A Good Colonial Education

I’m a QC graduate.

This is something my brother and I share with our mother and uncle, and with their father as well. We’re third generation Comets, even though that title has something twenty-first century about it. My grandfather went to QC in the 1910s. My mother and uncle started in the 1930s and 40s; I started attending Queen’s College in 1968, my brother one year later.

Now there was something special about this. People who are old enough to remember will tell you without lying about it that for much of its early history Queen’s College was a strictly segregated school. From 1890, when it was established, until after the second world war, it maintained a whites-only policy that was relaxed only for the very lucky few. My mother’s family happened to be in that few. (You can read all about the early history of Queen’s College in one of Gail Saunders’ articles, “The Ambiguous Admission Policy at Queen’s College High School, Nassau, Bahamas, 1920s-1950s…”, published in Yinna Vol. 3.) Not until 1948, just as my uncle was leaving the school and my mother was entering her final years there, did someone who was unequivocally of full African descent gain admittance, and it took even longer for the school to gain a population which, like the country, was predominantly black. And the change was imposed from the outside: the Methodist Missionary Society in London pressured the school to integrate. Until then, there had been definite resistance from the parents of the white students to the widespread admission of non-whites, and several of them formed St. Andrew’s when they realized they could no longer be sure of a segregated education for their children.

When I got there, although Queen’s College was still mostly white, it was not so because of any specified policy. It may have been because society itself was still largely segregated; it may have been because despite policy changes and parliamentary resolutions, the majority of Bahamians of colour did not go where they did not feel welcome; or it may have been that before the 1960s, given the general limitations placed on the Black Bahamian majority with regard to education and work, the cost of attending Queen’s College was financially prohibitive to most people. But things changed at the end of that decade. The Class of 1979—my graduating class—entered Reception in 1967, the same year that Majority Rule occurred. That I didn’t join them then hardly matters (I entered one year later, in Grade One); the year I joined was perhaps the most mixed, the most integrated year, ever to enter Queen’s College to that point. One important reason was that almost all of the new MPs enrolled their children there. Obie Pindling may have gone to the Government High School like his father; but Michelle, Leslie and (later) Monique were QC students from the start. QC was, if not the best private school, the most prestigious, and so my classmates, mentors, and other schoolfriends included the Pindlings, the Johnsons, the Wallace-Whitfields, the Hannas, the Stevensons, the Macmillans, the Maynards, the Levaritys, the Thompsons, the Bains. Statements were being made, and loudly.

The revolution, it seemed, was complete. But what we didn’t know was this: it had only just begun. Entry to Queen’s College was only the first step on the journey. What we learned there was another cog in the wheel.

Because here’s the thing—and I didn’t realize it until just now, until I started pondering the potential impact of starting my schooling six years before independence on my life—I was in high school before I ever was taught by a person of African descent. And I was almost teenager before I ever was taught by a born Bahamian.

Now don’t get me wrong. This didn’t have the detrimental effect on my self-perception or on my perception of the ability of Bahamians and black people to teach that it might have. I grew up in a family full of teachers. What was more, all of the teachers to whom I was related were of African descent to some degree or another.  And their friends were teachers, too, teachers of all complexions. My father and mother were both teachers. My uncle had been a maths teacher. My great-aunt was a teacher who had had to train at Tuskegee because there was no way for her to qualify as a teacher in Nassau. My great-uncle was the first Black Bahamian to teach at the Government High School, and the first Black Bahamian to head it. My mother’s immediate boss was the first woman to do the same thing (and by the way, she was Black too). No; I knew Bahamians, black and white, were smart enough to teach. But what I didn’t have was black and white Bahamians taking charge of my formal education.

In fact, most of my teachers were English. In primary school, they were all British; there were a few Welsh and Scottish teachers thrown into the mix, so I couldn’t say they were all English. But when I say I had a good colonial education, I can offer up the pedigree. Not only did I start my education under British colonial rule; the British influence continued long past Independence through the very people who were teaching me.

Here’s how that mattered. Without taking anything whatsoever away from the people who taught me, most of whom were curious, open, engaged, tolerant people (they had opted to teach in the Bahamas, after all), it nevertheless remains true that they brought with them a particular worldview, a particular mindset that was not centred on the Bahamas, or on people of colour. Most of them had been born in the Britain of the second world war or earlier, which meant that most of them had been as steeped in the language, the attitudes, the assumptions and the prejudices that had been developed and refined to administer the British Empire. Even though they were coming of age in a Britain that was changing, they had been socialized to view the world as Eurocentric, as hierarchical, and as being in need of the beneficence of the “more advanced” nations and peoples of the world. This was how most of them approached the teaching of most of us. We were the colonials; they were the imperial masters, and, even for the most idealistic of them, there was a sense of obligation, of duty, to bring us into the light.

