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Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents

On Bahamian Brain Drain

Brain drain has been defined as “a large emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge, normally due to conflict, lack of opportunity, political instability, or health risks.” The first example Nicolette cites of the creative version of this phenomenon is none other than Sidney Poitier, who over sixty years ago left the Bahamas and went on to become the biggest black movie star in the world. He is a surely a dramatic example, but he is not a good example.

According to Mr. Poitier’s own spiritual autobiography, “The Measure of A Man,” he was encouraged to leave the restrictive environment of Nassau to prevent his fall into delinquency. He was not some frustrated Bahamian actor who could not get a break on the local scene, he had never even acted before his arrival in the United States and it is doubtful that he would have ever acted had he remained in Nassau. While Mr. Poitier has credited his island upbringing for much of his success, it is equally true that had he not left the Bahamas he probably would not have had any. Mr. Poitier had no technical skills or knowledge when he left this country and gained all of his expertise abroad and, most important, his acquired knowledge was as good as useless to him here. This was clearly not a case of brain drain.1

While the Bahamas has produced writers like Helen Klonaris, artists like Janine Antoni and musicians such as Roachie (Boom Pineapple Wine) Goff who have all decided to live away from the Bahamas, the fact that we do not have much in the way of a well-known creative diaspora undercuts the argument for an artistic brain drain. And, as we try to quantify the impact of creative brain drain on the country, we should not include those, like Poitier, who are specialists in fields in which the country is ill-equipped to compete, like film, fashion or even theatre. Despite these caveats, it still appears that the majority of our writers (all of whom are, at best, marginal by international standards) are here; many of our visual artists (who fare much better internationally) are also here and are able to make a decent living; many of our best known musicians are here and our actors are, for the most part, content to remain amateurs. With more analysis it may very well be proved that the country is already able to retain a large proportion of its creative population, and this without even the most basic support mechanisms. Unless the goal is to ensure all artists never leave the country, we are probably doing much better than we should.

Of course, we also have to assume that creative brain drain is even possible. I seriously doubt that it is — an artist is not the same thing as an engineer. Take the Trinidadian born V. S. Naipaul as an example. What has Trinidad really lost by Naipaul’s exile in England? Despite the fact that Naipaul chose to accept his 2001 Nobel prize in literature as a British writer, and that he wrote most of his prose as a form of protest against the island of his birth, Trinidadians still claim his Nobel as their own and all of his novels, i.e. his cultural productions, are as available to Trinidadians as they are to the British public. Where is the brain drain in this?

In fact, it can easily be argued that the prevalence of Bahamian artists to stay at home has prevented them from actually getting down to their cultural work. In other words, if Bahamians stayed away from the country more we might have better art to show for it. Ironically, this is a point that Nicolette herself has argued in one of her newspaper columns entitled “On the Attractiveness of Exile.”

  1. It should be noted that Poitier assisted the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) to achieve their January 10th, 1967 election victory, and was developing closer ties with his home land in the late 60s and early 70s. This commitment was demonstrated when he built a large winter home in Nassau. However Poitier subsequently sold this home and left the Bahamas in the late 1970s, thoroughly disgusted, among other things, by the PLP’s attitude towards cultural development. This second departure can appropriately be described as ‘Brain Drain.’ []

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5 comments ↓

#1 Day of Absence 2010: Introduction on 12.31.09 at 9:46 pm

[...] it’s generating some pretty solid critique. Over on Mental Slavery and on Bahama Pundit, Ward Minnis has taken apart the idea pretty thoroughly. In a nutshell the core of the critique is that (a) the concept is ill-founded and muddled, and the [...]

#2 Day of Absence 2010: First Response – Clarity on 01.02.10 at 11:25 am

[...] critique(s) offered by Ward Minnis about the Day of Absence concept on his blog, Mental Slavery, and on Bahama Pundit, are both comprehensive and impressive. And he’s right, in several [...]

#3 Day of Absence – Second Response: Quality on 01.02.10 at 6:26 pm

[...] by Nicolette Bethel on January 2, 2010 … are all Bahamian artists worthy of respect? The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals? … Allow me to suggest that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians, on the whole, have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art. The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good. Ward Minnis, “Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents”, p. 2 [...]

#4 Day of Absence ‘10: 11 February 2010 on 02.06.10 at 5:32 pm

[...] The critique interrogates that very idea of respect. Articulated by Ward Minnis just in time for the new year, it questions the call to respect artists, particularly in The Bahamas, when artists themselves appear not to respect their craft as they should. It also questions the idea of absence, suggesting that good art, conscious art, art that challenges rather than anaesthetizes is already absent enough in our nation, and calling for a Day of Presence. And it queries the political resonance of the title of the day, resisting the parallel with the place of African-Americans in the pre-civil rights era. Here’s just a taste of it (but to fully comprehend it, you must go and read the whole thing on his blog Mental Slavery): [...]

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