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]