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.

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