Teaching Black History in the Bahamas
By Nicolette Bethel
Too many Bahamians, still, thirty-two years after independence and thirty-eight years after we began to govern ourselves, believe that things Bahamian are second-class, gauche, nothing much to write home about.
And too many of us who think that are black.
I once taught a class of English students the beginning principles of argumentation. They were a bright group, eager to engage with the topics we raised, anxious to master new skills. They had only one limitation, through no fault of their own: they knew very little about Bahamian history.
It surprised me then, but it shouldn’t have. After all, history has never been our strong suit. The success of Majority Rule in the 1960s created a kind of intellectual myopia that led us to reject everything that oppressed us before in our embracing of our newfound freedom.
Unlike our neighbours in the USA and Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica, we did not embark upon a massive campaign of education about the Bahamian people, political or otherwise.
The first comprehensive Bahamian history book was written by an Englishman, the second by a white Bahamian.
In the three decades that we have been content to go with the flow, to sail along, catching the currents wherever they take us, we have allowed what is past get taken by the slipstream.
Our old buildings decay, our elderly die; too much that is fundamental is being forgotten. And we have raised up generations who know so little about themselves and their past that think they are descended from nothing.
In 2002, I met this class who were bright and curious and almost completely ignorant about their own heritage. They were conversant enough with the heritage of other people to be able to talk knowledgeably about Dr. King and Malcolm, even about Nelson Mandela and Marcus Garvey, but they did not know very much at all about Stephen Dillet or Alfred Adderley or Randol Fawkes.
Most of them were equally vague about Bahamian leaders of much more recent vintage, like Kendal G. L. Isaacs and Arthur D. Hanna.
What I did, therefore, was create a quiz about their nation. I’d feed them these questions in batches of ten or twenty at a time, with the carrot that they could earn themselves a bonus by doing well. It frightened me how few of them earned the bonus. It should frighten you.
Here’s a sampling of the questions.
1. What was the name of the first premier of the Bahamas?
2. What was the HMS Flamingo and why is it significant?
3. What two objects were thrown out of the window on Black Tuesday, and who threw them?
Not that hard, right? Surely these are things that all young Bahamians must know?
Wrong. I ended giving out the bonus to those who got ten of the seventy-five questions correct.
Please don’t think I blame these students. I don’t. It’s not their fault; it’s ours.
You see, we’ve been nothing if not pragmatic for the last thirty-odd years. We have designed our school curricula according to what is most convenient for teacher and student alike, rather than according to what is necessary for a healthy nation.
So history is an optional subject. You may learn about people who are dead and gone if you choose, but it is not a requirement for graduation. But because we seem to pick the books for those courses according to what is most available, convenient, and cheap, too many of the history books in the schools are American, not Bahamian.
We seem to believe that as long as the history is Black history, all is well; our children will learn about strong role models of African descent that way. Never mind that they have no idea who Stephen Dillet, Alfred Adderley and Randol Fawkes are.
They have been educated about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They still have something and someone to look up to. Right?
Greatness, it is said, occurs when people stand on the shoulders of giants. But we have removed our giants from the reach of our youth, and our carelessness with history has given them nothing but dust on which to stand.
We’re teaching our young people that Bahamian political history is inseparable from American civil rights history, that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are heroes for the Bahamian civil rights movement as well as for American one, and that The Bahamas produces no national heroes of its own.
As great as the heroes of the American Civil Rights movement are, especially the martyrs of the movement, we need to be careful about how we teach our youngsters about them. We are not Americans. The Bahamas is a sovereign nation, and we have a history of our own.
We are more than simply people of African descent who happen to live on the fringes and crumbs of the United States of America.
We are not the last outpost of the Uncle Sam; the gold, aquamarine and black of our flag stands for something different from the red, white and blue.
Indeed, in many cases it is we who have taught them; African-American intellectuals like James Weldon Johnson and W.E. B. DuBois have roots in the Bahamas; a Bahamian minister, Dr. J. Robert Love, inspired Marcus Garvey, and a Bahamian, Joshua Cockburn, captained one of Garvey’s Black Star Cruise Line ships.
Here’s my fervent hope: that all this talk about national heroes and honouring those who serve the Bahamas is making people think. It’s about time, after all.
We have been moving in fast forward for so long now that we have yet to stop and look at the past. That’s fine, for those of us who lived it. But what about those who come after us?
Nicolette Bethel is the author of Essays on Life for the Nassau Guardian
Weekender, and currently serves as Director of Culture for the Bahamas
She is a social anthropologist and a writer, a researcher in the fields of Bahamian national identity and of Junkanoo. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections. In her spare time she teaches English, Cultural Studies and Anthropology at the College of The Bahamas.
Nicolette blogs at Bahamapundit
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