A Good Colonial Education

I’m a QC graduate.

This is something my brother and I share with our mother and uncle, and with their father as well. We’re third generation Comets, even though that title has something twenty-first century about it. My grandfather went to QC in the 1910s. My mother and uncle started in the 1930s and 40s; I started attending Queen’s College in 1968, my brother one year later.

Now there was something special about this. People who are old enough to remember will tell you without lying about it that for much of its early history Queen’s College was a strictly segregated school. From 1890, when it was established, until after the second world war, it maintained a whites-only policy that was relaxed only for the very lucky few. My mother’s family happened to be in that few. (You can read all about the early history of Queen’s College in one of Gail Saunders’ articles, “The Ambiguous Admission Policy at Queen’s College High School, Nassau, Bahamas, 1920s-1950s…”, published in Yinna Vol. 3.) Not until 1948, just as my uncle was leaving the school and my mother was entering her final years there, did someone who was unequivocally of full African descent gain admittance, and it took even longer for the school to gain a population which, like the country, was predominantly black. And the change was imposed from the outside: the Methodist Missionary Society in London pressured the school to integrate. Until then, there had been definite resistance from the parents of the white students to the widespread admission of non-whites, and several of them formed St. Andrew’s when they realized they could no longer be sure of a segregated education for their children.

When I got there, although Queen’s College was still mostly white, it was not so because of any specified policy. It may have been because society itself was still largely segregated; it may have been because despite policy changes and parliamentary resolutions, the majority of Bahamians of colour did not go where they did not feel welcome; or it may have been that before the 1960s, given the general limitations placed on the Black Bahamian majority with regard to education and work, the cost of attending Queen’s College was financially prohibitive to most people. But things changed at the end of that decade. The Class of 1979—my graduating class—entered Reception in 1967, the same year that Majority Rule occurred. That I didn’t join them then hardly matters (I entered one year later, in Grade One); the year I joined was perhaps the most mixed, the most integrated year, ever to enter Queen’s College to that point. One important reason was that almost all of the new MPs enrolled their children there. Obie Pindling may have gone to the Government High School like his father; but Michelle, Leslie and (later) Monique were QC students from the start. QC was, if not the best private school, the most prestigious, and so my classmates, mentors, and other schoolfriends included the Pindlings, the Johnsons, the Wallace-Whitfields, the Hannas, the Stevensons, the Macmillans, the Maynards, the Levaritys, the Thompsons, the Bains. Statements were being made, and loudly.

The revolution, it seemed, was complete. But what we didn’t know was this: it had only just begun. Entry to Queen’s College was only the first step on the journey. What we learned there was another cog in the wheel.

Because here’s the thing—and I didn’t realize it until just now, until I started pondering the potential impact of starting my schooling six years before independence on my life—I was in high school before I ever was taught by a person of African descent. And I was almost teenager before I ever was taught by a born Bahamian.

Now don’t get me wrong. This didn’t have the detrimental effect on my self-perception or on my perception of the ability of Bahamians and black people to teach that it might have. I grew up in a family full of teachers. What was more, all of the teachers to whom I was related were of African descent to some degree or another.  And their friends were teachers, too, teachers of all complexions. My father and mother were both teachers. My uncle had been a maths teacher. My great-aunt was a teacher who had had to train at Tuskegee because there was no way for her to qualify as a teacher in Nassau. My great-uncle was the first Black Bahamian to teach at the Government High School, and the first Black Bahamian to head it. My mother’s immediate boss was the first woman to do the same thing (and by the way, she was Black too). No; I knew Bahamians, black and white, were smart enough to teach. But what I didn’t have was black and white Bahamians taking charge of my formal education.

In fact, most of my teachers were English. In primary school, they were all British; there were a few Welsh and Scottish teachers thrown into the mix, so I couldn’t say they were all English. But when I say I had a good colonial education, I can offer up the pedigree. Not only did I start my education under British colonial rule; the British influence continued long past Independence through the very people who were teaching me.

Here’s how that mattered. Without taking anything whatsoever away from the people who taught me, most of whom were curious, open, engaged, tolerant people (they had opted to teach in the Bahamas, after all), it nevertheless remains true that they brought with them a particular worldview, a particular mindset that was not centred on the Bahamas, or on people of colour. Most of them had been born in the Britain of the second world war or earlier, which meant that most of them had been as steeped in the language, the attitudes, the assumptions and the prejudices that had been developed and refined to administer the British Empire. Even though they were coming of age in a Britain that was changing, they had been socialized to view the world as Eurocentric, as hierarchical, and as being in need of the beneficence of the “more advanced” nations and peoples of the world. This was how most of them approached the teaching of most of us. We were the colonials; they were the imperial masters, and, even for the most idealistic of them, there was a sense of obligation, of duty, to bring us into the light.

