To some, a national identity sounds like a set of clothes handed down from your older siblings or cousins – not very appealing. This is particularly true if we are to assume that a national identity were a timeless ingredient that makes a people. Nonetheless, many of my students keep asking me what defines a true Bahamian. What they do not realise, is that the answer lies within the question. I believe that this question does not have a static answer.
In this attempt at a tailor-made Bahamian identity fitting for the twenty-first century, I am not going to address this issue from the point of view of an immigration officer or the parliamentary registrar. For the purpose of this investigation, I am not interested in your papers, because I believe that there are true Bahamians, whom the Ministry of Immigration and the Passport Office have not yet recognised as such. This is especially true as our citizenship laws are discriminatory on several levels.
Neither do I want to discuss habits and rituals whose meanings have been lost in a shroud of mystery, even mythology to a great many of us. The most prominent example for this is probably our Junkanoo festival, oft touted as the country’s premier cultural expression. While Junkanoo is undoubtedly of the utmost importance in the Bahamian cultural – and social – calendar, I cannot help but get one impression: the more people narrow Bahamian culture down to this one manifestation of it, the less aware these same people are of how far modern Junkanoo is removed from its historical roots, of the many other forms of cultural expression in our society, and of the constant fluidity of culture that is so fundamental to its very being. Rather than trying to define Bahamian national identity by pointing at something that is, we should define it by imagining it as something that could be.
Several attempts have been made at describing a Bahamian national character. Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, for instance, make the following claim in their seminal work on Bahamian history: “The Piracy era in the Bahamas is usually characterized as a picturesque aberration, a sort of negative state out of which – the pirates being expelled and commerce restored by a right royal government – emerged a more positive and progressive, if still impoverished, colony. Rather, it bears examination as a more formative period in the evolution of the Bahamian national character: one in which a tendency toward opportunistic self-reliance reached its most extreme, even a brutal, form but was at the same time lastingly imprinted.” (Craton & Saunders, Islanders in the Stream I, p. 104.) Virgill Henry Storr echoes this sentiment when he claims that “piracy exists as a model and metaphor for business dealings in the Bahamas … in a country whose folklore celebrates getting more than a full days [sic!] pay for less than a full days [sic!] work.” (Storr, “B’ Rabby as a True-True Bahamian,” p. 13.) While I cannot deny that this, to an extent, describes a present Bahamian reality, I also posit that it describes, to an extent, human nature. There is no crookedness gene in the Bahamian genome, rather conditions and opportunities in the Bahamas have long favoured such attitudes. Additionally, the activities hinted at in this piratical interpretation of Bahamian history were only partly carried out by Bahamians themselves, and usually required foreign incentives as well as foreign participation. The genetic link between today’s Bahamian population and the settlers of the early 18th century, too, is not as strong as some may believe. The largest migrations to the Bahamas came much later.
“‘The almost universal refrain‚ fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’ has been rewritten in Bahamian lore; in the Bahamas getting tricked whether it is the first or the fifteenth time is always entirely your fault.” (Storr, p. 8.) What Storr describes as a Bahamian character trait, Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, in her 2012 commencement address at the College of the Bahamas, describes as an ill currently plaguing our society: “We have exchanged compassion, forbearance, love and forgiveness, the sweet food of heaven, for a toxic broth of selfishness, calculated divisiveness, spite and revenge at a time when the precariousness of our liberties demands common cause.” (Glinton-Meicholas, “The Pursuit of Excellence,” p. 4.) However, at the very bottom of this harsh criticism is undeniably an element of hope that it is within us to redefine who we want to be and model ourselves as New Bahamians.
“We are now thirty-nine, and have yet to understand the true meaning of nation and our individual and collective roles in building and sustaining it.” (Glinton-Meicholas, p. 6.) As the second generation of Bahamians born post-independence comes to age, we are more insecure about who we are, because we become more aware of who we are not. A generation of “Founding Fathers,” to whom fewer and fewer Bahamians can still relate, continues to dominate the political sphere, with both serious contenders for the PM spot in 2012 claiming to be Pindling’s rightful heir, and all occupants of Government House from 1973 to this very day being representatives of that era. Milo Butler and H. M. Taylor were born four kings before Queen Elizabeth II, all others were born three kings before her. They have all been socialised and politicised in the colonial era, and most of them are characterised by what I call coloniority, that is a distinct (post-)colonial notion of somehow being British, yet inferior to the Metropolis.
Let us have a brief look at the pre-independence, pre-majority rule generations. Arguably, they were not Bahamians in the sense that I will put forth, but were genuinely colonials, who had internalised a notion of inferior Britishness. They were always striving to become better colonials, but accepting to never be as good as the metropolis. I would then argue that these proto-Bahamians did not have a concept of Bahamian that extended much beyond legal terms. As my colleague Felix Bethel said during a discussion about Bahamian Studies, and I paraphrase: When the British left, they gave us a system of government, but we did not have a nation. In fact, the colonial ritualism was deeply entrenched in this generation and has been passed on in our country to this very day, which is why many Bahamians, in fact, are not very Bahamian at all but allow themselves to be limited by colonial submissiveness.
