A modest proposal towards a truer emancipation and a truer independence - pt. 1
Published: Sep 04, 2013
Part 1 of the address delivered by Patricia Glinton-Meicholas on the occasion of The Keva Marie Bethel Distinguished Lecture at The College of The Bahamas.
Many people who are independent are not free, and many who are dependent are free.
This is the conundrum expressed by a wise American monk of our time. With his clarification, the truth of his statement is unmistakable:
Independence refers to an external situation and is associated with the word liberty. A person in jail is not at liberty. But freedom is an interior condition. One who is free is able to act by norms personally decided on and internalized. A person in prison may not be at liberty but still be free: for example, St. Paul, St. Thomas More, Henry David Thoreau, Nelson Mandela. People not able to decide on a system of beliefs or, if having decided, not able to live according to it, is not free, however rich, powerful, or independent they may be. (Abbot Jerome Kodell, Subiaco Abbey, Subiaco, Arkansas, USA. www.countrymonks.us/freedom-and-independence)
Every year in The Bahamas we support significant celebrations of two versions of liberty—Emancipation Day and Independence Day and, indeed, we have much to celebrate. Few countries have emerged from a culture of bondage, whether based on race or on ethnicity, without that exodus being underwritten by ethnic cleansing, genocide, holocaust, or whatever expressions we employ in the effort to contain the horror of mass bloodletting.
The Bahamas can celebrate the fact that its people threw off the chains of slavery without bloodshed and the descendants of the enslaved and the masters have lived in relative peace since then.
Similarly, few of the sovereign nations that arose from the sunset of the British Empire can claim an emergence from colonial bondage that was not attended by armed conflict and, in some cases, horrific human rights abuses and subsequent periodic outbursts of unrest as the newly liberated struggled to come to terms with freedom and leadership.
In The Bahamas, the bloodier chapters of decolonization have not been our experience to date.
Nevertheless, I contend that, in this second decade of the 21st century, Bahamians are not truly free. Neither is The Bahamas truly independent, despite our three constitutions and various amendments; despite all the documentation filled with words signaling autonomy and self-direction.
I contend further that decolonization, first cousin to emancipation and independence is a process of long and painful duration and is far from complete in The Bahamas.
Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 conferred legal freedom to enslaved Bahamians and removed the iron chains and whips of coercion. The Act did not remove the bondage of racial, political and economic discrimination, which was supported by a web of political, legal and even religious machinations.
Those who held the economic and governmental reins in our islands did not give sufficient practical substance to the intent of the law. As a result, up to the 1960s, any real progress in education and enfranchisement, the main pillars of liberty, required the periodic interventions of the imperial power.
This country attained universal suffrage only in 1961 and majority representation only in 1967—127 and 133 years, respectively, after the Abolition Act became effective in 1834.
What took place 40 years ago in July 1973 was a purchase at a fire sale, not independence. The British Empire was burning down and, no doubt, it seemed propitious to let go of unprofitable territories before disengagement morphed into the destruction of lives and property, especially those of British expatriates, as had occurred in India and the African colonies.
It was a nunc dimittis we celebrated on July 10, 1973, not independence. It would have been entirely in keeping with the true import of the occasion, if The Bahamas’ first prime minister, Lynden Pindling had repeated Simeon’s Canticle to Prince Charles, who represented the British Monarchy: “Ruler of all, now dost thou let thy servant go in peace, according to thy word.”
Nevertheless, echoing through that night and the following day would have been cries in good Bahamian Creole of “We reach!!” Our new flag and the instruments of sovereignty were not journey’s end, however, but a beginning. They simply indicated to the world our right to pursue national independence and popular freedom.
The freedom struggle
Independence and the Independence Constitution were twin infants—babes to be loved, nourished, to have their nappies changed when soiled, anomic beings to be guided and raised to an ethical, admirable and sustainable majority.
The freedom struggle had begun anew in 1973, but it was different this time. We had been handed the deeds to the land, the keys to the house and full rights to our lives. It was our choice either to keep everything as it was handed over or to remodel and furnish according to Bahamian needs and tastes. We could choose our leaders, set the pace and write the cadence. It was up to us to break the psychic chains.
It is our misfortune that the necessary rhetoric of freedom that prevailed in the run-up to 1834 and in the pre-Independence period between 1967 and 1972, later to be reinforced by election politics every five years since, cooked up a witches’ brew of delusion that has put the Bahamian people off pace in the journey to a truer emancipation and independence.
Many Bahamian came to believe, with dangerous zealotry, that we have a specialness, which can protect us from all the contretemps of life and a certificate of entitlement that is undated and good for interest-free credit and endless drawdowns of privilege with no payback required.