This was by no means as awful as it sounds. Most of the teachers I had as a child were wonderful, generous people (though not all; some of them were both verbally and physically abusive) whose love for the children they were teaching shone through. There were also some very rare ones who seemed to have very few prejudices at all, who were capable, it seemed, of viewing people as people. But for the majority, several “truths” were common. The first one was that Britain was the centre of the universe. The corollary of that was that Britain was also the pinnacle of evolution and of civilization and it would behoove us all to learn as much from her successes and strive to emulate them in whatever way we possibly could. The second was that the world was divided into races (“red and yellow, black and white”, as the hymn sings) and that those races were hierarchically arranged in order of their attainment of civilization. At the top was the white race; just below them the yellow races; below them the brown races, and at the bottom were black people. The third was that the less civilized you were, the less culture you had, and the more you had to be taught. Black people, being at the bottom of the aforementioned ladder, clearly had very little culture of their own and therefore had to be taught almost everything. We were vessels filled with ignorance and a tendency towards savagery, and we were to be civilized.

Naturally, of course, this was what we thought of ourselves. Not consciously, you understand; after all, this was the end of the 1960s and between 1967 and 1973 there was a very conscious effort to explore and to celebrate what it meant to be Bahamian. And many of the expatriate teachers who were here at the time assisted us in that exercise; many of them were thrilled by our independence and helped us to celebrate that. No; it all happened unconsciously, subconsciously, with the result that when the newness of our nationhood rubbed off, at the first sign of tarnish on the shiny Bahamian identity,  all of what we learned from our colonial education, between the lines as it were, reared its head. We were “silly little girls and boys” again; we were inherently dishonest, naturally lazy, and fundamentally stupid to boot. We needed other people’s help to help us grow. We were not ready to rule ourselves. We could not solve our own problems; we needed people who had finished civilizing themselves to solve them for us.

It took me years to expose these tendencies in my own life. I was helped by the fact that, as I said, although I was not exposed to Bahamian, black, or black Bahamian educators in my own schooling, I was surrounded by them in my home, and so I had a second narrative to refer to when things became confusing. I had a father who was actively developing a Bahamian sense of self, and I had no shame about being a Bahamian as a result; I had a mother who was developing Bahamian education and that, too, was a benefit. In college I was exposed to the writings and teachings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ousmane Sembene, Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, C. L. R. James, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and others, and learned to put my earlier education in its colonial context. I learned that it was important to, as Ngugi would put it, decolonize my mind, and have been working on it ever since. But to do so, it’s been important for me always to recognize that my mind was indeed colonized, and needs recalibration.

Fast forward to today. Let’s put this all into context. What’s important about all of this is not that I seek to assign blame to my teachers, so many of them wonderful human beings, for what happened in the past. Many of them, perhaps most of them, were not intending to denigrate us; they were products of their society, they were as shaped by their youthful realities as we were. Rather, I’m hoping to provide a way for us to understand why we Bahamians have seemed to remain trapped in a cycle of self-denigration, lack of trust in our own abilities, and addiction to outside advice for problems that really should have local solutions.

I’m fifty-one. Most of the people who advise the politicians, who steer the nation no matter who is in charge—the civil servants who influence politicians’ decisions, who recommend solutions, who help chart the course of our development—are older than me. If my education was still subtly colonial, if my education left the residue of empire on my life with all of the attendant checks and balances of my exposure, how much more was theirs? My year was the last to take the Common Entrance exam and among the first years to take the BJC. We were among the first to study Bahamian history (before I entered high school in 1974, there were no history books written by Bahamians, and the only book of Bahamian history at all, Michael Craton‘s A History of The Bahamas, had been written originally in 1962 and hastily updated in 1968 to cover majority rule). Paul Albury’s The Story of The Bahamas was the most exciting book I had ever read; it came out in 1975, just in time for us to use it for our BJC in history two years later. On top of that, we were fortunate enough to be taught by Philip Cash, who was studying Bahamian history for his Master’s degree—something few other people had ever done—and who supplemented our Caribbean history texts with his own research (it later became the text still used in schools, The Making of The Bahamas). My year was the first or second year to have Bahamian textbooks to study from for our examinations.

