This 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.
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.
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.