The need for a story in a society like ours is beyond compare. History has often silenced the voices of colonized and non-white people, yet we often refer to history to find ourselves and find silence or the single story of us as being inhuman, dangerous and servile. Official history silences most of those who do not write it, and this would have been a serious problem in the early days of Caribbean development, and even today, as forces of neoliberalism and post-truth, post-racial realities that threaten further silencing.
The Bahamas needs to speak for itself. Bahamians need to have stories that go beyond the showcase of a history of a destination that paints us as smiling black people, on the one hand, and threatening criminals on the other. Our stories, which speak of our history are deeper, more complicated and nuanced versions of our lives. Single stories and monolithic narratives blot all of these particularities out with its insistence on cultureless and uneducated incivility.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her acclaimed speech as part of the TED Talks series from 2009 called the “The danger of a single story,” and as David Brooks states in The New York Times, “Her point was that each life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/opinion/the-danger-of-a-single-story.html).
I use this here to highlight a problem that frequently arises in The Bahamas when culture is discussed in some arenas. Firstly, the basic assumption is that Junkanoo is all the culture Bahamians have, and that we are sorely and sadly lacking in culture. In fact, a most recent incident occurred on a radio show on Guardian Radio on Friday, 17th November, 2017 during which the host, Carlton Smith, started talking about our need to improve the culture for tourists. This is the single Bahamian story: tourism is culture and everything must revolve around culture.
If we want to ‘do’ culture, we should ensure that tourists and tourism benefit from it, the reason for ‘doing’ culture is tourism. This is a dangerous single story. The bottom line of that understanding is that we cease to exist without tourism and nothing matters if not done for tourism. The understanding is that we do not matter. The culture that we live in does not matter because it does not entertain tourists. Smith was celebrating an initiative to market Bahamian music beyond the shores of our archipelago; he mentioned how Bahamian music was famous once upon a time and it brought in tourists. However, when desegregation happened things changed, and the Over-the-Hill nightlife quickly disappeared. Music became a canned experience and performers were invited into hotel lobbies and lounges. The death knell was sounded for some aspects of Bahamian cultural expression.
When Smith noted that this effort would return The Bahamas to a more positive tourist experience, by having music and the performing arts offering tourists something to do, perhaps his intention was not to intimate that Bahamians were not included our narrative. However, he used the same old dangerous single story that all that we are, do, and say must be for tourism. Never mind the events built around events like Shakespeare in Paradise, the Bahamas International Film Festival, Island House film festival, International Cultural Festival, and so many other things; these apparently do not count as offering culture.
This kind of thinking is not new nor is it unique. It suggests that we simply exist for the pleasure of the Euro-American Gaze, that we also forget auto-ethnicity, auto-expression and local production that could be on a global market. To hell with Over-the-Hill, Kemp Road, Lillie of the Valley Corner and Dead Flea Alley, these spots are not for tourism and so can produce nothing or should not be held up as shining examples of Bahamianness. It would seem that Smith simply got carried away and did not mean to dismiss Bahamian culture, reducing it to tourism performances of the yellow bird, as Derek Walcott laments in “The Antilles”.
In “The Art of Death,” Edwidge Danticat does not allow a single dangerous story to control her nor does she allow a single way of mourning, as sometimes experienced by many who dictated how the author should be as she mourned the loss of her mother. In everyday life why do we allow one single and dangerous story that says we exist for the pleasure of a visitor to determine why and how we be? We remain homogenized by hegemony built in the 18th century, legitimized through the 19th century, all the while being fine-tuned, and updated in the 20th century to deal with those postcolonial upstarts, whose culture was developing. Neoliberalism and neocolonialism are not exclusively Euro-American constructs imposed from outside. There is also an imperious factor who laments the loss of the way things used to be, including the order maintained through segregation and strict slave and black codes.
Where does autonomous culture fit?
The dangerous single story, as Adichie notes, means that we must all look alike, sound alike, be the same. Hegemony and a hegemonic culture of subjectivity are dangerous perhaps because it successfully destroys selves that are not like those we are told we need to emulate. In the 1980s, there was a swift though slow move towards this dangerous single story that sees most black Bahamians as serving in resorts. Our culture must be tailored to their desires, though most visitors are fickle, ever-changing and expect little of the local space they visit.
The Bahamas, a place that sees itself as being without culture, though we live it every day, refuses to observe the words and teachings of Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Derek Walcott, among others. We continue to essentialize our existence back to the basic function of service, serving a tourism lord, that has no love for us. Is it not enough that people continue to view us as living in huts and hanging out on beaches all day long, hardly speaking English, barely civilized? Why do we choose to consolidate this philosophy of otherness in our attitudes towards culture? Why is our understanding of culture reduced to songs and dances and other forms of animations that demonstrate how we mimic the manners of our presumed ‘betters’ like the tourism image depicts and the discourse of tourism continues to deploy?
Bahamian culture is rich, diverse, and deeply nuanced. On many levels, it has been undermined and in some places gutted by colonialism, colonial laws, neocolonialism and neoliberalism, religious fundamentalist fervour all of which silence any voices of survival and resilience that local stories hold. Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, Nicolette Bethel, Telcine Turner-Rolle, Amos Ferguson, Lin Sweeting, Brent Malone, Blue Curry, among many others, tell our stories in ways that may not be palatable to some, but they disavow the dangerous single story and render us real people in a world that wishes to impose our silence and invisibility.