The people who are still making decisions for our country did not even have what I had. They may never have studied our history. They probably learned all about the British kings and queens, because out there, where the white Europeans lived, that was the “real” world. They, like me, were taught, consciously or subconsciouly, that this Bahamaland in which we live, where we all grew up, is a dream place, not “real” at all. They have to rely on their subjective, fallible, politically skewed personal memories of their own pasts to create a picture of our nation’s history. And it is this that they use to make their decisions.

The thrust of this memoir is this. We, the decision makers of our independent, forty-one year old country, my generation, the generation before mine and the people who came right after me, are all products of a good colonial education. No wonder neocolonialism is the order of the day.

Watching the Revolution

Keva-1962 Just before my mother became pregnant with me, she voted for the first time. This wasn’t because she was a bad citizen, or because she was so young that it was the first time she could have voted (although, given the laws of the time, that was also true). It was because May 2, 1962, was the first time Bahamian women ever voted.

My mother voted only once in that election, in the Eastern District. My grandmother voted twice: once where she lived, and once (I’m guessing) also in the Eastern District, where she owned property. I don’t know who either of them voted for. I’m not sure whether Delancey Town, which was where my grandmother lived at that time, was part of Nassau City or part of New Providence West. If the latter, her choices would have included Paul Adderley and Milo Butler; if the former, Stafford Sands and Raymond Sawyer. In the Eastern District, the choices included Arthur Hanna and Geoffrey Johnstone. What choices those women made is beyond me now. My mother only ever revealed how she used her vote once; that was much later, when we were both Winnie-1962grown women. My grandmother, on the other hand, was both a suffragette and an early supporter of the Progressive Liberal Party, so I can guess how she voted in 1962. We all know what happened, though: women were added to the register for the first time, and the status quo (the UBP) was re-elected, by a landslide, to parliament.

And so in March 1963 I was born into a Bahamas that was a colony still run by white Bahamians, and which still practised segregation in private places, even though the House of Assembly had passed a resolution in January 1956 stating “that discrimination in hotels, theatres and other places in the Colony against persons on account of their race or colour is not in the public interest.” There were many places people of colour did not go, and several places where they still could not. So even though the inclusion of women on the register did not change the government immediately, the issues that faced the majority of Bahamians had not changed very much. The changes that were coming were, when I was born, coming incrementally, or so it appeared.

The things that happened during my very early years were momentous, though I didn’t know it then. The first, though I was not old enough to notice it, was that in 1964 the Bahamian colony was granted internal self-rule. This would involve the institution of principles such as universal adult suffrage, one man/one vote, single-day elections, single-representative constituencies, a Cabinet of Ministers with specific portfolios, and a Premier. With this came our first written constitution, which was celebrated by a Royal Visit and a public holiday, neither of which I remember.

The second one related to our money. In 1966, we shifted from pounds sterling to the Bahamian dollar. When I was a little child, we were still using British money as our major currency: people counted in pounds, shillings and pence. Pennies were huge round copper things, bigger than any of the other coins that people used; sixpences were small (if I’m not mistaken, around the same size as an American dime). Ha’pennies were of a size with today’s Bahamian one-cent pieces and farthings were even smaller. But what I remember most were the threepenny pieces, which we called thruppence: thick, heavy, with (now I look on the internet to find out) twelve edges. The change to the dollar happened when I was three, which may be why I remember the money so well: we were given it to play with after it had lost its value.

As for January 10, 1967: we were living in Shirlea then, down a cul-de-sac of houses inhabited by hard-working migrants to Nassau from the out islands. Most of them were light-complexioned. Many considered themselves white, though the people who were running the colony at that time may not have agreed with them. The neighbourhood was the kind of place where tiny children, of which I was one, could wander about without being run down by cars or kidnapped by the maladjusted, because I remember wandering around as far as one of the stop signs that we had in the neighbourhood. There, where the word STOP was painted in white, someone had spray-painted the initials “UBP”. There was no doubt which candidate our neighbours were going to support. I don’t think he won, though. According to the Wikipedia page, the candidate who won in our constituency was the ill-fated Uriah McPhee, whose death one year later would lead to to the calling of the general election that changed the country for good.

I don’t remember the 1968 election. I do remember some of its effects, though. By that time we had moved out of Nassau to what was then the “country”—a stone house at the top of Johnson Road, which my parents bought in 1967,  in that wild time that followed majority rule. The people who owned it were moving out of the neighbourhood. It was a time, I believe, when property values plummetted; in the shock that succeeded the PLP victory at the polls, some white Bahamians and several expatriate residents left the country. Homes that would otherwise have been far beyond the reach of ordinary Bahamian families were suddenly, and for a short window of time, affordable, and my family made the most of that fact. When we first moved into Glengarriff Gardens, I don’t remember any other black children around us. All our neighbours were white, most of them immigrants from Britain.  Over the next ten years, though, as we moved towards independence, other black Bahamian families moved in around us until, by the time I was in high school, the neighbourhood had become quietly mixed.

