On Golden Chains

I had the pleasure of visiting Dominica not long ago. It is a beautiful island — mountainous and forested, with the kind of loveliness Americans call pristine. As I flew in, I wondered why anyone would leave such a place.

When I landed I began to understand why. Dominica is a beautiful place, but globalization has hit the Eastern Caribbean hard. The globalization of the past made them into monocultures, where the only crops grown were for export to feed the desires and needs of Europeans. The globalization of the present extended that relation of dependency; between sugar and bananas, the entire economy rests on the price of cash crops. And that price is set far, far away from Dominica.

This is a dependency that we in The Bahamas don’t know. Our economy is built on service industries, not on agriculture, and that fact has several positive side-effects. An agricultural community works beyond the centres of civilization. No sustained contact between the town and the country is needed; while the farmer or the peasant may have some familiarity with the town (that is where the market is, after all), townspeople are generally ignorant of the farmer’s reality. And so the social exchange between them is limited. The farmer maintains a lifestyle that is substantially different from that of the urban person.

A service economy, on the other hand, works in another way. It is founded on the contact between the service provider and the consumer. In our case, the consumer is invited into the host economy. The success of that service depends upon our becoming as much like the consumer and his or her society as possible. Our communications, our infrastructure, our laws must conform to the needs and expectations of our banking customers; in tourism, our accommodations and the training of our staff must do the same. A nation that depends upon service is a nation whose people are transformed into beings who are similar to the people they serve.

Now there is a paradox here. Our service economy has made us rich. My visit to Dominica drove home to me that what we Bahamians take for granted here, what some of us even have the temerity to call “poverty” (as in “poor people”) is in fact a kind of wealth. In material terms, our standard of living, indeed, places us on par with the USA — if not with the richest Americans, at least with their servants.

Because that is who we are.

There is a danger, you see, in maintaining a service economy. The returns are greater than the returns from agriculture, particularly now that the source of wealth has shifted from the agricultural sector to the service sector. The problem is this. In order to serve, it seems, we have to lose our selves.

This is not something that should surprise us; we have been here before. In the olden days, the people who toiled outside, who raised the crops and brought them to the central place of distribution, were called field slaves; house slaves were those who worked inside, who kept dirt off their hands and sun off their heads. Like the agricultural islands of the Caribbean, the field slaves were physically worse-off, sleeping in rough quarters, subject to aches and pains and hard, hard work. The house slaves’ material lives were better. They wore prettier clothes, slept in nicer beds, and were cleaner and smoother than their brothers outside.

But it was the field slaves who kept more of themselves.

The house slaves, you see, living cheek-by-jowl with the masters, began to talk like them, dress like them, eat like them, and, eventually, think like them. And of course, because they were closer to the masters, they were more likely to be raped by them; the closer they lived, the more they became like them. In the end, they believed what the masters believed: that blackness was savagery and the only way to salvation was through being as whitely civilized as possible.

I write this because in Dominica I witnessed what we can only imagine here: a cultural show involving children, adults and elders, and the children knew the elders’ music and dances and songs as well as the elders did themselves. I watched a quadrille dance that was performed by schoolchildren no older than twelve with the same manners and attitudes as the Cat Island Mites; there were no extra steps, no flourishes. We were treated to a Masquerade performance that featured the characters that were common in the past, and kept the costumes and the music of the roots of Dominca’s Carnival alive, even though modern Carnival has many Trinidadian elements. I visited a museum that has a living display — men and women in traditional dress, using the artefacts that we have placed on display in the foyer of our archives. I walked through the complex inhabited by the Cultural Affairs Division, which housed, in addition to the offices, an art gallery, a museum, a gift shop, and an outdoor theatre, all in the surroundings of an old sugar mill. I learned that the reason that the young people all know the songs and the dances and the habits of their forefathers is because there are festivals all year round that enable them to learn those habits, to be grounded in them, so that by the time they grow up they are proud to be who they are.

It’s easy, of course, to look into the neighbour’s yard and to envy what he has there. Our yard is the envy of all our neighbours, after all, some of whom are trying hard to get in. But it is just as easy to believe the lie that to be wealthy is to be free.

It’s a lie because wealth, material wealth, comes at a price. Our price is the selling of our selves. Our children are not proud of being Bahamian, and we must ask ourselves why that is. Our service economy makes us rich, but we must be careful that it does strip us of who we are; golden chains are still chains.

There is no shame, you see, in poverty. On the contrary; it is the rich, the materially blessed, who ought to worry about shame. For nothing comes without a price; and for our material wealth we may have sold something that no one can retrieve — our selves.