The Power To Change


Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett


We have seen a great deal of violence lately, as well as a large amount of typecasting. We hear about violence and then we hear how much young, black men love violence and how their characters are formed to be violent. This discourse is deeply historical in the colonial discussion as well as during the American expansionist, reconstruction periods, and later.

The use of black bodies has always been uncontrolled and couched in such a way as to forego their humanity by underscoring their beastliness. It is not without irony that similar language has arisen over the last two years as Mexicans in the US have been equated with rapists, and blacks as violent predators. Similar images have been picked up in the Bahamas and used by leaders to archetype young, black males and even females as unable to be respectable.

In reading images from popular culture we see these images redeployed often and with great intensity. The tough thug who is most popular and commands attention is a common image. As has been commonly demonstrated, black families have fallen apart, though never taken up by authorities. In fact, during the 1960s in the US, sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan examined "The Negro Family" in an effort to bring much needed assistance to it. However, this plan, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in "We Were Eight Years in Power", missteps and creates a stereotype and scapegoat that allows the black family structure to be blamed for outcomes of large-scale black male incarceration and basic black male under-achievement in mainstream society.

This language has found resonance in the Bahamas where leaders often blame the black family, single mothers, for the failure of young, black, working-class men to succeed in Bahamian society. As with Coates' work, we can all but map the areas of failure.

Coates argues that black neighbourhoods in cities like Baltimore and Chicago are prone to create particular types of dysfunction because, in my words, this is all they see. It is significant that a more recent essay by authors

June Carbone and Naomi Cahn picks up Moynihan's premise and demonstrates how the idea that black women, or that women on the whole, are outperforming males and therefore encouraging male failure, shows that this idea that women are taking over is fallacious.

This is a common theme locally, and especially among particular groups where men are seen to be failing out. One area black, working-class, young men are seen to be failing is in education, but no real solid strides are taken to address this. The blame, again, is thrust squarely on the family. Schools and their structures are not challenged. It is also not insignificant that as national discourse now moves away from the historical fact/reality of racism and segregation that allows the mapping of success and failure, to a revisionary history that omits racial and class differences and erases race-based exploitation by arguing that particular members of the United Bahamian Party were not racists nor were their policies racist, though in the early days they refused to allow blacks to vote, except for coloured persons who met the land qualifications.

This is similar in Coates' discussion.

For African Americans, "unfreedom" is the historical norm. Enslavement lasted for nearly 250 years. The 150 years that followed have encompassed debt peonage, convict lease labour, and mass incarceration - a period that overlapped with Jim Crow. Then the scorn of respectability politics is heaped on them, and they are encouraged into a deeper corner of disenfranchisement.

If we read this in the local context, many of the Over-The-Hill communities today experience this kind of distancing from possibility. It is easy for young black dudes, dawgs, thugs, gangsters to fall through the cracks or into the cracks, because these cracks or orchestrated by what I will call social mapping. The social mapping is of limited exposure to any positive alternatives. We can also refer to this as spatial justice. Young poor and working-class black men are spatially mapped and are also more likely than their white partners to be picked up by the police. They are more likely to be imprisoned for a spliff or joint, because this is what they are also more likely to have. They are more likely to remain incarcerated because they are poor and cannot afford good lawyers or have no one to bank role the same.

Further, we argue that their failure is the fault of their mothers, who are single women unable to provide a strong family unit. But when all family units around them are failing, what positive examples do they have? When they are still treated as if they were automatically criminal or disrespected by authority, they are doomed to so called failure. So, once again, these communities are blamed for their failure.

Coates argues:

"(The report) 'The Negro Family' is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing that black men should be empowered at the expense of black women...'We must not rest until every able-bodied Negro male is working. Even if we have to displace some females'."

Moynihan was evidently unconcerned that he might be arguing for propping up an order in which women were bound to men by a paycheck, in which "family" still meant the right of the husband to rape his wife and intramarital violence was still treated as a purely domestic and nonlegal matter.

This is instructive because of its similarity to local language. In fact, local language usually goes that much further to outright blame and shame black women for not keeping their legs closed and not staying with abusive men who would or could father their children and so promote successful young black men. This negative message is so deeply inscribed into Bahamian society that many women are proponents of this theory. They blame other women for not supporting their no-good men. Sadly, this misses so much of the social mapping, spatial injustice and coloniality of vision and social injustice that is operating in this same society.

To be sure, there are many problems, and young people are underperforming for numerous reasons, but we cannot separate male failure from female failure and the high cost of violence in society. This violence is structural and systemic and is due in part to the impossibility of positive options in their home communities. Unlike in the days of yore, communities have broken down. Yesteryear, where there were perhaps dysfunctional extended families, there are now dysfunctional single- or no-parent families. Further, the deeply inscribed colonial laws of anti-blackness, and the middle-class group of Negroes exploited and segregated by official policy and anti-negro sentiment, but determined to drive their way out of poverty and to succeed that thrived Over-The-Hill fled to the suburbs. Now an image popular culture creates of thugs on every street corner who waylay youth on their way to and from school is as much a local reality as it is an international one. It is instructive to reread history and understand the deep revisions taking place that disavow colonial legacies and cruelty towards poor Negroes in this post-colony where the masters have changed clothes and added a mask.


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