We can see this in government, and if you would prefer a visual example, I point you towards the costumes worn in our courts on a daily basis mimicking the “mother country.” We can see this in our economy, where we remain proud and docile servants to foreign masters. We can see this in our foreign affairs, where we accept the role of a beggar living off the scraps falling of others’ tables. When Britain called upon the Bahamian colony to fight a war on her behalf, we did. When China calls upon the sovereign Bahamas to vote with them in international bodies, we do.
Many of us then attempt to compensate for this inferiority complex rooted in colonial or neo-colonial servitude through exaggerated but hollow displays of national pride, where the reason for pride is not genuine Bahamian achievement, but merely the word Bahamian as an adjective. This false national pride can also be seen when we defend some of the indefensible wrongs plaguing our country these days, when we believe that criticising our country or our people (that is ourselves) equals treason, because we are too insecure to realise that criticism is the first step towards identifying and then rectifying problems – in other words: progress and improvement.
However, the generational shift that has reached most spheres of Bahamian life, and, albeit in slow motion, is beginning to be noticeable in politics, too, means that most Bahamians do not remember the Union Jack flying over our islands, and have precious little understanding of and tolerance for many of the rituals that characterise Bahamian protocol. Furthermore, there is a growing sentiment that the generation of “Founding Fathers” is holding the country hostage, whose achievements have been scripted to be understood as the final step and completion of the Bahamian journey from slavery and colonialism to freedom. However, history knows no end. Their contributions were important and deserve much of the recognition, but we must not allow the narrative to suggest that, as individuals, these persons were infallible, and that no future deeds could possibly be of similar importance to the Bahamian story. It creates an intimidating atmosphere where people sit back and wait for the next Moses.
Forty years after independence, we are still using the term nation building as a part of our daily vocabulary, even though we are no closer to knowing its true meaning than we were forty years ago. My university [sic!] has been moving from college to university status for a generation now, but is at the same time tasked to drive national development. It is therefore quite apparent that these are unfinished processes, or works in progress. It is along these lines that I shall argue that Bahamian identity is also a work in progress. It has to be redefined, over and over, by every generation of Bahamians.
Identities and communities are often defined by exclusion of the “other.” “Multiple founts of prejudice, self-interest, gender polarization, tribalism and sheer ignorance have fractionalized and distorted the concept of ‘Bahamian’. We would deny the basic rights of their citizenship to men and women whose faiths, sexual orientation, political adherence and ethnic origins differ from ours.” (Glinton-Meicholas, p. 6.) Pointing fingers at excluded others is easier, because it covers up potential weaknesses in the argument of commonality, relying on the stereotypical rather than the authentic; it might even create an illusion of commonality where there is none. Excluding the other gives members of a group the reassuring feeling of somehow being “better.” The other is a convenient scapegoat, too. The twenty-first century Bahamas, however, needs an identity of inclusion, where a person’s individuality does not automatically disqualify them as worthy, valuable and valued members of the nation.
“We must migrate from that penury of mind that sees the world through stereotypical imagery, that ostracizes the unfamiliar, the different. Our strength lies in our diversity. It is urgent that we adopt a more enlightened definition of “Bahamian” and rights that covers all our people, even the incarcerated.” (Glinton-Meicholas, p. 7.) We have excluded persons from being granted the true true stamp of approval for many different reasons, but we have also overcome some of our narrow-mindedness. It has been noted, for instance, that the 2012 elections were the first general elections in The Bahamas, where neither party felt it necessary to discuss the race of their opponents’ candidates and/or supporters at length.
We dropped our national identity to the tailor’s in 1973; it is about time we go back to collect it. Forty years after independence, a true Bahamian is someone who is conscious of the vaguely defined and constantly shifting notion of our nation. A true Bahamian is somebody who is committed to contributing to this nation, its development and its definition. A true Bahamian is someone who understands that asking the right questions is a more valuable contribution than accepting the wrong answers, and that asking the right questions is in fact a contribution in and by itself. A true Bahamian is somebody who understand that the only way forward is to build a society of inclusion, not exclusion, and therefore not only tolerates but appreciates our differences, because they make us stronger.
This true Bahamian is indeed a rare species, but I look at my students, and I see more and more of them asking the right questions. These true Bahamians are on the rise. They come from all walks of life, and what they have in common is a desire to shape the way forward. They are no longer satisfied with the old folks’ old phrases from old times. They want to examine our present for themselves and no longer accept prepackaged “truths” as they explore how we got here. They want to imagine a better Bahamas, and, by building it brick by brick, the are determined to leave write a new chapter in the story of The Bahamas, regardless of their genealogy. A true Bahamian could therefore be – you.