Op-Ed

Front Porch | The spirit of Bahamian egalitarianism

This column was first published on November 19, 2015. Reprinted with some amendments. 

Egalitarianism: the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

A relative tells the story of her trip overseas representing The Bahamas at a conference where she was the most senior official and was accorded considerable status by her hosts.

In gratitude to the four young protocol officers who accompanied her and the group of officials at the small conference, she gave each of them a small gift as a token of appreciation and affection.

The protocol officers were at first surprised, and then effusive in their gratitude. The surprise and effusiveness were born from the curious fact that in four years of hosting international visitors, this was the first time that anyone thought to give them gifts.

One of the protocol officers explained with her hands, one raised high and the other lowered: “You are up here and we are down here.”

She continued, bringing her hands level, approximating the equality sign, symbolizing various civil rights movements, “And you made us feel like this”, meaning she made them feel equal.

The Bahamian official’s gift-giving flowed naturally from her own dutiful and lifelong expression of the virtuous and companions of generosity and gratitude.

It flowed also from something often second-nature in Bahamian culture: a general sense of equality and egalitarianism, that we are all one, made in the image and likeness of God, sharing an innate human dignity.

The wife of a Bahamian diplomat, overseas, recalls her Filipino housekeeper talking about throwing a party for a group of friends. When the wife of the diplomat offered the use of the diplomatic residence’s dining room, the housekeeper was bowled over. The diplomat’s wife thought it a relatively minor gesture.

Equality

Here again was this sense on the part of a Bahamian, of a spirit of egalitarianism. While certain status and respect for authority are necessary, most Bahamians innately believe that we are first fellow human beings, with the same basic desires, needs struggles and innate equality.

Daily interactions constitute a collage which, when assembled, reveal a portrait of Bahamian egalitarianism. The interactions between Bahamians of various economic groups are fluid and generally easy.

Most of us tend to view and treat each other as equals and treat also with equal respect and comradery others such as the service providers who may pump our gas, who pack our grocery bags, who serve us in restaurants.

If one wants to understand this sense that we share a common dignity, get on the wrong side of a waiter or waitress at a restaurant.

A Filipino housekeeper notes that she and other Filipino service providers in The Bahamas tend to be treated with greater dignity and mutual respect by Bahamian employers than by foreign employers including many who live in Lyford Cay.

To be sure, there are those puffed up and preening Bahamians who asininely deem themselves somehow superior because they are accented with cheap pretentiousness and expensive perfumes and colognes.

Sadly, even the most luxurious scents are unable to mask the stench of those who think that their effluvia don’t stink.

The well-known song proclaims: “All of we is one family, all of we is one”. It goes on to speak of “he’s my brother and she’s my sister”. The song is a sort of Bahamian anthem expressing the best of the Bahamian spirit of egalitarianism, which, though incomplete, continues to be perfected in each generation. This spirit animated the struggle for majority rule and racial and economic equality.

In its campaign for racial equality, the PLP expressly envisioned a multiracial society and saw majority rule as a means of liberating many white Bahamians from their prejudices and an unsustainable racial and economic order.

Correspondingly, never in the history of The Bahamas has there been any major organization of black Bahamians, whether church, civic group or otherwise, that has sought the explicit exclusion of white Bahamians.

Xenophobia

While racial prejudice is still deeply ingrained in some, we have made enormous progress since the attainment of majority rule. There is xenophobia among many Bahamians toward Haitians and Jamaicans but it is often less virulent than the xenophobia found in other countries toward foreigners, which does not make it any more tolerable.

Still, we generally tend to treat Jamaican and Haitian colleagues and employees with respect, even as we express concern about the level of illegal migration.

The Bahamian spirit of egalitarianism lags in terms of gender equality and equality for gays and lesbians, but we have made extraordinary progress in a relatively short period of time, though there is still much ethical ground to cover.

Amidst entrenched misogyny, mostly fueled by religious fundamentalism, Bahamian women have made tremendous progress. Despite the lingering sexism in certain quarters, the majority of Bahamians are enthusiastically ready for a female prime minister, especially younger people, including a new generation of women.

We are today, less concerned about gender and more concerned about getting the individual most qualified to lead us out of the morass of high crime rates, social decay and economic decline. With a middle class falling behind and many poorer Bahamians falling into greater poverty, Bahamian women have shattered many glass ceilings with more shattering of sexism on the horizon.

The fuller flowering of the spirit of Bahamian egalitarianism was crushed by the PLP, Perry Christie, and a band of sexist clerics in the 2002 gender equality referendum. The tragedy is that the constitutional measure would have passed if Christie and the PLP had not abandoned their initial support for naked partisan gain.

Amidst homophobia and bigotry, gays and lesbians in The Bahamas are accorded more respect and legal protection than any other country in the Caribbean. To its credit, the PLP decriminalized certain sexual acts between homosexuals.

A champion of the spirit of Bahamian egalitarianism is Hubert Ingraham who, through legislative, executive and other action, upheld the dignity and equality of women and gays and lesbians.

 Expansive

Ingraham’s ground-breaking and expansive statement in the aftermath of the vitriol and hatred directed at a cruise of gay and lesbian visitors is iconic of the spirit of Bahamian egalitarianism.

The tone and language of the statement is one of the most profound, classic and well-argued declarations of equality ever penned in The Bahamas. It was a significant moment in the greater flowering of the best of the Bahamian spirit.

Today, gays and lesbians lead more open lives than scores of countries around the world, thanks to the efforts of both the PLP and the FNM. At some point, likely through a legal challenge and less intolerance, there will be marriage equality. It is a matter of when, not if. So, too, is gender equality in the constitution.

The spirit of Bahamian egalitarianism can be retarded at times, stymied, held back, even for long and seemingly unbearable periods.

But it will not be destroyed nor will it be intimidated by the hobgoblins of little minds and stony hearts who cannot fully imagine how our one Bahamian family fully includes myriad skin tones, male and female, LGBT brothers and sisters and a kaleidoscope of individuals of various ethnic and national backgrounds.

For all our challenges, prejudices, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry and fundamentalist shibboleths, we continue to make progress, inspired by the better angels of our nature, inspired, too, by those advocates of equality who, throughout our history, have beseeched our individual consciences and national consciousness to love and to treat our neighbors as ourselves, no matter their circumstances, including that of birth.

frontporchguardian@gmail.com.

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