By NOELLE NICOLLS
Tribune Features Editor
THE faux kings and queens of Junkanoo must have liked nothing better than to dress up as British royals during the 2012 Boxing Day Junkanoo Parade. Three Category A groups chose themes celebrating the reigning British monarch in splendidly ahistorical style. “A Royal Celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”; “A Night of Elegance: The Queen’s Masquerade Ball” and “A Celebration of Queen Elizabeth II” were the themes performed by the Valley Boys, Roots and Saxons Junkanoo groups.
England has repeatedly come to Bay Street in one form or fashion over the past 60 years, but in 2012 Junkanoo took it to an entirely new level. In the case of the Valley Boys, the performance was golden. They won. But at what cost?
It is not the legitimacy of the parade’s results that I take exception with. I have no dog in that fight. The artistry on Bay Street was masterly: the Valley Boys’ costumes in particular were polished and well executed; One Family incorporated three dimensions of motion with pattern and shape in their best Hurricane themed pieces; and Roots brought a harmony of colour and style to some of their off the shoulder pieces that left me feeling truly inspired.
But in the midst of all this excellence I was constantly confronted with the image of Junkanoo bowing down to a glorified image of the queen. And I found her excessive glorification to be psychologically oppressive.
The fact that we still see the queen as a legitimate expression of who we are as Bahamians and experience no internal conflict when parading around waving the union jack, chanting God Save the Queen is outrageous. But such is the contradiction of 1973.
As a community we have so many untold stories to tell, so many heroes to honour, so much history to record, and to choose to waste our precious energy and creativity on the meaningless celebration of an irrelevant queen is irresponsible.
Considering Junkanoo was birthed in the Bahamas by our enslaved ancestors as an expression of spiritual freedom, ancestral remembrance and resistance to British slavery and colonial oppression, I was disturbed by the lack of consideration given to the symbolism behind the queen’s portrayal.
The royal affair was a desperate call to action to look at the true meaning and power of Junkanoo and the way in which we could and should utilise its power intentionally to advance the development of our people. Because of Junkanoo’s power, the largest captive audience in the country is assembled every year in one space in the spirit of joy and community. When a Junkanoo group crosses the stage, it makes a statement, whether intentionally or not.
Because we have done such a poor job of staying rooted in our history, not just with Junkanoo, but in all facets of our cultural life, the founding spirit of Junkanoo has become a distant concept with little relevance for many. A group’s theme is simply a vehicle to win, and its relevance to the Bahamian story or an empowering Bahamian perspective carries little weight. That it could have the affect of reinforcing negative colonial stereotypes matters little to many. But I question whether or not this mentality serves us well. If we are not using Junkanoo as an instrument to develop our people then are we using its power responsibly?
Egypt will make an appearance on Bay Street for the umteenth time under the Saxons’ New Year’s banner. But I question whether or not the presentation will deepen the Bahamian understanding of Egypt and our African heritage or will it simply present a generic Egyptian fantasy land, good enough to win and shallow enough to communicate nothing of substance. Such was my disappointment with the Prodigal Sons and their treatment of the Seminole Indian theme. It seemed they simply used the Native American presence in Red Bays, Andros as an opportunity to recycle the tried and proven Indian theme with hardly any cultural specificity.
In an online discussion, a participant commented that Junkanoo has “transcended social political points”. He said “no thought is put in the whys and wherefores;” Junkanoo is “just a production and execution.”
This perspective is held by many, even some in leadership. It is a degenerative perspective that represents a certain level of disinterest in or oblivion to the wider power and potential of Junkanoo.
If Junkanoo is only a meaningless parade that a handful of groups win and lose every year, then it is a $15 million wasted investment. But we all know there is nothing meaningless about Junkanoo.
Junkanoo is a space of community celebration, community development, cultural expression, creative ingenuity, performance, spiritual liberation, resistance, ancestral remembrance and so much more. When are we going to start demanding that all Junkanoo groups reflect this spirit in a more culturally relevant and psychologically empowering way?
Such an approach would challenge any celebration of the queen, but it would not prevent an interrogation of the queen. It would simply give birth to a more politically and historically nuanced representation of the queen and British Empire that does not reinforce destructive old colonial narratives.
For the sake of group loyalty, many people have found ways to defend the use of the queen-theme or justify their own objection. But even as a Valley Girl, who is proud to be a champion, I can do no such thing. I would not have felt proud to rush under the queen’s banner: win, lose or draw. Circumstance had it that I would not rush this year (a decision made before the themes were known, at least to me). But it was fortuitous.
