EVERY year, we celebrate Emancipation Day, often referred to as August Monday. In a statement released on Monday, Niambi Hall Campbell- Dean, PhD, Chair of the Bahamas National Reparations Committee acknowledged there are varying ideas about the meaning of “freedom” and how it is (not) realized and embodied.
Are we free? Where does power sit? What work is left to be done in order to be truly free? How would that work unseat people in positions of power? How does power need to be redistributed?
In her statement, Hall Campbell-Dean promoted decolonisation. “We can decolonise our workspaces by normalising clothes that reflect our hot climate as professional and hair that grows our of our heads at “neat”. We can decolonise our language by not referring to the beauty that is Bahamian creole as “broken” and even decolonise our perceptions of work by valuing rest.”
Those four areas — clothing, hair, language and rest — have all been raised in this space before. It is important for us to interrogate the beliefs and practices that were forced upon us, collectively, before any of us were born. We have to be able to question what we accept as true. We need to be able to recognise oppression and attempts to devalue us and our culture. We have to be attentive and critical in our thinking to avoid participating in or perpetuating that which bars us from true freedom.
Respectability politics has plagued us for a long time, and it has even become a source of comfort to some as they seek to prevent the progress and freedom of others. We were sold the idea that there is a positive correlation between our value — our recognition as human beings — and our ability and willingness to follow a set of arbitrary rules that narrow our means of participating in and enjoying life. This is where the clothing, hair, language and rest come in.
“Dress the way you want to be addressed,” they say. While it is true people often make judgments about other people when they see them, it ought not be a reason to for black people in particular to be policed on the basis of fashion and style choices and, related and not often acknowledged, the ability to afford and maintain certain kinds of apparel. Racists are racist regardless of what people wear. Anti-black people are hateful and violent toward black people with no exceptions — not even three-piece suits or luxury brand accessories. We cannot dress our way out of blackness, and we cannot earn racism immunity passes. We are not the problem.
Black hair has been another area in which racists try to exercise control. They describe it in negative ways, from “unprofessional” to “unkempt,” all because of the texture. Black people have many different types of hair, and the tighter and/ or less defined the curl, the more it is frowned upon. Companies make rules against certain hairstyles, and schools do the same. Are locks allowed? If so, who is allowed to have them? Are afros acceptable? Are they “neat” enough? Are braids too “distracting”? They are all, somehow, good enough to wear when people (who are not black) want to look “edgy” or wear blackness as a costume, whether it’s for Halloween or a themed party. Everyone but black people gets to enjoy black hair. Those of us who truly have it are expected to make it as white as possible, with chemical straighteners, heat-based methods, and a range of products meant to minimise the volume (while other people try to add volume to theirs). It does not make sense. Respectability politics never do.
We tend to say our first language is English, but is it? For many of us who grew up in The Bahamas, our first language was Bahamian Creole. English was acquired along the way, especially in the school system. Without being formally taught Bahamian Creole, we understand the way the language works, and we speak it fluently. When Hall Campbell-Dean said we need to stop saying our language is broken, she called us to reject the idea that it is, in any way, an incorrect form or derivative of English. It is its own language that has words and features of the language spoken by our ancestors who were stolen from the continent of Africa, survived a horrific, deadly trafficking exercise, were enslaved and forced to live, speak and believe in different ways, and somehow managed to retain some of their own practices, language and belief systems and pass them down from one generation to another.
Why would we reduce this legacy to something that is broken? Why wouldn’t we celebrate the survival of what is so much ours that it comes naturally to us?
Where else in the world does it spry? Who else has arguments about whether or not “Muddasick!” Is okay for a child to say? Why do we all say “bey” the same way, even though we can’t agree on the spelling? (It is definitely not buoy.) There are no idioms quite like ours. We have our own proverbs, and some of them have different versions. We enjoy them. We quote them. We laugh about some of them. We have the ability to switch between Bahamian Creole and English. Still, even this is policed. They tell us there is a “time and place for everything”, but what is the time and where is the place that it is not okay to be a black Bahamian, in The Bahamas?
One of the ways people often try to prove their worth is (over)working. Many black people are constantly, though unconsciously, working to disprove stereotypes and present themselves as somehow different and better. To be seen as lazy is one of the worst things that could happen. To avoid that, show up, work and avoid taking any action that would suggest anything but a love for work. Working through lunch breaks, staying late, delaying and rescheduling vacations, and answering work calls outside of work hours are all ways we deny ourselves the rest we need. One racist’s stereotype, persisting and causing self-conscious, can impact our personal lives and our health. We cannot afford this. We need freedom from this.
It is easy to blame black people for the oppression experienced. People say we are the majority, and while we are the numerical majority, this does not mean we are not experiencing racism at the interpersonal level as well as at the institutional level. In fact, that racism demands our participation, and not all of us know how or are comfortable and confident to push back.
Some people do not realise they are a part of a racist system and helping to police other black people. As a simple example, some people did not have a choice when their parents chemically straightened their hair. They are accustomed to maintaining their hair in that way. Some find it easier to manage their hair that way, and some people have been led to believe it looks better, or that it is better suited to professional environments. Some of these people become managers who have no problem enforcing the rules in the handbook because they have always complied, and some of them see no reason why others should not do the same. Some of these people may have a different texture of length of hair that is deemed acceptable. The attitude is: “You want a job, and this is what is required for the job. Do it, or go home.” This happens when there is lack of awareness and sensitivity. It happens when there is internalised racism — the unconscious acceptance of false narratives about black people which are used to falsify causation between both the value and behaviour of black people and the oppression of black people.
We are very uncomfortable with conversations about race and racism in The Bahamas. Raise the issue and watch as people shift in their seats, slip out of the room, declare that racism is over, or take some other action to show they are not open to the conversation.
How can we address what we refuse to discuss? Who does it benefit to ignore the issue of racism in The Bahamas? How is this discomfort, this constant refusal, related to the general feeling that 184 years after Emancipation Day, we still are not quite free? Hall Campbell-Dean challenged us to really think about freedom. What does freedom mean to you? I add to her question: when you think of freedom, are you able to think beyond the constraints of the way we live now? Is our collective freedom what you think of, or is it individualistic? How will we/you get there?
1. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi. Feyi is a young widow who still trying to recover from the trauma of the car accident that killed her husband. In this romance novel, she tries to navigate life, including sex and dating, while grieving the death of her husband. At first, it seems like Feyi is quite reckless and not interested in love or long-term relationships. Throughout this romance novel, there are many points where the next scene seems predictable, but a twist is on its way. Emezi demostrates their skill here, bringing humour and drama, queerness and blackness to the genre. Heavy in parts, it still manages to be a fun read.
2. Loot. After 20 years of marriage, Molly divorces her husband and receives a settlement of $87 billion. She doesn’t even seem to question what she’ll do with all of that money. She goes about her life as a wealthy woman, taking trips, making purchases and hanging out with her friends. This would make for quite a repetitive, boring show so, of course, there is a twist. She is called to urgently meet with the head of a charitable organisation she got in the settlement because they need her to reel it in to protect the organisation’s reputation. Well, they got more than they bargained for, and they are stuck with Molly now.