On Zero

We’re all familiar with the idea of the American Dream. Who isn’t? In the musical Miss Saigon, which was written by two Frenchmen about the Vietnamese war, there’s a song that bears that name. And for those of us who live on the periphery of that grand ol’ country to the north, the American Dream pervades almost every cranny of our reality.

You see, the American Dream is part of the myth of the American nation — the idea that a person can go from rags to riches in the grand ol’ USA. And it’s a myth that’s founded on a sort of reality. Examples of successes abound, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump and John H. Johnson. We don’t talk all that much about the failures.

The idea of the American Dream (let’s call it the A.D. from here on in) is a simple one, a strong one. No matter who you are, what you start with, the USA is the Land of Opportunity, the one place in the world where hard work and innovation can move you from nothing to something, can take you from zero to a million in the short space of a lifetime.

What we don’t talk much about is the Bahamian Dream.

Thing is, it exists. More than that, it’s a far more dramatic reality for the majority of Bahamians than the American Dream could ever be. To hook into the American Dream, we Bahamians would have to emigrate, fight for status, and then dive into that fast-flowing stream that is American business life to struggle with all the other hopefuls to try and come out victors. This doesn’t mean that many Bahamians don’t partake in the dream; every day young Bahamians leave this country to go (mostly) to the USA, where they believe the opportunities are greater and the possibilities for living out the A.D. more plentiful.

But look at our Dream this way.

The present black Bahamian upper class is comprised of people who were born into poverty, or of people whose parents were raised with next to nothing in their pockets. For some of them, they have gone from zero to a million in the space of three and a half decades — the precise time it’s been possible for a Bahamian of any complexion, but especially of African heritage — to participate creatively and meaningfully in the economy. We can name our own successes: entrepreneurs like Tiger Finlayson and Franklyn Wilson and Myles Munroe and Neil Ellis spring immediately to mind.

They are not alone. Between 1967 and now, countless Bahamians of eminently humble backgrounds and limited prospects have drastically improved their standard of living. Men and women who, when they were born, could look forward to little more than a basic education in one of the few public schools have become doctors and lawyers and politicians and preachers and stars.

In June of this year, the Pompey Museum downtown reopened for the first time since the fire of Sepember 2001. In commemoration of the 170th anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves in this part of the world, and of the 2nd centenary of the struggle against slavery in general, the first exhibit in that museum featured an actual slave ship that was recovered off the waters of Key West.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to visit the Pompey Museum and see the exhibition of the Henrietta Marie, know that it will close at the end of November. And know, too, that if you miss the opportunity to go, the point of this article is going to be blunted in some small way.

You see, the Bahamian Dream is, to my mind, a far, far greater dream than the American one. It’s not how far we can go that impresses me; it’s how far we have come.

The awful thing about slavery, I believe, isn’t the condition in which a slave finds himself. It’s the fact that there is no self. Slavery is the institution of taking from a human being the most basic thing that make him human: the right to own himself. The physical conditions that complement slavery are to some degree incidental. Many Bahamian slaves lived in conditions that we might imagine that slaves on the American mainland and the rest of the Caribbean should envy. Not all Bahamian slaves lived on plantations. Those who lived in Nassau might not even live with their masters; some were permitted to live in their own quarters Over the Hill, and they might even have their own plots of land that they could use to grow food.

But their lives were not their own. Nor were their spouses, their children, or their labour. Their apparent material security was fragile. If their master died, or fell upon hard times, they could be sold into a completely different situation. There was no security, no room to plan for the future, no real hope, even, to place faith in the present.

The Bahamian Dream is so powerful, to my mind, because as a society, we started not from zero, but from a negative number. To be a society based on slavery, and whose hierarchies perpetuated the inequalities derived from slavery for another 130 years, and to have created from that a society in which we can grow our own millionaires is a dream indeed.

But let me not sound too smug, It’s possible to have a society in which a group of people benefit from a change as fundamental as majority rule, but in which that group do not pass on the benefits to those who come behind. And I believe that, in some ways unlike the USA, we run the risk of becoming that kind of society. The achievements of the first generation of Independence were remarkable; but are we perpetuating them? As I write, too many young Bahamians are choosing not to return home because they are finding our society closed to their contributions. Could it be that the Bahamian Dream is as fragile as a slave’s sense of self?