The independence confabulation

The stories we tell ourselves really do have an impact on how we live. A confabulation, built on fabulation, is a “delusion” or a memory disorder where people create stories to fill in gaps in their memories.

The challenge is, we believe our own confabulations. Living with someone with Alzheimer’s can cause anyone to create their own parallel universe, but when this becomes the norm for a nation, the fiction of nationalism, to draw on Benedict Anderson, we venture into a fictional space much like Wonderland, where there are no problems, only joys and lyrical celebrations with religious symbolism missing national culture.

Can we celebrate independence, almost five decades in, as public historical spaces are removed? They are moved into overseas FDI-managed spaces. In the independent Bahamas, monuments, forts, old plantations are open and public; Bahamians own most of the land and water in the space called the Islands of The Bahamas, even as estate agents boast of record-breaking sales, and newly sold islands top their lists.

Does water on many islands go off because we have overpaid the private producers for producing it? Women steal men’s masculinity because they fend for themselves in the face of colonial hegemonic patriarchy. Is there national peril because crime and violence are managed, and we are beaten and insulted for not doing our part?

There is no peril because it is all under control. The opposition is always just mudslinging.

People suffering from violence are lying on the government. The story of peril as working-class, ghetto-inhabiting young, Black men, (remember the ghetto is defined by colonial mappings of Bahamian island space that retain their currency) are dispossessed is untrue.

What public people say is true, although what they omit is fact. The learning curve should be flat in a country where everything that is said hides the reality we live. Five decades after independence, the Crown still heads the state. Parliament cannot function without the Crown’s presence. Tourism reigns supreme and most Bahamians are treated as aristocracy in this deeply colonial postcolony. Is this simply confabulation?

The national zeal of the 1970s morphed into 1980s economic success and cocaine wars; then the decline of the 1990s, as the drug age ravaged the national fabric. All only (con)fabulation. Inequalities meant to have been eradicated by independence are mostly reversed. Old colonial policies and structures were never decolonized; they simply hid. Decolonial thinking did not join independence.

What we see is Benedict Anderson’s imagined community: a nation built on narratives and fictions, fabulations, of belonging, but mostly of others’ exclusion.

The national colors have been described in interesting ways that capture the people, the sea, and the sun, yet exclude so much of what we live with and in.

Independence removed all problems, inequalities, and inequities because the country became Black. Yet the same racial inconsistencies and blind spots have continued across history.

If acts from the 1760s “For the governing of Negroes, Mulattoes, and Indians” can resonate with acts from the 21st Century and the appropriation of land can hark back to the same period, how much has independence really changed the landscape of the colony?

Tropical living

The COVID-19 pandemic and the pursuant economic pandemic show that Kimerblé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” (how people experience discrimination is compounded by their geographic location, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and family ties) reveals how Bahamians live in The Bahamas.

We are all doing so much better since January has become a mantra. Tourism’s reopening has saved us all, yet few are working full time.

The COVID-19 independent, national space has been designed by the colonial regime, and as Governor Browne’s observations on the challenges to the country after the “‘land’ was transferred from the Company of Eleutheran Adventurers to the six Lord Proprietors of the Carolinas and then to a Crown Colony, reveal, closing the door on most Bahamians becoming landowners”. History hides a lot.

The sovereignty is real, even while the Crown has its knee on our necks, we sit in the shadow of Victoria and Columbus towers over us, and the land is redistributed to companies while we sleep. Nuances are deeply entrenched in the language and legal details that make nationalism an imagined community, though politicians ignore history and its impact on their roles.

Is this a confabulation too?

Thomas Piketty notes of the British and French, (whose world view and wealth depended on their colonial domination through coercive laws imposed on their colonies) the wealthy earned and how little went to the people who were actually paying off the debt. Let’s not forget how geographic restrictions work.

There were more restrictions on labor mobility in Western Europe in the 18th Century, especially in the United Kingdom and France, owing to poor laws and the great latitude granted to local elites and seignorial courts to impose coercive regulations on the laboring classes…the debt was so high that one-third of the taxes paid by British taxpayers between 1815 and 1914 (mainly by people of middle and low income) was devoted to repayment of the debt and interest (profiting the wealthy who had lent the government money to pay for the wars)…with political power in the hands of the wealthy, the choice was made to [spend] money on the military and to finance it with public debt, and this helped to secure European domination over the rest of the world.

Piketty’s observations resonate with Grace Turner’s reference to how laws changed the face of Nassau. She notes “The 1756 legislation made social mobility more difficult for all free Blacks in the colony”. That, according to public people, is confabulation and is no longer true. A paradox of national creation or an intended oxymoron?

What we hear and read about most of the time is a confabulation, the creative remaking of stories to fill memory gaps. So, wherever there are gaps in national memory before and since independence, those gaps are filled by a fiction that resembles no lived past in The Bahamas.

Figuratively speaking, how does a country so tied to colonial trappings remain free?

The national story tells us we are strong and have equal access to loans, as Bahamians are put on contracts, (which means they don’t qualify for mortgages), banks close, tourism dominates the new wave of development, the plantation model is tweaked so that rights and privileges are reserved for those inhabiting offshore jurisdictions; not to be confused with Kemp Road or Lily of the Valley Corner.

The distinctions between Bahamians and non-Bahamians have been entrenched in the colonial/postcolonial structure of the nation.

Many who inhabit the space of white, patriarchal, hegemonic coloniality view Bahamians (white, brown, and black) as less than. We see no challenges to frustrate national development.

The story is that the world is ours as is the country. Yet, overseas jurisdictions encroach on national space, redesigning the map of island-living in the tropics. There is no nasty party politics that divides the nation; no racism or xenophobia deepening the schisms (because these have been so poorly dealt with by historians, politicians, and national leaders alike).

Online services facilitate life. They don’t make us spend twice as long filling in forms, online, in person, then again making queues outside, and inside — when BPL drops power and AC stops), in the 100 plus degree sun, as clerks push paper and pat weaves, lace-fronts and hair caps, workers amble in at their pleasure (because there is no pride in public service).

These are simply mistakes, speed bumps. The confabulation that refuses to discuss climate change, inequality and the pandemics’ impact on the nation doesn’t exist.

Have emergency orders revealed much of the structural violence and coloniality of the Bahamian system? Have they also shown us how poverty and inequality function deep in the national reality despite a confabulation to the contrary?

Forty-eight years after independence, most Bahamians are owners, active participants in this FDI-focused economy. Sadly, the national fiction of Bahamianization, and non-racism eclipse ethnographies of how Bahamians of all colors fought for and were proud to be involved in a new nation.

Fictions are dangerous, though we love and stick by them. Stories that show the under belly of the imagined community like first Bahamian head of Queen’s College, Reverend Charles Sweeting’s story of meeting resistance from colonial souls to him occupying office of head, because he was a Bahamian, are ignored in the pantheon of Bahamian (con)fabulation.

• Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett is an associate professor at the University of The Bahamas.

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