Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Historical Myths

"A people without the knowledge of their past history,
origin and culture is like a tree without roots."

- Marcus Garvey

Some might argue, that the above quote illustrates the importance of history to a people's identity, however, the keyword is not history but KNOWLEDGE. Garvey may have advocated that Black people from the Americas should move back to Africa, but that was nearly a century ago, and especially the Caribbean, and for the purpose of today's blog entry, we shall extend that to include the Bahamas, was still in the firm grip of European colonialism. Nowadays, however, the Caribbean is made up of a large number of - de jure - sovereign states, with only a small number of islands still under colonial status. The question begs to be asked, are former colonies turned sovereign states identical with nations? Is there a Bahamian nation?

Ernest Renan, a French philosopher of the 19th century, attempted to find a definition for the concept of a nation in his famous lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882, because nations "are something fairly new in history." Renan views the modern nation as the "historical result brought about by a series of convergent facts" which created UNITY, and he gives examples of the different factors contributing to the shaping of unity in various nations, but concludes that there is no such thing as a generic toolkit for nation creation: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form."

Maybe this is what Garvey meant above. I will not argue that Bahamians display a "desire to live together," though I frequently get the impression that this is owed more to an obvious lack of alternatives, but do we as Bahamians possess - in common - "a rich legacy of memories"? And if we do, are we aware of it, do we KNOW about it? If we don't, we are "like a tree without roots." A tree without roots is a weak tree. Are we a weak nation?

Timothy Baycroft, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield, wrote an interesting book entitled, Nationalism in Europe, 1789-1945, in which he outlines how various European nations were constructed: "A key element ... is the role of history in the formation of the national image. Every nation ... has a strong identification with the past. ... The first point to note is that national sentiment and nationalism do not arise instantaneously; they must be cultivated and encouraged until they gain widespread acceptance by the mass of the population. ... This process requires a great deal of time, using a carefully edited version of the history of the nation which highlights certain key episodes and events and downplays or ignores others. The creation of such a national image requires a selection and interpretation of historical facts, sometimes even a distortion of these facts." (p. 24.) The selection made represents "the way the promoters of the nation wish the nation to be seen and thought of." (p. 28.)

If Renan argued that unity is an important factor in the genesis of a nation, and if Garvey argued that knowledge is what gives it a firm hold, then I would argue that we know too little of our history, and what we *think* we know often results in divisiveness rather than in unity. There are many examples to illustrate this point, but the first one that comes to my mind is what I tend to think of as the Bahamas' biggest historical myth: the story of Collins Wall, which most schoolchildren in Nassau are still being taught today, and which surfaces every so often in the public debate.

On April 22, 2009, the Tribune published a letter by Aaron Roberts, who tells us that Mr Collins built a wall around his property because he was a racist, along the lines of the common fairy tale that he built the wall to separate the Black folk in Bain and Grants Town from the White folk in Centreville. Roberts wrote, "Whatever his intentions, the fact is that a white man put up a wall which was viewed by black people as a means of segregation. ... Find something of interest to write about please and stop trying to make heroes out of racists."

The problem is, that when the wall was built, Centreville was not a white subdivision, rather it was the private estate of Mr. Collins, and Collins wall was an enormous backyard fence. Would this, according to Mr. Robert's logic, make everyone a racist who has a fenced in property and whose neighbours are of a different race? When the wall was built, the Bahamas was undergoing some tough economic times, as the bootlegging trade was coming to an end, and the Great Depression had brought down the overall economy, too, and the Bahamas had been hit by a very serious hurricane, which had even turned the sturdy old Fort Montagu into a pile of rubble.

So, indeed, one might acknowledge that the construction of a large backyard fence creates some sorely needed jobs for Bahamians, and, he didn't just build a wall. A part of the property, which stretched from Shirley Street almost to Wulff Road, was turned into an orchard to grow produce for the local market, which created even more jobs. Is, according to Mr. Robert's logic, everyone a racist who builds a wall around his business and whose neighbours are of a different race?

So why is it that the story of a man building a barrier around his property was turned into a story of racial segregation? Collins died in 1946, and in 1950, his property was sold off. An article in the Nassau Guardian (August 10, 2004) by Stephen B. Aranha informs us:

On the largest portion of his estate, Centreville Subdivision was created. ... the western portion of the wall was not removed. This decision was deliberate, and this time the motivation must indeed have been to deny easy access to the Over-the-Hill population. ...
Still, the motivation was most likely not racist, as some might think; white and black Bahamians alike bought lots in the subdivision and lived there. The decision to preserve the wall was more of an "elitist," status-driven effort, as it would prevent too much traffic in the area, making it more attractive for its residents, and suggest a sense of safety. However, defying the plans of the developers, ladders were put up all along the wall. This enabled Over-the-Hill people to enter Centreville without having to go via East Street. Especially people who lived Over-the-Hill but worked in Centreville, many of them as maids, appreciated this "shortcut" on their way home.
... On March 29, 1963, The Guardian reported: "Collins Wall was again broken through by the Public Works Department yesterday. The break, the third since the wall was breached, was made at Seventh Terrace and will join Frith Lane and Toothe Shop Corner with Collins Avenue in the East. Two more breaks will follow in a few days ... Decision to make the through roads followed closely upon announcement of a petition signed by 110 persons who live nearby."

... Collins Wall, which "had divided some (residents) from their work, children from school, and customers from shops," was breached, and one of the most outspoken protagonists bringing about this development in 1963, was a young politician, who would eventually break down many more barriers: Lynden O. Pindling.

There is no use in denying a long history of racism in the Bahamas, but Pindling himself not only broke down barriers, but created new ones, too - mental barriers this time around. These are strong and have lasted decades now, as we saw during the recent controversy about John Marquis' "Insight" columns in the Tribune. Protesters were incapable of articulating any criticism about WHAT Mr. Marquis had written, they simply took offense THAT he - as a "foreigner" no less - dared to say ANYTHING about the "Father of the Nation" that wasn't complimentary.

Black and White Bahamians must enter into a dialogue about racism in the Bahamas past and present if they want to move forward and create a true Bahamian nation, but for the sake of unity and knowledge, let us put myths such as the one about Collins Wall to rest.

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