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we await the language we await the language

Somebody bes start writin’

Somebody best write fas'

'Cause it done too late already

Ta keep up wid de pas'.

- Susan Wallace (Collinwood)

In 1948 a group of Caribbean young men boarded a ship bound for England. They were ‘returning’ to their ‘mother country’ – a country they had never set foot on, yet they were intimately familiar with – to study and hopefully learn the literary skills they needed to write like the English authors they so admired. They were not the first to ‘return’ to the ‘mother country’, nor the last. But it was typical of the Caribbean that the residents had to leave their homes for their ‘home’ (meaning England or America) in order to secure an education. These young men and women would eventually produce some of the Caribbean’s most powerful literature – most of it dealing with their “troubled quest for identity and liberty” and “with re-creating the space of the Caribbean as a lived in space” (Windrush). Most of their works you won’t find in the library or at your local bookstore.

The Caribbean writers who represent the Bahamas are just emerging in the last few centuries--working themselves into history, preparing the path for future generations, creating a presence, a voice, an identity for themselves. The authors writing in the past century touch on many troublesome aspects of Bahamian culture: the American influence in the form of materialism and tourism, the lack of a historical presence in the countries youth, the never ending influence of centuries of European tight control of the islands, and the problematic issue of race and just what makes a Bahamian a Bahamian.

The Caribbean writers who represent the Bahamas are just emerging in the last few centuries--working themselves into history, preparing the path for future generations, creating a presence, a voice, an identity for themselves. The authors writing in the past century touch on many troublesome aspects of Bahamian culture: the American influence in the form of materialism and tourism, the lack of a historical presence in the countries youth, the never ending influence of centuries of European tight control of the islands, and the problematic issue of race and just what makes a Bahamian a Bahamian.

The literary pioneers of the Bahamas are creating a literary language in an attempt to save an endangered culture. They are striving to produce a literature of the Bahamas that will provide its peoples with a sense of identity, a sense of historical culture, and a sense of self. Marion Bethel speaks in an article “Bringing Myself into Fiction” of “the voids they (Bahamian writers) are compelled to fill, the issues they have to clarify” (Sanz 11). These voids include issues of colonialism, slavery, culture, and, most importantly, identity. The writers of this new literature are faced with obstacles however. These obstacles include the troublesome problems of tourism, imported ideologies and technology, and racial identity.

Some of the existing and emerging Bahamian writers are the descendents of the Loyalist pioneers. Many are descendents of the slaves who were imported from far away regions—Africa, Europe, the United States. The works being produced by Bahamian authors have the names Bethel, Albury, Knowles, Symonette, Cartwright, Rahming…all names you will find on the census records of the Bahamas as far back as the 18th century.

They write about everything having to do with the culture and peoples of the Bahamas. They write poems, plays, novels, articles, recipe books, and history books. They write out of an innate desire to preserve their culture, to create an identity for themselves and for their country. Some are as Marion Bethel says, “…the conch Bahamians/we do not pain for what/we do not know we have lost” (Bethel 26). Some are white Bahamians who, in the words of Helen Klonaris, “sing/down the walls and my voice is big wailing/coming from a small place but/ wide as any hurricane” (Klonaris). Some have never set foot in the Bahamas, like me they are descendents heeding the call of the ancestors. All seek to dispel the myth of the Bahamian islands as simply a wonderful place to vacation.

The poet Patrick Rahming writes in “The Waters Break”, stories not yet told

with our own lips

we await the birth

of the language

with which to tell

our own tale

we mesmerized descendents

shut out by blank pages

we await the language

with which to capture

the wind

and feed it to our children

one myth at a time (handout).

Those of us “mesmerized descendents” who come to our ancestral histories find ourselves embodied in Rahming’s poem – our search for the culture of our ancestors is “shut out by blank pages” because so little of the Bahamian culture has entered the mainstream of literature circles.

I come to Bahamian Literature from a calling from my ancestors. Their stories, told throughout the generations of my family, nag and wheedle in the back of my mind that it is time to come home. But their home is not my home, I have no place in Bahamian history other than my descent from my ancestors. Still, I can’t help but feel the pull to write about them and their tenuous hold on a land they loved and made their home for more than four generations. And I, along with Rahming, “await the language” in which to write the texts. How can we, who call ourselves Americans, Europeans, Latinos, whatever, hope to find the language of the Bahamian culture if the Bahamian culture is still working on discovering a language?

