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.