Last evening, rain or no rain, a ceremony was held in Pompey Square to honour 41 “culture warriors”. What can I say? My father was one of them, falling alphabetically (by first name) between Count Bernadino and Eddie Minnis, and placed there because of “Sammie Swain” and as “Muse of the National Arts Festival”.
But I was not there.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the fact that my father was being honoured, or that I didn’t agree with the list of cultural warriors, or that I didn’t think it was a good idea. The reason for my absence was a very simple one: the invitation came too late.
On Saturday last, July 5th, early in the afternoon, I got a phone call that invited me personally to the event. That there was a real determination that I be informed was evident, because the call came from the Minister of Tourism himself; and as Obie is a friend whom I knew from well before his ministerial self, I know that he was anxious that my brother and I be invited. I know, too, that there was a determination that we should be invited simply because the call came on a Saturday, which is not a normal working day. And so I cannot claim that I wasn’t informed, or that I wasn’t invited. Neither of the above is true.
But what is also true is that I was already committed elsewhere last night. It was a commitment that was set two months ago, and it was non-negotiable. Moreover, my brother was physically out of the country; he is in Canada visiting his in-laws, as he always is at this time of the year. For us to have been in attendance at that event last night we would both have had to been given notice more than a month ago, before I set my rehearsal and performance schedule for the play I’m directing and before my brother booked his flights to and from Toronto.
I told the Minister that I could not attend but that I would ask one of my cousins to represent my brother and me. And I did. But guess what? My cousins have lives, and every one of them was also otherwise committed. And so my father was honoured, and got a special lithograph of himself unveiled in the fabulous Pompey Square, and none of his family was there to take part in it.
You know what, Bahamas? This is not good enough. As one of the cousins I asked said to me, with some heat, it denotes a fundamental lack of respect for what we do, as artists, as citizens, as people. The gesture is a good one, but it is also a band-aid. It is an apology for the years of neglect, benign and otherwise, of culture and artists in The Bahamas.
It is, indeed, very little, and very late.
I could say that, for all the nice things that have been said about him since his death in August 1987 shocked a nation and a government that had wholly taken him for granted, my father gave his life—literally—for this nation, my father has just now received a tangible honour, almost 30 years after his passing. But that would not be entirely fair. Other gestures have been attempted, and some have been made; in 2000 one government wanted to name the building now known as the National Centre for the Performing Arts (the former Shirley Street Theatre) after him, and in 2004 the National Arts Festival was given his name.
I could say that, if it were not for his friends and his family and the people who truly loved and respected him—like those musicians, and others, who never fail, when they see me or my brother, to tell us what he did for them, how he changed their lives or their outlooks or their view of being Bahamian or the value they place on music or The Bahamas or both—E. Clement Bethel would have been forgotten, wiped from our collective memory as though he never lived, never existed. What he tried to put in place in honour of his country, what he worked for on behalf of his country—despite his knowledge that he carried in him a medical condition that could kill him and would, if he were neglectful of his own well-being and did not change the way he lived—has been erased, destroyed, wiped away by political indifference and the gangrene that infects the civil service.
Every programme that he established has been cannibalized or gutted, or else it depends on the hard heads of individuals to survive each year. The National Dance School has lost its premises, its teaching company, and its focus on the national significance of dance in the building of our country. Theatre in the Park drowned under years of underfunding and lack of personnel to make it happen. The annual Carol Service was appropriated by the Ministry of Education. And the National Arts Festival—named after my father in an attempt to keep it alive—limps along underfunded and hobbled by the layers of bureaucracy that hinder its growth and development, by the ignorant interference of financial bureaucrats who question every expenditure without understanding the purpose or the benefits that accrue.
A picture in a square is a lovely gesture. But it does very little to change the hard reality of the almost total destruction of my father’s life’s work. The rationale for my father’s honour says it all. He was the first Bahamian to study classical piano as a profession, and he was a damn good pianist too, being the only person from this part of the world to take part in the inaugural Van Cliburn international Piano Competition; he was a composer, conductor and music teacher extraordinaire, and introduced hundreds of Bahamian children to music of all sorts, not least of all to the appreciation of their own; he was a nationalist who collected, arranged, and taught Bahamian folk songs to generations of young Bahamians for whom those songs would help define their being; he was a founder, and later the nationalizer, of the National Arts Festival; he was the founder of the National Dance School; he was an educator of some distinction, rising to be in charge of Highbury High School (later R. M. Bailey) and then moving to become the first Chief Cultural Affairs Officer and the first Director of Cultural Affairs for the Bahamas government; he represented The Bahamas abroad at major cultural events such as the Cultural Olympics in 1968 and the first, third and fourth CARIFESTAs in Guyana, Cuba and Barbados; he wrote and directed the Folklore Shows that between 1968 and 1972 helped set the groundwork for what we now consider “Bahamian” culture; he was the overall producer in 1973 of the Independence Cultural Pageant, an event that took only twenty minutes and which described, on Clifford Park, the sweep of Bahamian history that led to the night of July 9, 1973; he was the composer of the first Bahamian folk opera, Sammie Swain; he was one of the seminal shapers of the tradition of Bahamian choral music, setting a standard with the Nassau Renaissance Singers that others measured themselves by; he was, through his research and writing about it, one of the first people to portray Junkanoo a respected cultural event; and he was the first Bahamian ethnomusicologist and his Master’s thesis on Bahamian music is still the foremost study of what is truly “Bahamian” about our musical expression.
But he is being honoured for (to quote the press release) “‘Sammie Swain’ … ‘Muse of the National Arts Festival’.
I wonder; did even the people who selected him to be among the 41 “warriors” honoured know all of the above about him? And if they didn’t, what led them to choose him? Was it just that sense, so prevalent in Bahamian collective life, that he couldn’t be left out? That someone would be offended if his name were left off the list?
I hesitate as I write this, because I appreciate the gesture. I am glad that his name was on the government’s list, and I am more than honoured to have had my father’s lithograph produced by Jamaal Rolle and have it displayed in Pompey Square for the Independence period.
But at the same time, there is a hollowness about this honour that does not escape me. The list of honourees that is circulated enumerates the people who are placed in the square, and it calls them “warriors”, but it appears not to comprehend the war that they are fighting. They are fighting against obscurity, against the denigration of our selves and our culture, against mental slavery, against the erasure of what is Bahamian from our everyday worlds, but the very way in which this honoure was bestowed is part of the problem. It was rushed, under-researched, poorly communicated and ultimately uneducational. No one will know after the fact what these “warriors” fought for, what they won (and what they lost), or why people born after 2000 should even care.
In my title I refer to “fixing” what is wrong. I’ve been writing for 1500 words and I’m no nearer the fixing than I was at the beginning of this piece. Let me just say this. We cannot, we absolutely cannot, continue to treat our citizens and our independence in this fashion if we ever hope to build patriots and a sense of pride and patriotism in our growing population. Simply naming people is not enough. We have a long, long way to go, Bahamas, and the road is uphill all the way. We need to be prepared if we are going to climb it. Otherwise we will be stepping and stepping and slipping downhill for the next forty years to come.