I’ll tell you a sick joke. All my adult life, I’ve been a taxpayer and a law-abiding citizen, and all my adult life, the things that mean the most to me—knowledge, intellectual curiosity, and creative endeavour—have had no place in the society our politicians have assembled.
A year and a half ago, I had a personal encounter that promised something different. I ran into the man who is now the Prime Minister, and he announced, as his manifesto did before that moment and as his maiden speech did after, that a Bahamian government would at long last take our culture seriously enough to give it an agency of its own. A stand-alone ministry, he promised. My response? I laughed. I’ve heard it all before.
Turn back the clock to February 2006. There is a cultural conclave going on, a gathering of the Bahamian cultural community to discuss two main things: the preparation of the National Cultural Policy and the hosting of CARIFESTA X in The Bahamas. The culmination of this event is a speech given by the sitting prime minister, who announces two things: a cabinet shuffle, by which he will become the substantive minister of culture, and by which culture will be moved into the Office of the Prime Minister preliminary to the creation of a—you guessed it—standalone ministry of culture.
And so the cultural affairs division moved, in name and in person, out of the top-floor offices on Thompson Boulevard. There was no place initially to which to move; the officers and staff of the division were given a day to pack up and leave, but had nowhere to go. Eventually, after some nomadism, we ended up being housed by the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation. The excitement of the announcement fizzled out when reality set in, and politics, as it often does, took over the actual service of the actual people. Then, as now, words were said. The reality was something fundamentally different.
My response, when Dr. Minnis waxed enthusiastic about the standalone ministry of culture, therefore, was laughter. I knew better than most of the political hopefuls what exactly that promise would mean. I knew, because in 2006, I spent the better part of two months writing minutes, proposals, and draft cabinet papers that would enable the creation of such a standalone ministry to take place.
The basic problem is this: there is no such thing as a department of culture. The entity that governs Bahamian culture is quite simply a division––a collection of civil servants under a particular unit head served by a director. But the director of cultural affairs is not a substantive director. There is no budget head that is assigned to cultural affairs; the director of culture controls no actual money; all that individual has the authority to do is advise the permanent secretary and the minister on actions that might or might not make sense. In order for any work to get done, the cultural affairs division needs to be housed in a ministry, as it has no accountant, no registry, and no human resources officer assigned to it. Money cannot be released on the director’s signature alone; the permanent secretary and sometimes undersecretaries can sign off on budget line items that are assigned to the cultural affairs division without the consent or even the knowledge of the director. I know, because it happened to me often enough. There is no career path for cultural officials, despite the fact that the division is one of the oldest in the government, having been established before independence, in 1972. There is no permanent location for the division, and the achievements of the division have been lost in time, because every time the division is moved somewhere new, its closed files do not travel with it.
The road to a standalone ministry is a lengthy one. It requires the creation of an actual department of culture, with a budget head, which is controlled by a substantive director. It requires the creation of an accounts department, a registry, and a human resources department. It requires the identification of permanent offices. It requires the creation of cultural career paths which will allow those individuals who are hired to work in the division the opportunity to gain promotions throughout their careers. It requires thought, and it requires investment. It may require legislation.
As I listened to Dr. Minnis, I held this knowledge in my head, along with the equal and opposite knowledge that the history of the Free National Movement has not been kind to culture or cultural activity; indeed, in 1997, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture was disbanded altogether, and the cultural affairs division began its long trek through peculiar ministries, such as Public Service (and Culture).
I also held this equal knowledge in my head: that the time for a standalone ministry of culture has long passed. Ministries of culture are a twentieth-century innovation, a holdover from a time when culture was a simple matter of creative expression, something that was relegated to the sidelines of society, and not integrated into the economy at all. Ministries, which are political entities fully funded by the central purse and dependent on it, are not the medium by which most cultural activity is generated or delivered throughout the Caribbean today; most Caribbean nations have created quasi-governmental corporations to manage and develop their culture. So even the idea of a stand-alone ministry of culture is dated, to say the least.
