My Two Cents on A Day of Absence

I am pleased to present the first ever guest essay on Mental 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.

We have always been fascinated by stories. Before the modern broadcast technologies, stories were in books or were ole-stories in the minds or in the traditions of families and communities. The stories that were repeated were those stories that served a purpose to entertain and to pass down survival skills to the younger generations to adapt to these flat, barren, narrow rocks that we only saw as wasteland. These stories, written, spoken, and performed, formed an important part of our rich heritage.

Before the radio, when the stories came to us on the boat, we made every new story a part of our “ole-story”. We made this “conch salad” or peas soup” with everything from the Bible stories to the Royal Reader to the Oxendale and the Bellas Hess catalogues, (before the Sears and Roebuck catalogue). Families built the fire on the three rocks and roast corn, and told Bookie and Brer Rabbie stories, and speerit stories to scare the children to sleep and teach them how to survive in hazardous environments. Programs and Recitations in church halls and Lodge Halls throughout the land guaranteed that folk lore and traditions were repeated and impressed into the minds and hearts of the communities. Our people travelled and returned, and others visited and stayed, all bringing influences which we added to this mix-right-up concoction we call our Bahamaland.

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