One of the issues addressed by Bahamian authors is the influence of tourism on the Islands. When the average American or European thinks of the Bahamas they automatically conjure up visions of blue-green waters, lazy waving palms, and sunkissed beaches. They envision bright colors and ‘natives’ dancing to the beat of African drums. Poet Nicole Broadhurst speaks of returning to the islands as a tourist and realizing that she will have to work hard to discover her roots as a Bahamian. She must pull herself away from the “beauty”, which includes the fabricated tourist atmosphere. Her poem becomes “A Belated Gift to the Bahamas”.

But the wide beach I have come to is bare.

I know at this time of evening the cold tide

is drawing in, and far down the shoreline, beyond my vision,

lies the ragged peninsula where cord grasses

sing in deafening wind. I should stop with their beauty but I must

construct a ribbed boat, blistered, half-sunk

in sand, so I may find it there and lift it

While the economics of the Islands has been enhanced by tourism, these visions constitute a tiny fraction of what the Bahamas are in actuality. In a 1997 proposal for a new youth initiative, Gabriella Fraser writes, “They (the children) grow up with the view that foreign is better, and we feed this way of thinking, when we don’t take the proper measures to educate them on who they are, and what being Bahamian means. As a country we have failed to keep record and account of who we are and how we came to being” (Fraser).

The Bahamian youth is being inundated with a definition of the Bahamas as a ‘foreign’ place that has become simply a haven for those seeking to escape the ‘normal’ world of the United States or Europe. “To some Bahamian writers, the formal literary package into which thoughts are deposited is simply irrelevant when compared with the urgent need to educate the rising generation” (Collinwood). Towards this end, many Bahamian authors concentrate on documenting the culture’s past, its African roots, the mass migrations of its peoples to and from other cultures. The vast majority of works emerging tell of a history of place and peoples in the hopes of instilling in its youth a better sense of self-identity than that identity being foisted on them by the ignorant masses.

Another issue is that of technology and its tendency to override the rich culture of the Bahamian people. Writer Eddie Minnis admonishes Bahamians, “Bahamians as Bahamians, have their own respectable brand of cultural savoir faire. They need not mimic the irrelevant styles of foreign cultures to be persons of worth. Alas, his message falls on deaf ears, and he despairingly concludes that "[foreign] technology makin' fool outta you an' me" (Collinwood). Jerome Cartwright curses satellite dishes in his poem “Everything Babylon”,

“I shall not lap

These poisoned drops

That splash my saucer

From some distant, alien cup.

The food I crave falls not from heaven

But must spring from deep within me

To name me

Who I am.” (handout).

Cartwright returns to the ever present quest for a sense of self, to resist being defined by technology. While the need to resist the technological advances of world wide civilization in general is important to all nations, it is even more so for the Bahamian nation. Having been established as an independent nation so recently (1973), the Bahamian people are still struggling with identifying themselves as Bahamians. The influx of American and European technological technology, while unavoidable and certainly necessary, serves to slow the peoples quest for a national identity.

Equally important, and most disturbing in the quest for a written history of the Bahamian peoples is that of racial identity as defining the self as ‘Bahamian’. The people of the Bahamas, writers included, are black, white, and of mixed race. The question of race is still an issue in the Bahamas when it comes to answering the question, “What is a Bahamian?”. An editorial in the Nassau Guardian comments, “One's race is usually the very first thing that is considered when assessing whether one is a "true true" Bahamian or not. ” (Editorial 2). The majority of the works by Bahamian authors address the issues of assimilation and African roots. This tendency towards codifying ‘Bahamian’ as ‘black’ is a disservice to the nation as a whole. The Bahamian nation has many roots and these include not just African heritage but European, Spanish, French, American, and even Arawak. To create a national identity that rests purely on the African roots of the nation negates those peoples who also made the Bahaman islands their homes.

Poet Aurora Ferguson from New Providence writes,

“This is the geography of my people. We are shackled islands hunchbacked on the sea. Colonists came and seized as their indentured prize these alphabet merchandise”. But along with the “colonists” came the very people she writes about, the African slaves. The land was not the Africans when they came to it. She goes on to say, “We are some 700 islands and nearly 2400 claustrophobic cays. We are Tainos, Lucayan, Carib and African survivors of the discovery passage; discovered and dispossessed. We are spoon-fed and laid bare, carat clumps forming one Bahamas. One country. We and the sea. This endless tarpaulin urges us to scroll our names and inscribe our story.”