It also gives rise to a number of questions that must be asked about Junkanoo and the membership of groups? For had I been able to rush this year I would have come in conflict with a system that does not have an appetite for dissent or a process to channel or even recognize objection. Instead, Junkanoo members resort to private disgruntlement, vexed conformity, apathy towards leadership and disengagement.
The matter of themes demonstrates a wider lack of interest in actively engendering community within Junkanoo circles. The selection of the theme is usually the private affair of an inner circle of selected people. Although some groups create structures that appear to be democratic and consultative, most would say, these structures are facades. The processes are not transparent or documented and the decisions are generally subject to veto.
From the beginning of the year, groups start working on a theme and finalize their selection by around March. Group members who are in the need-to-know crew will know the theme, while others find out by the way.
There is no presentation of the theme to the general membership of the group, much less a ritual around doing so. Group themes are not officially disclosed until early December during the order drawing ceremony. It is questionable whether or not the ritual secrecy around Junkanoo themes is still relevant today. It clearly does not prevent groups from adopting the same theme, as Boxing Day demonstrated. It also does not keep the theme a secret, no matter how much we pretend as though it does.
What it does do is prevent the general membership of groups from developing a real relationship to the theme.
The majority of Junkanooers take on a workhorse mentality, going about the business of production, doing their best not to get entangled in Junkanoo decision making. Most members will rally behind whatever theme is chosen in the interest of loyalty, efficiency and winning. They might take a private interest and debate the theme amongst friends, but there is a certain level of indifference that most group members maintain.
As one Junkanoo observer said: “it ain dat deep!” She suggested the queen’s jubilee theme was an easy choice that lent itself to “creative expression and pageantry.”
“The average Bahamian could give an ‘eff’ about (the queen’s) anniversary. They just want an occasion to design and create for Bay. I caught feelings about it at first, but den realized, it ain dat deep!”
What an unfortunate position to take; it is one that will surely lead to the underdevelopment of Junkanoo as a cultural art form. It is as if Junkanoo lacks a guiding principle, a soul even. And in such an environment, compounded by those with a hawkish interest in commercialising the festival, Junkanoo could become nothing more than a colourful modern minstrel.
Bahamians have a responsibility to ensure this grave dishonour to our ancestors never comes to pass. We must fight for the dignity of our people and resist all temptation to participate in our own disrespect. It starts with being connected to the root. It continues with being guided by principle. And is held in check by the participation of the people and their willingness to object when leaders try to sell them out.
The issue of Junkanoo themes is a microcosm of a larger universe at play. Group members are not engaged enough to garner true value from the theme’s exploration and they do not care enough to challenge the theme, whether actively or symbolically, when such action is called for. If group members had a real relationship to the theme it would elevate the entire parade, because individual members would better be able to self-interpret the theme and perform in a more meaningful way. You will find that performance in the Junkanoo street theatre is often interpreted as high octane performing or hype. Any effort to truly articulate and perform the theme through dance and movement is tangential.
For misguided reasons, Queen Elizabeth II remains the head of state in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. While barely palatable, it is understandable in this context that the state would be compelled to stage ceremonial events in her honour from time to time, the diamond jubilee being such an occasion. However, why Junkanoo would stage a performance that lacked such historical perspective and context is beyond me.
Outside of the formalities of law and official ceremony, the queen is dead in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. At least, she should be. The only true significance she holds in the Bahamas is within the context of British slavery and colonial subjugation, or the contested notion of Bahamian independence. But for some reason, we still are at odds with this truth. It is a dilemma with generational nuance. And it will likely take another two generations before it is resolved.
The elder generation of 70+ year-olds – my grandparents’ generation – admittedly or not, have an underlying attachment to British culture and its supreme symbol, the monarchy. It is not an indictment; it is a reality born from colonial education. My grandparents stringently enforced the use of the queen’s English, rigid rules of etiquette, and gender roles derived from British culture.
The way in which they set the table, sat at the table and drank tea at the table, especially in the company of others, was all informed by British culture. The use of doilies, once regarded as a pillar of British identity, for interior decorating was standard practice. Most have a recollection of a living room forbidden to children, or a living room that was only fully uncovered when special guests (not regular family) arrived. Otherwise, plastic linings or cloth covers would coat the sofas.
Many elders of the older generation can still sing the British national anthem and British folk songs or recite lyrics from British literature. Those who had the means to afford tertiary education for their children sent them to the United Kingdom. The United States of America at that time was considered uncultured.