That year, 1968, my father became the deputy headmaster of a brand-new school. The school was called Highbury High and there was something exciting about it. What I didn’t know then was that it was one of a set of brand-new public schools opening throughout the country, part of the commitment of the new PLP government to make it possible for all Bahamians to have access to secondary schooling. Secondary education was something that had been limited to the gifted, the middle class, or the white to this point, but in 1968 that began to change.

Highbury High was situated on Robinson Road. I visited my father there once or twice, and remember thinking that there was a marked similarity between the girls’ uniforms and the uniforms worn by servers at Kentucky Fried Chicken: the red and white stripes looked eerily familiar to me. My father’s immediate boss was the late Juanita Butler, who was the Headmistress of the school, and his senior master, who later became Deputy Head after my father moved into the Ministry of Education, was Winston Saunders. The school, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is what we now call R. M. Bailey. In the beginning it was simply a high school, a school that taught children and young adults between the ages of 11 and 16.  My father didn’t stay there long; after that first year, the Ministry called him to HQ to work as the Cultural Affairs Officer. But his connection with Highbury High would last his lifetime. Some of first crop of teachers who helped to found and build the school—among them Winston Saunders, among them the British transplant Stuart Glasby—would become my father’s dearest friends, adopted members of our extended family.

I remember a couple of things about 1968, The first had something to do with San Salvador. For reasons that are only becoming clear to me as I write this, we spent the summer there. There was a branch of the Bahamas Teachers’ College there, and my father went there, to teach music, I believed. For us children, that meant we spent afternoons with our mother on the beach, where my father would come and join us around 2 PM.

But at the same time, I’m realizing that there was something else going on. That year, the Bahamian government had been invited to take part in the cultural activities that accompanied the Mexican Olympics. Mexico was the first Latin American country to host the Olympic Games, and it chose to commemorate that fact by sending the Olympic Flame on that same route that Columbus took on his journey into the Americas. As Guanahani, San Salvador was the first stop for the flame after it crossed the Atlantic. The Mexican government gifted San Salvador with a monument which would display the flame when it arrived. The photo above shows my father in front of that monument with the Olympic flame burning behind him. I don’t remember either the monument or the flame being in place when we were in San Salvador, but I now suspect that part of my father’s task in being there was to identify the site, meet with officials, and coordinate with the Mexicans to help receive the gift.

My father also composed the score for The Legend of Sammie Swain during 1968. I want to say he did it during that summer, but I honestly don’t know when he did it; I do remember, though, that it seemed he sat at his piano all hours of the day and night. I also remember that he grew his trademark beard in the process, as he was too busy composing to shave, and he liked the result so much it is how we all remember him to this day. In the photograph he has the beard, so Sammie Swain would have been written before that. The score was part of our contribution to the Mexican Cultural Olympics. It accompanied a ballet choreographed by the Russian-Mexican dancer Alex Zybine, who was then living in Nassau, running the Nassau Civic Ballet on behalf of the Bahamian dancer Hubert Farrington. Farrington and Zybine had met one another while dancing for the New York Metropolitan Opera, and Farrington engaged Zybine and his wife Violette to run his ballet school in Nassau until he came home. Mrs. Zybine was my ballet teacher, and I loved her; we did ballet and a little yoga, learned positions and extensions, and practised stretching ourselves, dying to be big girls old enough to go up on pointe. My father took the story of Sammie Swain from a folk tale serialized in the Tribune by Etienne Dupuch, and Alex created the very first choreography for the tale. The ballet was in its own way unique, as my father’s music was choral rather than symphonic, and the story was narrated from the pit.

AlexSammySwainwebAnd I remember the moment I first watched the ballet. It may have been the next year, or the year after that; it was almost certainly after the Mexican trip, when Bahamian summers became defined by an annual Folklore Show, a series of performances that took place on Thursday nights in the Government High School Auditorium, featuring young black Bahamians, dancers, singers and actors, performing our culture–our culture, which we weren’t supposed to have–every week for us to look at and feel proud about. Sammie Swain had me transfixed, and the music has been in my head ever since.

