nothing alike may be intellectual clones.

What does “multi-cultural” even mean? Again, a room full of white people can be multi-cultural. But multi-culturalism is the hot word of the day. The buzz word. Another useless plaything of a word that goes down smooth but has no nutritional value. It’s a politically-correct junk-food tortilla-chip of a word. Multi-culturalism, as far as I can see, only means visual diversity, which is only a useful gauge of telling how many black people are in a room, and as I am arguing, this doesn’t mean much.

I am not saying that we should throw away the quotas and the affirmative action policies; most bureaucrats in their more lucid moments will say that these programs encourage diversity, and perhaps they do. Since we live in a visual society and crave visual stimulation, I guess we will have to settle for visual diversity. Just don’t be surprised when everyone says the same things.

I offer you these observations only because they have occurred to me, not because I offer an alternative or even a point. Do you expect me to come up with everything? I am only a writer. I have no credentials other than what you have just read. If I had a PhD would it matter? Or would it take you that much longer to realize that I am full of shit?

If I have a point, it is this: there are forces that exist out there, forces that are shaping our minds, our opinions, our outlook, and the majority – regardless of color – are plugging in and zoning out. To be awake and alert takes effort, RADICAL effort. We need to forget what people say, forget what color they are and watch and remember what they do. The important thing is the degree of correlation between words and deeds. This process takes a lot longer. It takes a lot more work. Your mileage may vary. But maybe, just maybe, you will go a day longer without being duped.

Another one is born every day and I’d hate for it to be you.

You have the Power


Been noticing these ads recently. David Suzuki, one of the greatest Canadians, levitating fluorescent light bulbs. Intoning the sage words: “You have the Power”! Indeed. In the TV ad he appears on “Bob’s” doorstep just stopping by to change his porch light.

Mr. Miyagi

I can’t help it, but I don’t see David Suzuki in these ads, I see Mr. Miyagi.

(This isn’t, at least I believe, because I see all older asian people as looking alike either)

Remember Mr. Miyagi? The guy from the Karate Kid? Mr. “Wax on, Wax off, Daniel San”? Suzuki has become the wise and enlightened side kick just like Mr. Miyagi. It’s the famous minority as sidekick role, we get to help the white folk get smarter and then they go on to make the really BIG difference in the world. Try to picture Al Gore, and his inconvenient truth, levitating that light bulb… can’t do it? Yeah. Al’s going to make real change…

This leads me to think of Morgan Freeman, who has gotten quite the kick out of playing GOD in the recent “Almighty” series of comedies. While it’s nice to see a black man as God, somehow I don’t really see the role as all that different from his wise black sidekick role that he has perfected in movies like “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Million Dollar Baby” etc. In Western society, God is pretty much that wise sidekick, doling out the needed advice. He stays in his little box, gets out of the way, and lets the white man shine.

Bruce Almighty
Morgan Freeman / God the sidekick

Hence I don’t see this black Hollywood God as anything to really cheer about. Same ole. Same ole. I don’t know if this line of thought portends worse news for those who believe in God, or for minorities and the fight for equality… Hmm… Maybe it just means that David Suzuki will play God in the next “Almighty” picture…