I am sensitive to the historical attachment to British empire within the elder generation, because I recognise their socialisation was another dimension of British colonial oppression and a continuation of black psychological enslavement. This psychology has been passed down from generation to generation and has taken root at varying degrees within the Bahamian subconscious. However, I am not sympathetic to the presence of this persistent spirit in the Bahamas today.
In their more youthful days, the current leadership of the Bahamas, the generation of my parents, witnessed and played junior roles in the fight to break free of colonial subjugation. Much of that effort was concentrated on political independence, but there were pockets of resistance that understood the larger picture and fought for true emancipation of spirit and political sovereignty. During the superbly rebellious 70s and 80s, many Bahamians were awakened to the black empowerment movement, which contested all that had been taught through colonial education.
Sadly, some of the more revolutionary figures have become pacifists, apologists or conformists. The only cause they now serve is the agenda of politics, specifically party-politics, profit or self-aggrandizement.
The current generation of leadership could be called the generation of transition. They fed on the first fruits of an independent Bahamas and represented the first hope for a Bahamas better. They are very nostalgic about the past (and like to ignore the fact that they are largely responsible for creating the conditions that exist today).
Their approach to leadership is reminiscent of the monarchy: until death do they part (and they seem to live as long as the recent ruling British royals). In the context of Junkanoo, they bring a high level of creative genius and commitment, but they travel with a lot of baggage and are resistant to change (under terms that are not of their own).
Many people of this generation bought into the colonial mentality despite the various liberation efforts: they refuse to speak about our transition to a republican form of government; they refuse to abandon the use of those offensive white wigs in the courts or consider abandoning the privy council; they uphold discriminatory policies against black women who wear natural hairstyles; they see no sense in moving the statue of the queen from her prized perch in Rawson’s Square looking down on the bust of Sir Milo Butler (Bible clasped at the breast); and they relish the day they might be awarded a queen’s honour.
During the Boxing Day parade, the Valley Boys staged a mock knighting in Rawson’s Square of group leader Sir Winston “Gus” Cooper, dressed as King Henry VIII. King Percy “Vola” Francis, leader of the Saxons, rode his very own royal Junkanoo chariot. These leaders were living out their own royal fantasies and private desire to be celebrated (for which they are deserving) while also celebrating the queen. The entire spectacle (particularly the lack of objection to, or internal discomfort with the performance) was the perfect embodiment of the psychological attachment to our colonial mother. The colonial mentality persists. The performance was also symbolic of the oligarchy that exists in some Junkanoo circles.
One notable example of a Bahamian who defied the colonial narrative is Dr Jackson L. Burnside, father to Junkanoo pioneer Jackson Burnside III.
Dr Burnside was recommended for a queen’s honour in 1985. In his November 18 letter to Governor General Sir Gerald Cash declining the offer he wrote: “I cannot be party to the system of recognising the dynasty of an alien people as having the right to sanction any award to me. Therefore it is with regret that I declare any submission to Her Britannic Majesty will be consciously unacceptable.”
Dr Burnside said his dream of independence was a Bahamian state “free of all incumbrances, influences, or social embellishment” of foreign entities. He wrote that his humble Rum Cay island upbringing taught him to value the dignity and pride of his ancestors, who walked as free men and women. Even though they were poor, bare foot and illiterate, he told the governor general he believed in their “independence, integrity and social value.”
On this basis, he said he would only accept recognition from His People and not Her Majesty. The legacy of Dr Burnside and the impact of his progressive way of thinking is clear to see through the works of his children: Jackson (deceased), Stan Burnside and Julia Burnside.
The generation that broke away from the deeply entrenched British colonial complex is the generation of youth (Generation X and Y), my generation. Young people in the Bahamas hold no allegiance or affinity towards the British empire, although they inherited some of the psychological complexes of their elders. They do not identify with British culture.
This would be something to celebrate, except that one empire has been replaced by another. America is the imperial power of the generation of youth. Young Bahamians are grappling with their identity. They are floundering in the dark trying to understand who they are. And they are yet to learn the true lessons of independence.
But how can we be surprised when their elders have not learned the lessons either?
The prime minister likes to speak generally about how “we” have failed to tell our stories and document our history. I wonder at whose feet he thinks these failures lie.
As an independent nation of 40 years, Junkanoo has become a forum to celebrate the monarchy responsible for enslaving our ancestors. Who would have thought.
I caution the leaders of Junkanoo as I caution the leaders of our country to learn the lessons of our story and to understand their responsibility. The power of the people is not to be taken for granted or used for frivolous ends. Junkanoo is a symbol of our power and a symbol of our heritage. We should not cheapen it just to score a win.