I was born in a colony that had no room for the vast majority of its subjects. I was born at a time when my family, which was called “brown” or “high-yellow”, could go only so far but no further. I was born at a time when half of my heritage was assumed to be savage, to be unable to comprehend or appreciate “fine” culture, when I was expected to gravitate towards the other half of my heritage, which represented civilization, development and progress. But before I was seven years old, much of that had changed.  I don’t have to remember what Doris Johnson called the Quiet Revolution specifically; though I was too young to have experienced the segregated world this country was founded on, the change, even at the beginning of my life, was clear.

Bahamian folklore group leaving for Mexico, 1968
Bahamian folklore group leaving for Mexico, 1968. Clement Bethel at the back in a blue jacket. Alex Zybine in the front sitting on the Pan Am bag.


In the beginning (or something like that)

This one’s for Joey. It’s for Joey, and for Fe, and Tada, and Chauntez, and Alicia. Terence, it’s also for you too, but you were set the same task.

We were at MOJO’s the other night (last Thursday, to be exact). We’d all attended the first of a series of Diners’ Debates, which Joey is hosting at MOJO’s for us. It was a deadly serious event. The topic was  “Economic Inequality: a breeding ground for crime?” and the consensus was pretty well “Yes” (Thanks Michael Stevenson and Chris Curry). You can listen to it here. The presentations and the discussions were solid, even though we were half-joined by a man at the bar who was a tourist maybe or a resident maybe, who was white, American, and emphatically capitalist and who made it a point to join in our discussion in a vaguely corrective manner* … but I digress.

The formal part of the evening took an hour, and then Chris left and Michael left a little after that, and the rest of us continued the conversation along various lines. We turned to politics, as one always does, but I did not gag and stand up and leave as I tend to do, because the political discussion was about principle, and about issues, and not about political parties. I did not get any sense of most people’s political affiliations in the discussion (well, there was one person who admitted membership in a political party), but we discussed the present and the future and we talked about what WE could do to affect them. We didn’t talk (much) about leaders of political parties. We didn’t talk at all about ministers of government (OK, so one was mentioned, but in passing). We talked about issues: about poverty, and about the effects of VAT, and about taxation in general, and about what we thought of the way in which government works (or doesn’t), and about the need for more government rather than less (more levels of government, with expanded local government to provide for a devolution of responsibility and also for a differential tax structure according to one’s geography as well as one’s income level). And we didn’t seem to want to go home.

The evening ended like this, though. Someone asked Terence and me why we never ran for office, why our generation, the independence generation, the generation that stood out there on Clifford Park to watch one flag being lowered and the other flag being hoisted and heard the National Anthem played for real, in public, with meaning, for the very first time, is so absent from the corridors of power. The first answer is that we’re not really: people who fall into our exact generation (people who graduated from high school within one or two years of Terence and me) include Carl Bethel, Michael Pintard, Shane Gibson, Picewell Forbes, Duane Sands, and Danny Johnson, and people like Jerome Fitzgerald, Fred Mitchell, Glenys Hanna-Martin, Melanie Griffith, Damien Gomez, Darren Cash—too many to name—are part of the wider group with whom we would be identified on surveys or other such documents (pick one: 18-25/26-35 etc). Long story short, it’s our generation who’s currently running the country, by and large. OK, so it’s true that it’s the generation before ours which still holds the high positions of power, but if you look beyond the leaders of the political parties (because, really, who has the time …) you’ll see us there.

But Terence and I tried to explain for ourselves. “Didn’t you ever think about going into politics?” was the question. My answer last night was, emphatically, “No!” but that wouldn’t be strictly true; when I was in my late teens and my early twenties, when I was being radicalized at Pearson College and at the University of Toronto, when I was reading Marxist thought and admiring it, I thought about it. But it was brief, and it was fantasy. I thought mostly about revolution, in part because I couldn’t imagine a time, not then in the 1980s, when the opposition could get itself together for long enough and believably enough to unseat the mighty PLP in any democratic fashion.

Now this is an aside that will mean something. I grew up in a time when most Bahamians (Freeporters, Abaconians and Long Islanders maybe excluded) were PLP. To vote for the PLP was, as it were, a default setting. In the first place, there was not much choice. The Free National Movement had some things going for it, but for many of us it had two major strikes against it: it had been vehemently anti-independence when the rest of the country was not (to this day its colours proclaim its loyalty to the British Union Jack), and its former PLP members had made an unholy alliance with the UBP. Now I knew many people who did not and would not vote for the PLP, but they tended to have three things in common: they were older, they were white or wanted to be, or they didn’t think black people could run a country (even if they were also black). Most of them were as British as the British, or more so. And almost all of them were offended by the upstart men of dark complexion who were audacious enough to occupy the corridors of power and make laws.

