On What We’re Good At

I was taught never to end a sentence with a preposition. To end anything, for that matter, with a preposition. Instead of saying “This is something I’m not going to put up with”, I was taught to say “This is something up with which I will not put”. Ends on a verb, see. Much better.

I was taught to make an effort to be good at the stuff I did — stuff that included the speaking of English. And being a good child, I tried. Even if it made me sound like a pedant.

What I wasn’t taught, not consciously anyway, was what we’re good at. Be good at stuff, I was lectured; but not so much, look, you’re good at this already; make it better. By “we”, of course, I mean the collectivity of Bahamians. No. I went to a “good” school, where I received most of my teaching. Received, and soaked it up; like any Bahamian with broughtupcy, I made a very good sponge. The Andros Mud had nothing on me.

Fundamental to what I learned was this: we (read Bahamians) aren’t good at anything at all.

I have since learned better. It’s seeped into my consciousness without my realizing it: the fact that we can do some things very well, and others the best in the world. And in this climate of fear-of-the-immigrant, resistance-to-the-expatriate, this fight for protection of our own mediocrity (because of course, foreigners — black or white — do it better), I never hear anyone discussing what it is we can teach other people.

No. In fact, we’re busily working to destroy what we’re good at.

Now just what do I mean by this? Well, OK, let’s look at what The Bahamas has given the world. (What is she talking about? I hear you saying. What in the world has The Bahamas given the world? Just wait and see.)

One: Joseph Spence and the Androsian guitar.
Two: Rhyming, in spirituals and other songs.
Three: The goatskin drum carried over the shoulder and beaten with one main hand.
Four: The Bahamian style of house, in wood or in stone.
Five: The Bahamian workboat, in every size, shape and fashion.

So where are we now? Well, first, how many young people know the name of Joseph Spence, much less know that he’s one of the greatest folk artists in the entire world? Beyond that, how many young Bahamians are making music on guitars tuned to the six notes that Spence tuned his guitar? How many young Bahamians can play a single guitar and sound like a whole band? How many young Bahamians — and not so young too — even know how to hold a guitar these days, much less play it?

Second, how many young Bahamians know that rap and even dub are variations of the African-style chanting that occurs throughout the diaspora, and which has its own style here in The Bahamas? How many young Bahamians can rhyme with the subtlety and sophistication of a Spence or a McQueen, or produce a story in rhyme without shrugging on the accents of street Brooklyn or Trench Town? How many of them (us) even recognize the rhythms of the old Bahamian rhyme, much less welcome them?

Three: Where have all the goatskin drums gone? I know the challenges inherent in making them: the people who know how are aging, tom-toms are easy to find, goats are few and far between, skins have to come in from Jamaica — but these are weak excuses, not reasons to abandon a skill our ancestors recreated from the ashes of slavery.

Four: The houses that are uniquely ours, as opposed to those whose facades and spaces we see in magazines and on screens, are in imminent danger of disappearing forever. These buildings — of wood some of them, built often by master shipbuilders and held together by pegs and engineering designed to withstand waves, and of concrete or stone others, made to be cool without air conditioning and stout against storms — are being bulldozed with surprising rapidity, falling before machines made far away and unlamented by men who value expediency over Bahamian skill. And at the same time, American architects in the South are copying the Bahamian style.

Five: Where are the boatbuilders who know how to bend wood? Have we moved entirely over to fibreglass? Is the tradition of Bahamian boatbuilding — so world-renowned that the richest men once had their yachts built in Abaco (the word hadn’t got out about Long Island and Ragged Island and Crooked Island and Exuma) — in danger of dying because of our own ignorance?

Now, lest it seem to people that I’m drowning in nostalgia, that I’m romanticizing stuff, that I’m being impractical and unrealistic and too passionate to make sense, consider this.

We live in a world where ideas, original ideas, are the things that generate cold, hard cash. It’s a world that’s looking for fresh things, new things, for things that work. The world created by people who are “progressive”, unromantic, practical and realistic and devoid of any passion, is a world that falls down in big winds, sinks at the slightest provocation, stops running five years after its purchase (if you’re lucky), and issues out of machines. It’s also a world whose profits all go to the same places: to the Sonys and Microsofts of this earth.

And what sells is stuff that’s unique, that works, that lasts, that’s special, that’s true.

Every choice we make to leave what is ours behind, to abandon what we’re good at for the stuff that’s easy or cheap is not a choice simply to give up a little piece of our souls. It’s a choice also to give up a little piece of our wealth. For in this Sonysoft world of ours, our wealth will come from our souls. If we keep it, they will come.