This was by no means as awful as it sounds. Most of the teachers I had as a child were wonderful, generous people (though not all; some of them were both verbally and physically abusive) whose love for the children they were teaching shone through. There were also some very rare ones who seemed to have very few prejudices at all, who were capable, it seemed, of viewing people as people. But for the majority, several “truths” were common. The first one was that Britain was the centre of the universe. The corollary of that was that Britain was also the pinnacle of evolution and of civilization and it would behoove us all to learn as much from her successes and strive to emulate them in whatever way we possibly could. The second was that the world was divided into races (“red and yellow, black and white”, as the hymn sings) and that those races were hierarchically arranged in order of their attainment of civilization. At the top was the white race; just below them the yellow races; below them the brown races, and at the bottom were black people. The third was that the less civilized you were, the less culture you had, and the more you had to be taught. Black people, being at the bottom of the aforementioned ladder, clearly had very little culture of their own and therefore had to be taught almost everything. We were vessels filled with ignorance and a tendency towards savagery, and we were to be civilized.

Naturally, of course, this was what we thought of ourselves. Not consciously, you understand; after all, this was the end of the 1960s and between 1967 and 1973 there was a very conscious effort to explore and to celebrate what it meant to be Bahamian. And many of the expatriate teachers who were here at the time assisted us in that exercise; many of them were thrilled by our independence and helped us to celebrate that. No; it all happened unconsciously, subconsciously, with the result that when the newness of our nationhood rubbed off, at the first sign of tarnish on the shiny Bahamian identity,  all of what we learned from our colonial education, between the lines as it were, reared its head. We were “silly little girls and boys” again; we were inherently dishonest, naturally lazy, and fundamentally stupid to boot. We needed other people’s help to help us grow. We were not ready to rule ourselves. We could not solve our own problems; we needed people who had finished civilizing themselves to solve them for us.

It took me years to expose these tendencies in my own life. I was helped by the fact that, as I said, although I was not exposed to Bahamian, black, or black Bahamian educators in my own schooling, I was surrounded by them in my home, and so I had a second narrative to refer to when things became confusing. I had a father who was actively developing a Bahamian sense of self, and I had no shame about being a Bahamian as a result; I had a mother who was developing Bahamian education and that, too, was a benefit. In college I was exposed to the writings and teachings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ousmane Sembene, Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, C. L. R. James, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite and others, and learned to put my earlier education in its colonial context. I learned that it was important to, as Ngugi would put it, decolonize my mind, and have been working on it ever since. But to do so, it’s been important for me always to recognize that my mind was indeed colonized, and needs recalibration.

Fast forward to today. Let’s put this all into context. What’s important about all of this is not that I seek to assign blame to my teachers, so many of them wonderful human beings, for what happened in the past. Many of them, perhaps most of them, were not intending to denigrate us; they were products of their society, they were as shaped by their youthful realities as we were. Rather, I’m hoping to provide a way for us to understand why we Bahamians have seemed to remain trapped in a cycle of self-denigration, lack of trust in our own abilities, and addiction to outside advice for problems that really should have local solutions.

I’m fifty-one. Most of the people who advise the politicians, who steer the nation no matter who is in charge—the civil servants who influence politicians’ decisions, who recommend solutions, who help chart the course of our development—are older than me. If my education was still subtly colonial, if my education left the residue of empire on my life with all of the attendant checks and balances of my exposure, how much more was theirs? My year was the last to take the Common Entrance exam and among the first years to take the BJC. We were among the first to study Bahamian history (before I entered high school in 1974, there were no history books written by Bahamians, and the only book of Bahamian history at all, Michael Craton‘s A History of The Bahamas, had been written originally in 1962 and hastily updated in 1968 to cover majority rule). Paul Albury’s The Story of The Bahamas was the most exciting book I had ever read; it came out in 1975, just in time for us to use it for our BJC in history two years later. On top of that, we were fortunate enough to be taught by Philip Cash, who was studying Bahamian history for his Master’s degree—something few other people had ever done—and who supplemented our Caribbean history texts with his own research (it later became the text still used in schools, The Making of The Bahamas). My year was the first or second year to have Bahamian textbooks to study from for our examinations.

The people who are still making decisions for our country did not even have what I had. They may never have studied our history. They probably learned all about the British kings and queens, because out there, where the white Europeans lived, that was the “real” world. They, like me, were taught, consciously or subconsciouly, that this Bahamaland in which we live, where we all grew up, is a dream place, not “real” at all. They have to rely on their subjective, fallible, politically skewed personal memories of their own pasts to create a picture of our nation’s history. And it is this that they use to make their decisions.

The thrust of this memoir is this. We, the decision makers of our independent, forty-one year old country, my generation, the generation before mine and the people who came right after me, are all products of a good colonial education. No wonder neocolonialism is the order of the day.

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