Moreover, Bahamians, like other peoples across the globe, have been lulled by soporific fictions of freedom, authored by the rapidity of technological advance and the ease of acquiring indecent wealth by its instrumentation.
We were made to believe that we could go to bed poor and wake up the next morning Gates, Jobs, Bezos and Zuckerberg rich. Until the global financial crash of 2007, we were bedazzled by wizardry of Wall Street, which caused us to focus slavishly on speculative ventures, rather than on the slogging and long-term commitment required to build real and sustainable economies.
No matter our delusions, however, a country that produces 13-year-old girls, who carry sawn off shotguns in their bags and babes who die from blows to the head with frying pans, is in deep and Katrin Kaeufer speak of a “landscape of issues and pathologies”, which constitute three divides—ecological, social and spiritual-cultural, which are generated by a series of “disconnects”.
How apt a description for this country’s growing societal and economic disarray.
‘On life support’
If I were to write the screenplay for a film on Bahamian life today, I would title it “On Life Support” and feature the issues, disconnects and pathologies assailing of our freedoms: youth disaffection, senseless murder, joblessness, endemic insouciance regarding human rights and the environment, landlessness, land grabs, parliamentary exchanges that have more to do with schoolyard brawling than intelligent governance, sour grapes politics, deficit spending on the national and individual levels, “For Sale” signs proliferating in the Exuma Cays, which have become the latest high-ticket accessories of narcissistic celebrity, rising class and ethnic disparities, an education system worthy of the title only as it relates to systemic failure, a health system overwhelmed by a one in three morbidity rate in chronic, non- communicable diseases, a bloated and gravely inefficient public bureaucracy that is too tired, politicized or jaded to do the people’s business, and, last but not least, endless political appointments that add to the public payroll but deplete our fund of skilled leadership.
In the midst of growing chaos, we witness, to our despair, a range of leaders behaving extra-territorially: pastors playing politician ayatollah style, trying with might and main to establish hegemony over our consciences and politicians playing god, accountants and attorneys playing the money markets with client money, bankers mortgaging the future of the next two generations and idle moguls playing ping pong with our country’s dignity and the future of us all, thanks to the increasing greed and declining fund of integrity exhibited by many Bahamians.
This disorder constitutes neither freedom nor independence.
As Brutus says to Cassius in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the eve of a decisive battle: “We, at the height, are ready to decline.” (Julius Caesar, Act 4, scene 3, 216–217).
The question is, What went wrong? A part of the answer is that some of us did not want real change when we achieved what the world called emancipation and independence, but simply wanted to ape the master and assume his role.
Yes, we beat the drum of democracy and parity as the Western world dictates, but powerful is the Bahamian desire to create aristocracy, separation of classes, dynastic power and separatist wealth in the colonial mold.
Majority rule has not promoted more freedom, but has underwritten new plantations. We have simply recast the tragedy of oppression—new players, same script.
To discern a way forward, it won’t serve to do a surface examination of the house called “Bahamas”. We can’t just slap on a fresh coat of paint, plan a big party and heat up the junkanoo drums.
The crisis of our times calls for systemic examination—a country and people MRI. It is important to assess how we see ourselves and our purpose, how we view others and the degree to which we can act in concert.
These concepts inform all the aspects of what we term national identity, society, community and economy. They inform the way we set goals, govern and educate. They are the fundamentals of productive citizenship and, consequently, the building blocks of freedom and independence.
The state of Bahamian democracy
It has been noted that democracy is the institutionalization of freedom. So, above all, we must examine the state of Bahamian democracy.
To begin, let us consider a few of the most obdurate barriers to the formation of a productive Bahamian self-imaging. Several arose from the enslavement of African Bahamians up to 1834, rule by a minority oligarchy until 1967 and the fact that the islands of The Bahamas, until 1973, were a colony of a foreign power that was racially different for the most part and geographically and culturally distant.
These factors posed a triple threat to the formation of a dignified, socially and economically mobile polity of African descent, combining to create deep-seated habits of dependence and a sense of inferiority in those subjugated.
Even more challenging, the legacy of dependence has passed down through the ages. Where the relationship between government and people should be characterized by shared responsibility, interlocution and progressive partnership as prerequisites for gaining and sustaining freedom, we have chosen to keep the plantation model, featuring an all-powerful master/provider and the enslaved, who await the dole of modern versions of two suits of osnaburgs and quarts of corn.
Furthermore, freedom in the Bahamian context has come to be equated to liberation from all personal responsibilities, limiting boundaries and obligations to productivity.
The unbroken history of paternalism in this country has produced a generation lacking the generative power of personal discipline, delayed gratification and sacrifice when circumstances demand their evocation.
• Patricia Glinton-Meicholas is a Bahamian author, educator and cultural anthropologist.