But where are the white Creole in this list of dispossessed peoples? In a proposal titled, “National Youth Development: The Bahamas, a Model for the Caribbean”, Gabriella Fraser writes, “To preserve our national identity while honouring the cultural diversity of our region should be our beacon” (Fraser). It is of paramount urgency that the call goes out to the descendents of ALL Bahamians – black, white, creole, conch, whatever label you wish to place on them – to speak and to write a history that includes the diversity of the region, the embedded history of the peoples that settled the islands.

To illustrate the issue of race as defining who is ‘Bahamian’ we can look at the history of the white creole presence and how they lost their footing in Bahamian society. Following the Emancipation of the slaves and the subsequent collapse of the plantations, the white creole population began to fall apart. Those who could afford to do so left their plantations in the hands of overseers or managers and moved to towns such as Nassau. Those who could not afford it simply left the islands altogether and immigrated to Cuba, or England, or the United States. And their stories left with them.

As a result, the white creole seems to have been written out of Bahamian identity, even though they left behind children they had fathered. Can the European influence of these pioneers be so simply erased from the Bahamian definition of identity? Regardless of the oftentimes heinous acts they committed in the name of slavery, in the name of power, they still deserve their rightful place in the history books of the Bahamas. By reconstructing a past that only recalls the white creole presence as a negative presence do we alter history itself?

Prime Minister Perry Christie said in a 2003 article in The Nassau Guardian that “Bahamians have an obligation to preserve their heritage so that future generations can understand the essence of what it is to be a Bahamian” (Rolle). At the center of it, the Bahamian authors seek to preserve a sense of heritage and national identity. “National identity doesn't just happen; it must be built, painstakingly, expensively, or else it will be tangled, shallow and vulnerable” (Editorial.). Their works stand as testament to a people who are rich in a diverse culture, a people living in a paradise who have lived a troubled and turbulent history and survived to present to the world a nation that is strong and self sufficient. “In nations that are healthy and flourishing (not just rich), these thinkers, whether they be writers or philosophers or griots, university graduates or people on the street, collect and guard the stories that tell others who their heroes are and why. And people listen to them” (Editorial.).

Marion Bethel in her poem, “Bougainvillea Ringplay”, sounds the call for Bahamian authors to shake, fly, and rise despite the difficulties faced,

Back in the ring I aint shiftin for no one

under the shade of a dilly tree limboing

up the womantongue and guinep climbing

wrapping my arms around a cerosee vine

rushing to the call of a lonely conch shell

fixed by a tongue-tied drum

we move in a circle shaking, flying, rising (Bethel handout)

It has become of paramount importance to speak out on the history and declining culture of the Bahamas. “Land and locality—one’s roots, as it were—… are reworked in the translating medium of language (Chambers). We need to preserve the history of the Bahamian people through literature, thereby laying a foundation for future generations to have an identity of themselves as Bahamian. We need to provide Bahamians with a cultural memory and language in which to ‘read’ themselves.

In conclusion, I revert once again to the poetic words of Marion Bethel. Her “shallow sea” becomes a metaphor for the shallow depth of the identity of the Bahamian people. All that is required to be Bahamian is to return to the history, return to the culture, simply return home.

If you bed on a coral cay

in a shallow sea feeling

weight and the wonder

of two hundred million years

of living sand you are probably

a Taino or a Bahamian born again. (Bethel 10)

Works Cited

Bethel, Marion. Guanahani, Mi Amor y Otros Poemas. Casa de las Americas. Cuba, 1994

Chambers, Iain. “Citizenship, Language, and Modernity”. Handout.

Collinwood, Dean. “The National Literature of the New Bahamas”. Weber State

University. Dahl, Anthony. Literature of the Bahamas 1724-1992: the March towards National Identity. Maryland: University Press of America, 1995

Fraser, Gabriella. National Youth Development: The Bahamas, a Model for the Caribbean. Sept 1997. Accessed July 25, 2004. http://www.csis.org/americas/pubs/ppYOUTH.pdf

Editorial. “On National Identity”. The Nassau Guardian. December 15, 2003. Accessed July 26, 2004. http://archive.nassauguardian.net/

Editorial 2. “On Being Bahamian”. The Nassau Guardian. May 26, 2003. Accessed July 25, 2004. http://archive.nassauguardian.net/

Klonaris, Helen. “Don’t”. Handout.

Rolle, Vanessa C., The Nassau Guardian. March 5, 2003. Accessed July 26, 2004. http://archive.nassauguardian.net/

Sanz, Iliana. From the Shallow Seas: Bahamian Creative Writing Today. Casa de las Americas. Cuba, 1993

Windrush. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002-2004. Accessed July 13, 2004. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/books/windrush/index2.shtml


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K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006