In the twenty-first century, culture is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy, and ministries of culture are too slow and too heavy with political baggage to meet the needs of the new century. The impact of culture on the economies of all nations goes far beyond the expressionistic today. Creativity is the currency of the digital age. Cultural activity, its gatekeepers swept away by the expansion of the internet, is one of the most resilient and active of all economic sectors. As manufacturing shrinks, culture grows.
This is even true in The Bahamas. I would guess, though no studies have yet been comprehensively done, that culture is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Bahamian economy. It is supremely under-recognized and ludicrously under-supported, but that has not stopped a generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings from going into professions that did not exist in The Bahamas for previous generations, like mine. Writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians—these are professions that have traction in our nation despite the complete neglect of the cultural sector by lawmakers and politicians.
It is in this economic sector that the greatest potential lies for increasing revenue for our nation. The primary resource required by the cultural industries is human creativity, which is both unique and infinite. Secondary resources (which we do not have) include training centres, schools of the arts, investment, incentives, and proper cultural grants (the $1 million set aside is a pittance in this regard, especially considering the kinds of investments, the millions spent both in concessions and real money on attracting foreigners to set up businesses in this nation).
Beyond the economy, cultural activity is critical to human survival. Despite our deeply ingrained belief that culture is something that children can indulge in, but that adults grow out of, despite our assumption that spending one’s time in cultural activity is a luxury that many cannot afford, the reality is that to build a strong society requires the investment and support of writers, composers, choreographers, directors, actors, artists. These people are the translators and the creators of individual, community and national identity. In societies where art is not recognized, there can be no greatness, because there is no coherent sense of self. And we live in a society where, forty-five years after independence, we still have no national library, no national museum, no school for the arts. Need I go on?
Despite it all
But despite this all, the Bahamian cultural community, like the global cultural community, is growing. What’s more: it is vocal, it is conscious, and it is fierce. It stands against the traditional xenophobia and misogyny of our society; many of our most outspoken activists are also creative workers in one realm or another. Bahamian art, plays, film and music do not accept the local status quo, and challenge long-held prejudices and habits. They make many feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is often a prelude to necessary change.
And so. Promises notwithstanding, there is no standalone ministry of culture, outdated as that concept may be. Instead, the agency that does exist is now headed by a lawyer who has, as far as I know, no knowledge of or connection to the cultural community of The Bahamas (or, for that matter, to the sports community either. I cannot speak for youth).
And the media is complicit. As it announces that for the first time our country has a female minister of youth, sports and culture, it lets pass the equally historic fact that for a year, for the first time, we in the cultural community had one of our own, a professional poet, writer, and actor, to serve us. The media speaks about sports, but neglects to consider the power of culture, both here and abroad, and fails to analyze the message that this cabinet shuffle has sent, loud and clear, to the Bahamian cultural community.
This recent appointment demonstrates a deep disrespect for the cultural community, for Bahamian identity, and for the benefits, economic, social, and human, of investment in creative life.
Further, as the appointment occurs the week before we limp into the ceremonies that recognize our 45th anniversary of independence, it reveals an abiding disregard for, and neglect of, the citizenry of this nation as a whole. Nations are built by artists and writers, who capture critical moments for their fellow citizens and translate them beyond the ordinary into forms that inspire reflection, discussion, and change. Nations are built by composers and choreographers who take beauty and turn it into movement or song. They’re built by actors and directors, who use the palette of human emotion to reveal to citizens who collectively they are. Artists and cultural workers are the lifeblood of nations. The time is long overdue for us to have appropriate representation at the most powerful table in the land.
This appointment? It gives us no such representation. It doesn’t provide the cultural community with a potential champion, someone who understands and can fight for us, crafting legislation that builds up our common life, creating programmes and institutions that serve us. Instead, In fact, it’s little more than an exercise in power. it shows us all that cabinet posts exist not to serve the citizenry, but to reward allegiance to the leader of the party in power.
The saddest thing of all is that there is nothing new about this disregard. It’s not unique at all. It is merely a continuation of our governments’ permanent official and political disregard for the core of what is Bahamian.
We are masters of dissing our culture. We must be; we vote again and again for people who excel at it. But make no mistake here, my fellow Bahamians. By dissing our culture, we diss our selves.