Arts & Culture

‘Black Crab Pledge of Allegiance’ (2004) by Dionne Benjamin Smith

“I pledge my allegiance, to the flag, and to the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, for which it stands, one people united in love and service.”

Many of us will recall reciting the National Pledge at school at weekly assemblies – after 1973 at least, but don’t quote me on that. As we try to rebuild as a nation post-Dorian, it seems this key tenet of the pledge is missing from our speech and national narrative. These words, and this flag, represent unity – not asinine divisiveness, certainly not in a time when we should be at the service of those who have suffered most.

The first push for relief after the storm showed an unprecedented moment of compassion for this chain of islands we find ourselves a part of. The grassroots organizations, in particular, did things to warm our hearts and inspire such a sense of togetherness that was so completely necessary. It was, in many ways, the balm we needed to soothe enough of the trauma to be able to move again after the shock, to mobilize ourselves to begin the work that will take us years to not just rebuild, but to try to build a future we can still imagine ourselves existing in as warm seas rise and winds whip more fiercely.

Born to a Bahamian father and American mother, Benjamin Smith comes from a lineage of graphic artists and printmakers on both sides of her family. Dionne Benjamin Smith has given us a practice that makes us question what we’re given, what seems commonplace and what is vital. To what extent can (and should) graphic design be considered fine art practice? Where does the separation between graphic design and gallery-based work begin? What do we really know about the things we take as default in Bahamian society?

Benjamin Smith shares: “I believe passionately in truth and what is right. My concerns and observations of the world around me are played out in my work and can be described as social commentary. I am driven to tell a story, to shine a light, to make things clear, even to uplift and encourage. I hope to make people see the naked emperor riding atop the pink elephant. And though I tend to take on weighty subjects sometimes, I try to deliver the message with a bit of wit and whimsy – in an effort to offer a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  It is my wish to engage the audience to think, see and understand. And then, hopefully, change the world around them for the better.”

Benjamin Smith’s “Black Crab Pledge of Allegiance” (2004) was made for the 2nd National Exhibition (NE2) and acquired with the Artist Collectors Fund that year. In the second year of the NAGB’s existence, we see national symbols taken and turned on their heads. The question of nationalism versus patriotism, and the negative connotations of both (particularly on the former) arise. What does nationhood really mean for us in The Bahamas? The “commonwealth” isn’t so common, and Benjamin Smith shows us black crabs fighting on top of one another for freedom – yet going nowhere. The pledge of “love and unity” is also being called into question – in the absence of following these ideals, we instead see a pledge that is more fitting for much of the behaviour we extend toward one another as people of this nation – Bahamian or otherwise.

The words we see in gold across this interpretation of the flag read: “I pledge my allegiance to the crab, and to the common good of myself, for which it stands, one person elevated in loathing & self-service.”

For Benjamin Smith’s thinking behind this work, she shares: “This bastardized version of the Bahamian flag is a reflection of the artist’s anger towards how Bahamians are increasingly treating each other. The black triangle which represents the strength and movement of the Bahamian people is replaced with black crabs, referencing the widely known adage of black crabs in a cage that climb up and pull each other down to get to the top. The yellow stripe representing the sun is replaced with a corrupted version of The Bahamas’ Pledge of Allegiance, which sits atop an imbroglio of the National Anthem; so jumbled, it is illegible and its meaning lost.”

The analogy of the crabs in the bucket – called by its many names of “black crab syndrome”, “crab mentality” or “crab in a bucket/barrel/basket mentality” – speaks to the idea of individualism as a fault. It is the feeling of “if I can’t have this, you can’t either”, and is commonly spoken of not just in The Bahamas but throughout the Anglo-Caribbean and Nigeria. The root is the same – Black people in post-colonial countries operating from a place of fear and scarcity, resulting in the “self-service” that Benjamin Smith speaks to. Only, it doesn’t serve anyone, not even the individual. If the crabs were to link together, they’d be able to escape their bucket or barrel with ease, but alas, they drag each other down instead. We have seen it time and time again as a nation, and in the recent rise of ill-informed and xenophobic nationalist groups in our post-Dorian Bahamas, it seems like a mistake we are hell-bent on perpetuating. Telling survivors living in shelters to “go home” feels like a particular drag – on our sense of humanity, on our spirit and on the rebuilding we should be linking arms to do. The anti-Haitian sentiments after the storm have been ripe with a lack of compassion, and regardless of individual experiences we may have had with Bahamian or Haitian folks (or the mélange thereof, of which we are all some sort of mix in this conch-salad country), these personal interactions bear little weight on what is just and right in a time of nationwide suffering and trauma.

I will close on an excerpt I came across in “Bahamian Culture and Factors Which Act Upon it: a compilation of two essays” by Donald McCartney: “Many Bahamians deny having Haitian ancestry. It should be noted that during the emigration of Haitian refugees (slave owners and slaves) between 1791 and 1804, many slaves took the surnames of their masters. Among these surnames were: Benjamin, Beneby, Bodi, Bonaby, Bonamy, Claude, Deleveaux, Demeritte, Deveaux, Dillet, Dupuch, Duvalier, Francis, Foulkes, Laroda, Moncur, Moree, Newry, Perigod, Poitier, Simon, Symonett(e), and Pierre. In later years, the French influence in Bahamian surnames became more pronounced.”

Names we associate with so many of our Bahamian cultural giants (Benjamin herself, and Poitier of Sir Sidney Poitier), and also with those longstanding Bahamian family names that seem so common now (for example Francis, Deveaux Symonette, Beneby), are Haitian names. The borders we hear some small groups saying they wish to “defend” in landscape couldn’t possibly extend to bloodlines – because those lines don’t exist. The Caribbean always has and always will be a region that isn’t just a mix, but a melting pot so integrated that to think one could begin to discern one of our many components from the other is laughable. We are all Bahamian, Haitian, Bajan, Jamaican, Taino, Ghanaian, Congolese, English, Scottish, Irish – just to name a few.

We are one people, who now more than ever need to be united in love and service.

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