There’s a song out there that those of us who were around on July 10, 1973 could once be heard singing. My favourite part of it goes like this:
We been standing up to a different flag, Union Jack in the sky
But we ga have our own flag come the 10th of July
The chorus is less subtle. “Independence,” it sings,
Independence for the Bahamas,
Independence, people, come sing a new song.
Well, that was then, wasn’t it? And this is now. We are singing a different song, all right, but I’m not so sure that it’s all that new. And we’re certainly standing up to a different flag, but it’s still red, white and blue.
You see, colonialism isn’t simply a matter of governors and who gets to vote and prime ministers and having representation at the United Nations. All of those things are important, but in the end they’re trappings. They do for a nation what jewellery does for a woman; they adorn, they define, but they can’t really make her into anything if there’s nothing there. A woman of substance, is accentuated by those trappings; but a jungless is nothing but the bling.
I want to write about colonialism, because it seems to me we’re more colonized than we ever were before. Last week I talked about Thanksgiving, which is only one manifestation of that. This week I want to give you a couple of other things to think about.
There’s the story of the witness in a criminal trial who, when called to testify, chose to plead the Fifth in his defence.
There’s the story of the man who, when stopped by American Immigration at the airport and asked for his passport, asked, “What I need a passport for? I only going to Miami!”
What’s so peculiar about these two incidents?
They’re all elements of American law, of the American culture, that are not part of our legal system. That is not to say that our legal system is inferior â€” not at all. But it is different. Our Constitution has never been amended, and so to plead the Fifth (which offers Americans the right to avoid self-incrimination) is irrelevant here in The Bahamas â€” just as we most definitely need passports to go to Miami. The freedoms guaranteed our press are not absolute; we have laws about what can and can’t be printed. In Canada and Britain, their presses are enjoined not to print any material that can lead people to hate; here in The Bahamas, we have prohibitions about obscenity. But far too many of us assume that there is no difference between our rights and those accorded to Americans.
The fact that we have trouble distinguishing where the border falls between our nation and the American nation tells me that we have not got rid of our colonial past. No; we have brought it with us into the present, and we have simply exchanged one garment for another.
Now some of you may be thinking what’s wrong with putting on the American cloak. After all, the USA is the most powerful, the richest, the greatest country in the world, right? (Well, no, not necessarily; it might be the most powerful country, but it isn’t the richest, and it could be argued that the fact that Bahamians have better access to basic health care than Americans should suggest that there are limitations to the United States’ greatness.) But that’s not my point.
My point is that we are not American. Certainly, we are brothers under the skin; we are far closer to the States, and to the Southern States, than our Caribbean counterparts, because most of our ancestors came from there. But our paths and theirs were different. In our country, the slaves and their descendants ended up in the majority; in the USA, people of African descent make up about twelve per cent of the population. In our country, emancipation came in 1834; in the USA they had to wait until 1865, and fought a bloody war to achieve it. In our country, people of colour could vote (as long as certain conditions were met) from before Emancipation occurred; in the USA, those rights were abandoned and had to be fought for, complete with martyrs, during the 1950s and 1960s.
And what we don’t recognize, or perhaps don’t know, is that the American Civil Rights movement drew its strength and inspiration from us. So why should we be prepared, now, to surrender our sovereignty to American culture?
Colonialism, you see, doesn’t come in just one form. It can be social and political, as it was when the British were in charge; or it can be economic and cultural, as it is today. The latter is more subtle. The Americans don’t have to be here physically for us to be colonized. Their television, their products, their food, their outlets, their computer programmes â€” all of these are making us American from the inside out.
The problem isn’t theirs at all; it’s ours. We have retained the habits of colonialism. We like having someone bigger and stronger and wealthier to tell us what to do, and we seem to find comfort in the fact that we aren’t as good as They are. We got rid of one colonial master, only to invite in another.
I’m reminded of a comment Jesus made, about the unclean spirit that, having been cast out of a man, wanders around until it decides to return to the place from which it came, bringing seven other spirits more evil than itself.
It would do us well to remember that. In the words of Our Lord, if you get rid of the spirit, but keep the same mind, the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.