When I was growing up, if you were Bahamian and not White (I use the capital letter there because at that time your skin shade was not an automatic passport for Whiteness; what qualified you was something much mysterious: a cocktail that included family ties, association, bank balance, place of origin, and the willingness to repudiate all blood connections if and when necessary, and some other secret ingredient that most of us didn’t, and couldn’t, possess)—if you were not White, and if you were even vaguely honest about life, then every morning you got up and went to your car to go to work you knew, somewhere in the back of your mind, that you could do it because of the PLP.  You didn’t have to like it. You didn’t have to have stuck with the PLP post-1971 when Cecil Wallace-Whitfield and his eight dissidents left it. You could be wearing some other political party’s intials above your head but you would still know that the school you or your brothers and sisters or children attended was because of the PLP, the job you went to was because of the PLP, the road you drove on was because of the PLP, the electricity you turned on at night when you got home and the fans you could (usually) leave running while you slept were because of the PLP, the water that (sometimes) came out of your tap was because of the PLP, the toilet that flushed, the concrete home you had built on your very own one-family lot, the fact that you didn’t have to pay for a doctor when you got sick, that you could get secondary schooling without paying a dime for it, that you could go to college for $19 a credit—were all because of the PLP.

So. Back in the mid-1980s, when I was younger than most of the people at MOJO’s last night, thinking about politics and thinking about changing the direction of the country, which was not the direction we really wanted to see it heading, I seriously assumed it would take a revolution to change the Bahamas from the one-party state it had become to something that approached a democratic nation with a choice of parties to vote for. (Has it happened yet? –Oh, wait…)

And I was also a woman.

And I was also very light-skinned, and light-skinned people didn’t really have so much of a place in the Bahamas of the 1980s. Actual Bahamians of European heritage were pretty well invisible at that time, and most of them were assumed to be hostile to the government, the people and the nation itself; one’s skin colour required one to prove loyalty in ways that could be both absurd and bizarre.

And there was a whole lot else to do besides go into politics. There was a country to build, for one thing. I came of age when the professions were still wide open for people who were willing to go off to school and get a degree (most Bahamians were becoming high school graduates for the first time, so a BA was like gold in the country). I came of age when government was still expanding because it was running into issues and problems that needed addressing with more ministries.  The country was just over five years old when I left high school. It was not yet ten years old when I got my first full-time job as a front desk cashier in the old Nassau Beach Hotel; and it was not yet fifteen years old when I entered the civil service for the first time. Possibility shone in the air, and we could be, and do, almost anything.

So politics and changing things were not really on the agenda for us. It was on the agenda for those people who came right after us—the people who were coming out of high school as we were coming home with our BAs. If you want to read what that time was like for them, you need only to pick up a copy of Ian Strachan’s God’s Angry Babies and you can see the passion that fuelled their politicization and you can understand the shift that was coming in 1992. The big difference between the people who graduated from high school as we came out of college was that they were not old enough in 1973 to remember what happened on Clifford Park on July 9th, and we were. I was 10 and my brother was 8 and we were possibly the youngest people who could get some appreciation of what was happening. It was mundane and it was life-changing, but when you are 10 you believe what big people told you, and we were told we were citizens, and this was our country, and there was much land to be possessed.

So people like Terence and me set about possessing it. It wasn’t so much about going into politics for me. As I say, I wasn’t the kind of person who thought that political life would be possible anyway, being female and fair-skinned. But many of my generation went—or tried to go—into other nation-building fields. I started my life as a civil servant; my first real long-term job was as a Youth Officer for the Youth Division of the then Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Affairs. The whole division then was young. The oldest officers were not quite forty; the youngest were in their twenties. We had a mission, and we set about doing it.

But politics and bureaucracy interfered. My contemporaries were eager to work for government, but we were also quick to leave as well (was that because we all believed, as I did, the promise of citizenship and possibility made on July 9th 1973?). The seeds of rot were showing themselves as early as 1986, and they were not all because of drugs, as people would have us believe today. They have other sources for their existence, sources which we may not have completely grasped at the time but which are clearer now. One of them was that we were trying, though we didn’t really realize it, to run a nation along the models of a colony. The tools we were using were rigid and fossilized, and not in any way flexible enough to meet our nation’s needs. The other was that we were all greedy, all of us, and that we were all in a hurry to get places which would, if we proceeded honestly, would take us a lifetime. The drugs and the corruption that they brought with them were everywhere in the 1980s, not just in the PLP and their supporters, just as corruption and violence and crime are everywhere today. We had not laid a foundation for our citizens which provided rewards for doing the right thing, or even which provided a template for making decisions based on conscience; the templates we thought we had were, again, colonial, and were, rightly, rejected by the most fiercely independent among us. But we designed no templates for ourselves.

