I have been involved in the performing arts, and specifically in theatre, in The Bahamas for over thirty years. Like many in my generation, my involvement began as I entered high school, continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s and blossomed in the 21st century. For all of that time, my mentors were great Bahamians who, sometimes at considerable personal sacrifice, had committed themselves not only to their own personal development in the arts, but to sharing their skills and training generations of Bahamians who came after them.
Four names come immediately to mind:
- Winston V. Saunders, playwright, actor, director, producer, whose leadership of the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts between 1975 and 1998 laid the foundation for what has more recently been called the “golden age” of Bahamian theatre, establishing a regular Repertory Season, and allowing for the production of some forty original Bahamian plays;
- Philip A. Burrows, actor, director, and Artistic Director of the Dundas Repertory Season from 1981-1997, whose training and expertise not only assisted Winston Saunders’ vision for the development of Bahamian theatre, but who made international standards of production and performance synonymous with Bahamian standards, and who trained, both through workshops and through working with actors in productions, scores of Bahamian actors in the craft of theatre;
- Cleophas Adderley, composer, singer, director, whose musical genius has inspired, challenged and strengthened all of us who have heard or performed his work, known now as the director of the National Youth Choir of The Bahamas, but perhaps most famous for being the composer of the first classical grand opera in the English-Speaking Caribbean;
- E. Clement Bethel, pianist, composer, teacher, Director of Cultural Affairs, and my father, who gave up fame and fortune as a internationally-acclaimed concert pianist to return to the Bahamas to make his own contribution to the recognition and development of Bahamian music and arts, and who taught thousands of young Bahamians about themselves and their culture as a result.
Sidney Poitier was not one of those individuals. Nor did he, like his fellow Bahamians in Hollywood, Calvin Lockhart and Cedric Scott, come home and give of his talent, expertise and skill to help develop those of us who were working in theatre in The Bahamas. There were times when we felt that he did not respect our continuing struggles, that he had shaken the Bahamian dust off his feet, and had turned his back on us altogether. The reason I understand the betrayal being expressed by many who are now working in the performing arts at the decision to establish something in his honour is that I too felt betrayed by him.
And yet I support the idea that The Bahamas should honour him in some tangible, long-lasting fashion.
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and have argued about it long and hard, long before this most recent controversy about Sidney Poitier’s worthiness to be honoured. There was a time when I was like those people who opposed the awarding of honours to Sidney Poitier; what did he do for us? I wondered. What did he give to us? In meetings of the National Cultural Development Commission, when that body existed between 2002 and 2007, the same discussions that are being had in public in social media were held as we hammered out the National Heroes and Honours Bills; these questions were raised and discussed, with some of the members of that body, Bahamian icons in their own right, coming down on one side of the issue, some coming down on the other. (Both of those Bills were, to the best of my knowledge, presented in the House of Assembly in 2007 but which, for reasons presumably connected to the change of government in May of that year, are not functionally laws today. Perhaps they were not passed. Perhaps they were not ratified. No one seems to know.)
I don’t remember when or how my mind was changed; I don’t think that it happened all at once. I do remember a moment, though, when, sitting in one of the symposia that accompanied the first Sidney Poitier Film Festival at the College of The Bahamas, I listened to an American academic who made a set of simple and clear points that I had never thought of before. Sidney Poitier changed the world for Black people in the 1950s. And he did it because he was from Cat Island. He did it because he was Bahamian.
I don’t feel the need to go through all the details that were given in that presentation. I’ll just say it very simply. Until Poitier appeared on screen, the image of the black man that was circumnavigating the world was that of a shuffling, forelock-touching, yes-massa, servile sort of person, or else it was that of the cannibalistic savage dancing in a grass skirt around a fire, shaking a rattle and salivating at the thought of cooking up some prime white meat. There were some exceptions, like Paul Robeson in the 1936 film of Show Boat, but they were circumscribed by things that made them safe; Robeson’s character Joe was, for all his strength and gravity, softened by the fact that he burst into song. Sidney Poitier didn’t sing. He didn’t take roles that made him out to be anything less than a man who deserved—and demanded—respect. Few black men, if any, spoke in Standard English on the silver screen. Poitier spoke English better than most Americans did. He looked into the camera, and dared you to call him “nigger” or “boy”, and did it by using the dignity Cat Island instilled in him and not by inspiring fear.
If that were all that Sidney Poitier did, I’d say that it would be appropriate for the land that raised him (and the land that he would also have been born in, if he hadn’t arrived prematurely on that Miami trip) to honour him in some tangible and meaningful way. But I’ve learned that it wasn’t all that he did. We tend to judge people’s contributions to the nation by their notoriety, by their fame, and those people who simply do what they know to be right without looking for recognition seem to disappear into oblivion, while people who make a big fuss about their actions are placed on pedestals. Suffice to say that I’m convinced that Poitier has contributed, generously, to our nation through his support, financial and otherwise, of individual Bahamians.
That said, I want to return to where I began—with reference to those people who mentored me in the performing arts. In all the discussion about why Poitier should or shouldn’t be honoured and who should be honoured instead, I have not heard much mention of any of them. I wonder why. Like Poitier, they have all dedicated themselves to their craft, and have worked to make sure that whatever they produced was the best that they could possibly deliver. They didn’t limit themselves by what they thought the Bahamian public would like or understand; instead, they pushed the envelope, tried different things, and inspired Bahamians to think differently about themselves, to dream better, to go further, to be better. They inspired me to do that. They taught the people they worked with to do it. They never thought that being Bahamian meant being second-rate at anything; the standard they upheld was universal and excellent. And yet their names are not called. Neither are the names of many others who worked, and work, according to the same criteria. I wonder why.
So I am left, in all our discussion of respect for Bahamian artists, with the question of what it is we are respecting, and why. Is excellence one of our criteria? Is popularity? Is our discussion informed by a real appreciation for the work of all Bahamian artists, or only of those we know, recognize and support? Are we reasoning our way to our list of proposed honourees, or are we acting out of emotion? Are we seeking to rectify omissions of the past, or paving a pathway to the future?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do know that now we have begun the discussion with Sidney Poitier we need to hold the discussion in earnest. And we have to hold it in the way I ask my students to write their papers—by establishing criteria and goals, by doing the research, by presenting the evidence, and by making our cases. And we have to do it as a nation, collectively, as a citizenry who know and articulate who and what it is we would like to be. By now it should be clear that we cannot leave it to others; we need to do it ourselves.