I am greeting this day with profoundly mixed feelings.
On the one hand, of course, I am proud of this day, proud that at forty we have not suffered any of the calamities that pundits have predicted, proud that we have indeed made a nation out of these “barren” rocks and cays, islands which were not important enough to our colonial masters for them to interfere very much with, but which we, the inhabitants, have made important in our region.
I am proud, too, of the contribution that Bahamians have made to history here and around the world, that we have been making for over a century. Those of you who follow such things on Facebook can probably name some of them: W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Joseph Love, Bert Williams, Albert Forsythe, Joseph Spence, and Sidney Poitier are just a start, not to mention the stellar performance of our more contemporary athletes, artists, and intellectuals.
And I’m proud that on the surface, we Bahamians created a society that stood for equality for all races without bloodshed. This is a remarkable achievement, and one which served as inspiration for a man no less remarkable than Nelson Mandela after his release from prison; when he was about to set up his own nation, whose racist legacy was far deeper, more egregious and legally supported than our own, he visited us to see how we had made the change.
At the same time, though, I am profoundly uneasy about this moment. Part of the unease comes from our addiction to superficiality. There will be much talk today, all over the airwaves and in cyberspace, about the self-same things I have mentioned above. Elders will call up names from their memories, as I have done, and talk about why they are proud, and they (we) will expect their pride to communicate itself, somehow by osmosis, to the majority of the Bahamian people, the average age of whom is 29. And yet still, still, we have not invested anything substantial or lasting to ensure that these reasons to be proud make it into the bloodstream of the Bahamian nation.
I am profoundly uneasy because, at forty, here is what this nation (of which I am proud) does not have:
- a national library whose job it is to collect the publications and other documents and keep them in a safe place that is open to all members of the public where even the poorest among us can go to find out the things that elders will shout about today;
- a national broadcasting station whose job it is to produce programming that, round the clock, provides Bahamians with reasons to be proud of themselves;
- a national curriculum that determines which things young Bahamians should know by the time they become adults, and sets about teaching them;
- a national centre that celebrates, encourages and nurtures the innate creativity that we have to have inherited from those of our forefathers who made these rocks in the ocean into islands on which we can thrive
- a national philosophy that provides for Bahamian citizens some ideal or goal to which to aspire, something that we can stand for wherever we go, and which does not change when the political party in power changes.
And all this occurs in a climate where less than 1% of the national budget is invested in tertiary level education—in creating the kinds of institutions where research can be ongoing and more to be proud of uncovered, written about, and shared.
So happy independence, Bahamas. We’re forty, and the world is not standing still. I challenge the generation coming after mine to rectify the mistakes we have made, and to do more than believe in Bahamians: invest in us too.