So to get back to the debate that started the discussion, rather than the discussion itself. We had the opportunity to see where we are and were given a picture of how we got here. One of the jobs of sociology and other social sciences is to help diagnose social ills as a prelude to fixing them. I’m not claiming anything so loft for the evening, but the discussion was uplifting. The discussion gave us hope.

And left me (and Terence) with a task, and a promise.

We are to write our memories. We are to write down the history we have lived. We have to share those things that we take for granted because we lived them—like the fact that for many of us of our generation Hubert Alexander Ingraham will always be a PLP, and he will also always be a partner, and not an opponent, of Perry Christie. Things have changed, of course, in many cases radically; but people of my generation cannot forget when they were young Turks who mattered, who challenged the status quo, who suffered because of it, and who made history by defeating as independents the mighty PLP in the wake of it. We cannot forget the decisions they made at the end of the 1990s, momentous decisions they turned out to be, one returning to the party that fired him, the other joining the opposition (and leading it to victory). We cannot forget the fissures that plagued the FNM throughout its rise to power and some of us are not at all sure the party has dealt with them (because being ignorant of them, as young members may be, is not the same as repairing them). We cannot also forget that third parties DO make a difference, and that independent thinkers, even when they live in un-democratic times (as we did in the 1980s), can change the future. And so, Joey, I agree: it’s our duty now to share these experiences. Take this post as the first of many that attempts to do that.

*His first interjection came when Michael talked about absolute and perceived economic deprivation, and the level of Bahamian inequaliy; our kindly interrupter told us that “all” democratic nations have a high inequality. I wasn’t sure about that. He mentioned the USA and he mentioned Germany, but he left out all of the rest of Europe, not to mention the bulk of the democratic world. He seemed to intimate that inequality was the price one paid for democracy (which, as I write it, looks more and more peculiar, as democracy is founded on the principle that all people are equal, but anyway). I concluded privately, not publicly, that his concept of democracy (as is most Americans’) was conflated with the concept of capitalism. But while they arose together, they are quite separate things. One can be democratic and socialist and flourish (remember that, Canada?). Democracy need not manifest itself in high turn-of-the-nineteenth-century-liberal-economy fashion, and sometimes it works best when it doesn’t. [Back]


Landscapes of Inequality: reforming the Bahamian Constitution

First published on Global Voices’ The Bridge 10 October 2014

The Commonwealth of The Bahamas is amending its 41-year-old constitution. I’m using the present continuous tense, because the amendment is a process, one that began some twelve years ago in 2002. Back then, a constitutional referendum was held and failed—the proposed amendments to the Constitution were rejected by the general public. But the need for amendment has persisted, and ever since 2012 a constitutional referendum has been imminent.

The main issue at hand is the question of equality between the sexes under the constitution. The most striking instance of inequality in our constitution is that between men and women in relation to their ability to pass on Bahamian citizenship, but, as the most recent Constitutional Commission has noted, the inequalities in the current constitution are manifold. This Commission has narrowed them down to the following categories: inequality between men and women, between children and between married and single people. To this we can add inequality based on place of birth.

The last item on that list notwithstanding, the Constitutional Commission has drafted four bills which, if passed by the two Houses of Parliament and agreed to by the general public, will make Bahamian citizens more equal than non-Bahamians by seeking to address the first three inequalities.

Put simply, the main inequalities are as follows:

  • Married Bahamian men and unmarried Bahamian women automatically pass their citizenship on to their children at birth.
  • Bahamian women cannot pass their citizenship on to their overseas-born children at birth, if they are married to a non-Bahamian.
  • Single fathers may not pass their citizenship on to their children, as the constitution defines children born out of wedlock as not having a father.
  • The non-Bahamian wives of Bahamian men are afforded the right to be granted citizenship upon application.
  • The non-Bahamian husbands of Bahamian women are afforded no such right.

The issue, however, is complicated by several other requirements that make the passing on of citizenship from parent to child less straightforward. Primary among these is a clause which addresses the institution of marriage. Under this clause, unmarried Bahamian mothers are defined as “fathers” for the purpose of passing on their national status to their babies. This particular clause also nullifies single Bahamian fathers’ ability to pass on their citizenship.

