By Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett
Haitian-born, Bahamian artist Jeffrey Meris opened his project ‘Asue: 20/20’ in the Project Space Room of the NAGB on Saturday, January 21, and it drew a sizeable crowd who came out to see how the word “Grace” would be interpreted. We often forget grace, and rather focus on the hard punishing kind of Christianity that is all about cruelty and refusing love, unlike the honest message of Christianity to give love and acceptance to all.
‘Asue 20/20’ explores the much-disparaged part of our culture that has allowed so many blacks to survive the cruel hardship of slavery and colonialism. Meris combines the commonplace with the not so commonplace; the odd, almost forgotten parts of our lives. He underscores the dichotomous reality of technology that brings us closer together, while simultaneously distancing us when we are congregated in the same place. It has also removed so much of our tactile lives from us. Many of us no longer feel the need to interact with those around; we do not see others as we walk consumed by our mobile devices that dictate events and guide our physical journeys, even when Google maps is often totally wrong and does not know that one road does not run straight through an area. We are almost unable to exist without the smarts of awareness and local tacit knowledge, but we do not realise the extent to which the local has been eclipsed by the distant, now close.
Meris’ exhibition is an interesting eye on what we are losing – trust and community – and what we are gaining –distance and technological connectivity. At the same time, during the talk, he expressed how his mother put her children through school by selling peanuts, dark roast, medium roast or light roast.
A daily part of our Bahamian culture that many of us do not see is the local peanut seller. Usually, a Rasta stationed at a light or intersection, walking through traffic, arm raised with small brown bags of peanuts in them. Some stop and buy, others close windows and lock doors because they are worried about safety and the extreme violence that has consumed the island. We often forget that this violence stems from somewhere. It is historically rooted in slavery, colonialism and the failure of the state to defend, equitably represent its citizens and a disempowerment of the local over the global. The forced and enforced separation of blacks and whites have created a cultural divide that is threatening to undo our national balance, not because it officially exists today, but through the legacy that has remained entrenched in legislation and leadership.
As an ongoing part of slavery and the structure that allowed it to thrive were laws and regulations that strictly enforced how the enslaved Africans and freed negroes could operate within the colony. There were laws that clearly outlawed many aspects of African culture. This was often in response to a threat that the blacks posed to the white structure, according to historians and sociologists. So, as the Haitian Revolution succeeded, greater efforts were made to silence it so as to prevent the workers in other colonies from hearing about it, lest they get the idea and also stage a revolt.
There was always resistance to slavery, unlike so many reports that rendered African slaves as passive and docile people who accepted their servitude. This was well documented by persons such as Michel Rolph Trouillot in ‘Silencing the Past.’ In many places, these efforts included laws that made negro gatherings illegal, as well as laws that outlawed negro societies that would create cohesion and allow better, easier survival. The anti-Obeah legislation would be a part of this as it showed a fear that was used to make all African religious practices seen as bad or evil. What these reinforced was a deeply divided world where negroes, even after emancipation and well into the 20th-Century, could not hold bank accounts in commercial banks, for example. These same banks that now mercilessly tax many locals unlike their branches in the centres of power that do not charge for deposits, for example.
To survive the horrors and ordeals of post-emancipation anti-negro realities and colonialism’s exploitation, many blacks would create groups like friendly societies, burial societies, and lodges that remain demonised in the public eye. The gaze established by the European norm determined that these black practices were evil and this has transferred into the post-colonial Bahamian psyche.
Under colonialism, we so often neglect the obvious parts of our Bahamian culture hoping that they will disappear through neglect. According to newspaper articles and scholarly work, one of the big debates around independence was the African past. Some thought it should be embraced and others thought it would be too ‘black’ and too reductive. The nationalist project in the Bahamas took an interesting turn after 1967 and especially 1973 when the ‘black’ nation began to exclude those who were not black.
Whites were excluded in the national narrative that argued for the empowerment of the once discriminated against and excluded black Bahamians through legal and political change. However, as much as this sounded promising, so much of the old legal system was never changed, thus never made to truly empower Bahamians, as it was said it would. When international companies applied for work permits for managers, the premise was that they would work for a certain amount of time while training a Bahamian to do their job, and then they would leave. Many of these workers never left, few Bahamians were ever trained.
Today, we are less able to apply for those same jobs notwithstanding more people being more educated. Yet, the cry is always that there are insufficient and a lack of adequately trained and prepared workers, so thousands of work permits are applied for and granted annually. While claiming to be empowering Bahamians through meaningful employment successive governments have continued to work with the old colonial stereotypes and language that cast black Bahamians as unable to work and in this case violent and antisocial folks.
As we discussed last week about the lack of power to own or control one’s image, this overlaps with the selling, silencing and sanitization of the African past. While the Ministry of Education created the famed, ill-fated Jumbay Village on Baillou Hill Road, where the present day headquarters of the National Insurance Board stands, along with the commitment of key figures like Edmund Moxey, the project was quickly and soundly undermined by government less than eager to promote these black or African-derived aspects of Bahamian culture. We still hear how demonic lodges and burial societies are. The damage to the collective is done. Asues are being discredited because they are untrustworthy.
It is rather ironic that given the deep investment in survival mechanisms such as asues, what is known in the Eastern Caribbean as susu, were widely practiced in The Bahamas by many middle-class families. These were especially popular among women who would hold asues and pay large expenses when they got their hand. People were known for being honest holders of asues and that would draw a good crowd.
The power of art to unsilence and unearth is amazing. The quotidian/daily ‘stuff’ of rich people that can be used to create wealth for poor people cannot be forgotten. Meris creates a powerful though understated and seemingly unrelated gathering of historical moments and articles.
How can we survive cultural erasure that works unobserved through policy and regulation that disempowers folk and is used to empower those who claim to be the servants of the people? It reminds me of going to Crooked Island in the 1980s and being told that people no longer remembered old stories. After digging deeper it was a matter of the stories being in the church, and the church had decided that these were lies and lies needed to die. Cultural death is always the end of a community. Meris speaks to a past and present that is almost lost and to a future where we cannot see those around us for those in the global reality of the Internet. Asues are a historical reality that can be used to empower people, but they require the rebuilding of community and trust. Grace! Matthew may have physically threatened us, but the day to day totally undermines our being.
We are happy to erase the history of black presence as long as it cannot be used to sell a destination. The representation of a history bereft of people and struggle is what apparently sells, except that people come to see monuments and experience a past that inhabits these places that are under state-sanctioned and capitalist driven erasure.