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Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents

The Bethel Hypothesis

Our cultural development didn’t take place during his tenure because our country respected culture. It took place because our leaders respected him. (Italics hers)
Nicolette Bethel

The theory that lies at the heart of the Day of Absence argues that cultural development in the Bahamas, at least in the 70s and early 80s, is directly correlated to the policies of the Bahamian government. In other words, if the government gets involved in the arts, it flourishes, if not, it dies. The theory goes quite a bit further, however, by suggesting that Bahamian cultural development was mainly a product of the influence that a single person, her father, the former Director of Culture, the late E. Clement Bethel, had on government policy. In Nicolette’s opinion, her father was one of those few people who are “irreplaceable,” and when he died unexpectedly in 1987 the flourishing of the Bahamian arts stopped and the country began turning into the cultural wasteland that it is today. Simply put, culture is related to the government, and the government only did its job because Mr. Bethel was Director of Culture. Nicolette contends that her father’s presence was the “reason and none other … that culture flourished to the extent that it did.” She concedes (jokingly?) that independence in 1973 might have played a factor in this flourishing, but ultimately seems to see this event as being of lesser importance.

Is it true that Bahamian cultural development only takes place because of Bahamian leaders? Did Exuma the Obeah Man sing, did Brent Malone paint or did Jeanne Thompson write because of the policies of the Bahamian government? And did any of the artists of the period do what they did, directly or indirectly, because of E. Clement Bethel? Is he the only reason that cultural development occurred in the Bahamas in the 1970s and 80s as Nicolette asserts? These are very serious claims. If they are true, they would support her choice of the date for the Day of Absence, February 11th, which is of course, her father’s birthday. If he really is the father of modern Bahamian culture, as is suggested, then it is only fitting that a day to mark the importance of Bahamian arts should also be a day to honor him. If Dr. Bethel’s aspiration is realized, that her Day will be adopted by other artist communities around the world, then the Day of Absence, which is also at heart an “E. Clement Bethel Day,” will become an international event.

Mr. Bethel was by all accounts a notable Bahamian writer, musician, scholar, and civil servant, best known for his masters dissertation on Bahamian ethnomusicology and the folk opera Sammy Swain. As the founder of the Cultural Affairs Division he has been described as “the country’s first and most eminent director of culture.” He made invaluable contributions to Bahamian music and theatre, so much so that the National Arts Festival is named in his honor. The website of the Bahamas government says that

his contribution to the cultural development in the Bahamas was recognized by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce which presented him with a Distinguished Citizen’s Award for the Performing Arts and Culture in 1979. In 1983, he received a Ministry of Tourism Achievement Award.

Without fear of contradiction we can say that Mr. Bethel was a great Bahamian. He was one of the many important actors involved in the cultural flowering of that era and he made a strong mark on our culture and should be remembered as such.

However, the claims that the Day of Absence manifesto makes for his importance in Bahamian cultural history are nothing short of outrageous. This is not an attempt to disparage his many achievements, but it is difficult to convince me that I should attribute this country’s entire cultural output to him. Why should I have to place his contribution to my heritage above that of Pat Rahming, Ronnie Butler, Gail Saunders, Vola Francis, Max Taylor, Eddie Minnis or Winston Saunders (to name only a few)? I asked a number of Bahamian artists who were active during the 70s and early 80s, whether or not this type of adulation is justified and I could not find another person who would go even half as far as Nicolette has.

It is hard to believe that any branch of the Bahamian government, let alone a single individual, stuck as she herself admits, in a department that does not even have the authority to spend its own money, in a position that has no authority to do anything but recommend, is solely responsible for what happened in the 70s and early 80s. I would even argue that the government agency most responsible for that era’s cultural flowerings was the Ministry of Tourism. Bahamas Goombay Summer and The Fergusons of Farm Road are two good examples of the way they stumbled on ideas that became popular with the Bahamian people. The point is that successive Bahamian governments have had practically zero interest in cultural development, and I remain unconvinced that any branch of government at any time, even during our so-called cultural golden age, is ultimately responsible for my heritage. The burden is on her to prove her claims.

While I am open to the remote possibility that Nicolette may one day convince me that her father had the impact on Bahamian culture that she claims he had, it remains a point of deep contention. Since I am also engaged in a project to recover my family’s cultural legacy, I understand the impulse. However, slipping in a day to honor one’s father, through the back door as it were, only mires the Day of Absence in nepotistic quicksand. I truly wonder how many calls of support would have sounded forth from the arts community had an “E. Clement Bethel Day” been proposed instead of a Day of Absence. The version of history that Nicolette is peddling is severely flawed, and the cultural theft that the seemingly innocuous selection of the date implies is an unnecessary burden that only serves to distract from what I imagine are her greater goals.

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#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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