The four bills* drafted to amend the constitution seek to rectify the situation. They are designed to promote equality for children, among men and women, and to enshrine the principle of equality throughout the constitution. The first of these seeks to award the children of both Bahamian men and women citizenship at birth. The second entitles all non-Bahamian spouses of Bahamian citizens to Bahamian citizenship. The third allows single Bahamian fathers to pass their citizenship on to their offspring. And the fourth bill seeks to enshrine the principle of equality between the sexes in the constitution by adding the word “sex” to the list of categories under which discrimination is prohibited.

On the surface, this seems a simple enough task. It is complicated, however, by a public discussion which has focused mainly on the fourth amendment—the one which is, in its own way, the simplest of the proposed changes: the adding of “sex” to the categories prohibiting discrimination.

The current categories include race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, and creed, but currently exclude sex. The opponents of this amendment have construed the word “sex” as relating to sexual orientation, and have gained much traction in the eyes of the public by claiming the constitutional amendments are designed to permit same-sex marriage. If this Article is amended, their story goes, Bahamians will be giving the government permission to allow same-sex marriages to take place. These arguments obscure the principle of equality between the sexes and make this clause appear the most controversial—which also makes it the most threatened as the time for the referendum draws near.

And there are other questions of inequality that have not been addressed. Most notable among them is the question of birthplace and its effect on the awarding of citizenship to Bahamian children. There are two elements at work here. The first is the fact that birth on Bahamian territory is no avenue to citizenship if neither of one’s parents is Bahamian. The most that a person born in the Bahamas is entitled to is the right to be registered as a citizen upon making application at the age of 18.

The second, more difficult challenge, is the kind of citizenship one is granted if one is born abroad to Bahamian parents. One peculiarity of the current constitution which has not been put forward for amendment, is that children born to Bahamians abroad, even if they are classified as citizens, have no automatic right to pass their citizenship on to their own offspring. In other words, children born to Bahamians studying or working abroad, or giving birth in another country for reasons of health, may be classified as Bahamian citizens. However, if they themselves have children outside of The Bahamas, those children are not Bahamians at birth, and have no right to claim Bahamian citizenship whatsoever.

The issue is complicated, and most Bahamians are not aware of this stipulation. Most of the discussion relating to citizenship and our constitution has focused on the next generation—on our children. We have not yet thought about our grandchildren. What the current situation does ensure, though, is that not one of us, whatever the outcome of the referendum and whatever amendments are made to the constitution, can be confident that our grandchildren will be Bahamians at birth.

Let me bring this home. In my family, I have cousins who were born abroad because their Bahamian father was studying in the UK at the time of their birth. They are Bahamian. Their children, though, unless they are born in The Bahamas, are not.

Similarly, I have a nephew who, once again, was born in Canada when his Bahamian father was studying. He is a Bahamian, but his children, unless they are born in The Bahamas, will not be.

Finally, I have another young cousin who was born in Miami while his parents were there getting medical treatment for their older son. That cousin, even though both his parents are citizens, will not be able to pass on his citizenship unless his children are born in The Bahamas.

And none of these issues even begins to address the question of statehood for the many children of undocumented immigrants (most of them of Haitian origin) in The Bahamas. Most of those children currently have no national status at all. It is a situation which must be addressed, but which has not been touched upon in the present referendum.

So critical is this question of citizenship that a 2013 Report on the constitution recommended appointing a second commission altogether to focus exclusively on the issue of statelessness in The Bahamas, as the commissioners did not feel they could give it the necessary attention. No such move has yet been made.

The constitutional amendments are long overdue. They will go some way to equalizing the granting of Bahamian citizenship to children, and to even out the distinction between male and female, married and unmarried, that currently exists. But they are only a beginning. Serious issues of inequality remain, and the climate in which the discussions regarding the referendum is taking place has grown fraught with misdirection. The popular interpretation that the addition of “sex” to the categories where discrimination is prohibited is an endorsement of same-sex marriage plays into a deep-seated homophobia in Bahamian society. But it’s also worrying for another reason: it is entirely possible that this relates to homophobia only tangentially, and is in fact a strategic move to campaign for constitutionally-sanctioned misogyny without openly admitting that fact.

*At the time this article was written (last week), the four constitutional bills were readily available online. However, a search of the Bahamas Government Draft Laws Online website indicates that this is the case no longer. The links remain, but they lead nowhere. I trust that this will soon be rectified.  [Back]

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