On Amnesia

I sat down to write on 9-11 with the commemoration activities for the World Trade Center bombing going on in the background. From time to time I would look up at the television or pull up a website and be reminded of the magnitude of what happened on September 11, 2001. Three years have passed, and no American — no citizen of the world — is allowed to forget that date.

I couldn’t help but contrast the American commitment to remembering with our own approach to significant dates in our history. We all know the saying unless we know where we have come from we cannot know where we are going, and we have become very good at mouthing it. But putting it into practice is a far different matter.

I say this because we are nearing the end of 2004, a year which has — or should have — particular significance for Bahamians. When we talk about freedom, democracy, liberation, or any other lofty ideal that has basic resonance for post-colonial peoples, the significance of this year is fundamental. Let me explain why.

August 1 marked the 170th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

January 1 was the 200th anniversary of the creation of the state of Haiti, a republic that was founded by slaves who fought, successfully, for their freedom against one of the greatest European empires of the time.

September 29 is the 275th anniversary of unbroken parliamentary democracy in The Bahamas.

Now I ask you.

How many of us, besides the intellectuals and oddballs like myself, have any real awareness of these events?

I’ll wager you this. If I were to walk into any classroom in this country and ask the students there to explain to me the importance of September 11th, I would find no shortage of people who could do so, just as I suspect that the numbers of people who could tell me of the achievements of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or Malcolm X would far exceed the numbers of people who could tell me about Cyril Stevenson or Milo Butler or Arthur D. Hanna.

And I bet if I asked them, or anyone on the street, or regular callers to radio talk shows, or other average Bahamians — why 2004 was a significant year, they would have a similar difficulty. You see, we Bahamians are generally able to speak to the triumphs and challenges of our immediate experience, but when it comes to remembering the triumphs and challenges of the past, we are hard-pressed.

Unlike our American neighbours, who approach the dates that are important to their history with a sense of reverence that subsumes everything else, we in the Bahamas practice a kind of collective amnesia that enables us to move forward at a rapid and bewildering pace, but that erases from our identities the memory of those things that make us who and what we are.

The year 2004, you see, is a year whose significance goes far beyond the glory and devastation of August and September. In addition to the dates I listed above, there are others. For example:

In 1844, the Nassau Guardian was established, which marks 160 years of unbroken press coverage in the Bahamas. The fact that 2003 was the centenary of the establishment of The Tribune has its own significance. For 160 years, Bahamians have had the opportunity of being fed news, of being served by writers who enable us to look at ourselves in all our aspects.

In 1929, Nassau and Andros were struck by a hurricane even stronger and more devastating than Frances. Like Frances, the hurricane of 1929 parked over the capital for days — three days and nights to be exact — but unlike Frances, it was estimated to be a Category 5 hurricane. No building in the capital was unscathed. The impact on the Bahamian economy was far-reaching. The cost of rebuilding Nassau was such that none of the other islands that were affected by the various hurricanes that struck the Bahamas between 1926 and 1932 could adequately be supported. This fact, combined with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, changed the demography of the Bahama Islands forever.

It behooves us to remember these events. 275 years of unbroken parliamentary democracy, 200 years of the struggle against slavery, 170 years of emancipation, 160 years of consistent press coverage, 75 years since the devastation of the capital by the 1929 hurricane — these dates matter. They matter because they form the bedrock of our existence, whether we know it or not, and they matter because they tell us who we Bahamians are: a people born from slavery and colonialism, a people who have faced adversity and who have triumphed without outside help, a people who have plenty to celebrate in our past, our present, our selves.

Next week we will celebrate. We will acknowledge our most recent athletic achievements, and we will use our celebrations to expand our local hurricane relief efforts even further. Let us do both with our whole hearts. But let us also take some time to look behind us, to mark our milestones, to reflect on our past and on our ancestors.

And let us mark this date in our history somehow as well, or else our commitment to amnesia may mean that in five years’ time the events of this year may have faded into the background as well. And to do that will serve none of us well.