The Absence of Race
In many ways like African-Americans in … 1960s USA (and black Bahamians, and people of African heritage the world over), cultural workers in The Bahamas — artists, musicians, writers, actors, directors, dancers, designers, craftworkers, you name it — are marginalized, disrespected, and taken for granted in our nation. — Nicolette Bethel
The concept for the Day of Absence comes from the play of the same name by Douglas Turner Ward, first performed in 1965. In his play the white people of some Southern town go into convulsions when all of the town’s black population mysteriously disappear for an entire day and they are forced to perform for themselves all of the tasks that blacks would have ordinarily done. In the end they realize, at least a bit, what black people mean to their lives.
The idea of bringing the premise of the play from the stage into the real world began in New York City in 1969 and continues right up to the present. For example, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington has an annual Day of Absence, most recently held on February 7, 2009, when all of the students and faculty of color go off-campus for a day of workshops and fellowship. It is followed about a week later by a Day of Presence that brings blacks and whites together to discuss the experience, thus reuniting their community. The same idea of racial absence fueled the 2004 film “A Day Without a Mexican” by Sergio Arau that extended Turner Ward’s metaphor to another oppressed minority.
For her Day of Absence, Nicolette tells us that, like blacks in the 1960s US South, twenty-first century Bahamian artists are “marginalized, disrespected, and taken for granted.” Let’s take this at face value for a moment. Do you know of any Bahamian restaurants that have artist-only bathrooms? Or when was the last time a Bahamian artist was lynched? Do artists have to sit at the back of the jitney when a non-artist enters? Of course not. Bahamian artists are not prevented from getting work just because they are artists. Yes, they might prefer not to have day jobs, but they are not starving because they are artistically inclined. Just because someone is unable to land their dream job does not mean we have to sound a national emergency. In fact this situation is by no means unique to artists. Statistics show that almost a third of people with a college degree do not end up working in the field for which they were trained. Should we have a Day of Absence for them too?
Turner Ward’s play was written and performed during the height of the civil rights movement and reenactments of its premise usually involve issues of race and class. This is how it should remain. There is no legitimate comparison between the civil rights struggle and the plight of artists in the Bahamas. To take the idea of absence from Turner Ward and deploy it in behalf of Bahamian artists, some of whom are doing quite well thank-you-very-much, in the twenty-first century does his play and the struggle of black people in the United States and in our own country and other oppressed peoples around the world a profound disservice. The suggestion that there is even the slightest correlation between the two is historically inaccurate, and, let’s say it, down-right offensive.
If the Day of Absence continues it should probably stay with its roots and become a protest about class and race relations in the Bahamas. Imagine a Day of Absence for Haitian-Bahamians. Or what if all people in the Bahamas on a work permit stayed home for a day? Now we’re talking about a revolution. Suddenly everything fits and we don’t have to stretch metaphors past their breaking point. Using the concept as it was intended would not only keep us within the context of the play but it would also illuminate the dependence Bahamians have on a real group of marginalized people.