On Privilege, Power, and Persistence

As I leave Exuma, Bahamas,  I’m filled with eloquent rage.  Well, at least rage, and some sadness.  I hope I can be eloquent about it.  Exuma is an incredibly gorgeous paradise of aqua ocean, against the back drop of a baby blue sky, white sparkling sand reflecting the yellow sun, clouds that refract rainbow colors as they guide across the ocean, and Black people.  This combination of color — aqua, black, and yellow — forms the flag.   I’m sad, because I’m leaving the peaceful beautiful, almost unreal, piece of paradise that gave me a little break from the 24/7 life of emails, meetings, conference calls, debriefs, and planning for more of the same in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech.

I’m sitting in the airport, leaving, and looking around the lounge, I notice that I’m the only Black person in the airport.  (Ah, reality hits, as I was rarely the only Black person in my daily life here).  As I watch passengers disembark from the plane I will soon board, I see that none are Black.  This island – filled with Black Bahamians — attracts tourists, rarely Black — to enjoy the ocean, the sand, the sea, the peace, and beauty.   I recognize that it is a gift of privilege that they are able to use.  The opportunity to travel is often based on class, wealth, access to time and to money.  It takes money and time to travel overseas.  There is an unequal distribution of wealth all over the world and very few – of any race – can afford to leave a neighborhood, let alone travel across one state line, let alone more than one, let alone an ocean.

I am grateful for my ability to travel and I acknowledge my own power and privilege to do so.  I acknowledge the privilege and right of others – tourists — to travel to another country, to enjoy it, to hopefully learn about it.  I know many local and “third” world economies depend on tourism.  Yet, when those with privilege travel, often by cruises to these countries, many, without a thought, participate in the destruction of the ecosystem, habitat, and island caused by tourism, cruise ships, and pollution.  We who have privilege to travel should exercise it with responsibility for promoting the sustainability of the communities and cultures that we visit.  Equally important, those who choose to buy land and “occupy” another country, should do so with the utmost respect and reverence for the people and the place.

This issue of respect and reverence is the reason for my rage.  I am angry with non-Bahamians who buy houses on the beach and deliberately block the public beach access for the local Black Bahamians.  I’m not ok with that.  I’m not ok the exercise of power, privilege, a sense of dominion, audacity and invincibility to come to another country; to erect a gate and a fence; to destroy the government-placed boundary marker, and claim possession of a beach that is not theirs.

I am angry that the Black residents (descendants of former slaves) of Forbes Hill and Palm Beach, in Little Exuma, and all over Exuma, and many other Caribbean Islands are often powerless to stop the recolonization of their lands.  The people, “the locals” are fighting daily battles of basic survival; for running water; for consistent electricity; for regular trash pickup; for meaningful education for their children; for a school bus to regularly run; for cars from Japan with no replacement parts to miraculously start after a sensor goes awry after 2 months.  How can they fight against a public beach access issue? 

And I’m angry that the government of the Bahamas acts with snail-like pace to address these wrongs.  And, I’m angry that we have to find fighters and social justice workers and advocates who have been educated abroad and who make a commitment to return home to their land and fight on behalf of those who are unable to fight for themselves.  And what does this fight look like?  A two year battle of visits to Nassau to document and verify the public easement; letters to administrators about the issue; requests for public surveyor to survey the land; letters to administrators when the government marker is destroyed; threats of arrest and trespassing for using the beach access that ancestors have used since before time was; and persistence, persistence and more persistence.  

What is this issue of persistence to fight privilege and power? Persistence is often using one’s own privilege to fight the way privilege is exercised by another.  These are the choices we must make as social justice advocates on which battle to fight when; on when and how to use our privilege; and to be persistent in the face of denials, rejections, discouragements.  Why must we persist?  We must persist; we must summon the strength to fight injustice; and we must acknowledge, as painful as it is, that race, that skin color, matter.  It matters…all over the world.  And…until it doesn’t matter, we must persist.

When the light-skinned visitors to the Island are treated with more courtesy and respect by the dark-skinned locals than the dark-skinned locals; and when the light-skinned visitors are accorded more deference than the dark-skinned locals, by the dark-skinned locals, we have to acknowledge that race does matter.  When we acknowledge the history of the Bahamas, of “discovery” by Christopher Columbus, of the legacy of slavery, and that Bahamian ancestors worked in plantations that still stand, we must acknowledge the role and legacy of race.   When we acknowledge the colonization of the Bahamas by England and the granting of “independence” in the 1960s yet recognize that the island is still largely dependent on England for survival, we must question the meaning of independence.  England, France, and Spain and now China, are essentially recolonizing former colonies.  Race matters.

When I read the life history of Winnie Mandela and understand the complexity of her journey in South Africa and the pain inflicted on her by virtue of both her race and gender, I am humbled by the courage of freedom fighters fighting the indignity and inhumanity by virtue of their race.  When I watch a documentary about the differences in the life experiences and daily life journeys between those in Haiti and those in the Dominican Republic, I am reminded that race, that skin color, that the deeper and darker the hue, the drastically more inhumane the treatment.

When I reflect on my visit to Cuba in A Promising Reality: Race, Culture, and Gender in Cuba, and the sometimes underlying subtle undertone of race discrimination intertwined with a discussion of cultural pride, of the reality of differential experiences based on skin tone, I am reminded that race and gender matter.

Race matters…all over the world.  Gender, too.  I’m sad about that, but also more committed to the fight to make the consequences less inhumane, unjust, and inequitable.  And, I am more committed to the power of education, honest dialogue, the sharing of injustices, the sharing of a world history and legacy of that history, of friendships across differences, and of the capacity of humanity to recreate the world as it should be.  Like my mother, Mildred, in a Black Woman’s Journey, who had unlimited faith in the capacity of the human race, I remain convinced that each of us can still make the world better.

I am committed to doing my part.


7 thoughts on “On Privilege, Power, and Persistence”

  1. Wow, I stand with you in this commitment. Thanks for the reflection as it gives meaning to why we do what we do everyday. Our travels allow us to see the reality that we all live and why we must continue to reflect, write, and tell, the stories of our people across the world. Thank you again for your eloquent anger. Hope happens!

  2. Thank you so much for this Menah. This reminds me of Sylvia Wynter’s essay 1492: A New World View. You are such an inspiration. These are words to live by. I look forward to your next blog post.

  3. This was so thoughtful. I spent this year working with students whose families often have no voice because of the color of their skin and their poverty. It is so hard for these families to get what is fair and needed for them. My privilege is something I must share. We all must help to right some of the world’s inequities.

  4. Thanks you Menah for your words of encouragement. I will continue to do my very best to help my brothers and sisters,in the struggle to keep /clinging to our birthright. Looking forward to more words of inspiration.

  5. This is well written and interesting. I too am one of the privilege who returned to Exuma to live what I thought would be a life of ease. You are correct in some of your observations but we part company when you place our local dilemma on Christopher Columbus and the colonists and imperialists who followed. The problem is us and Exumians have the worst case of post emancipation blues of any non white society in the Western World. Of course they love white people and would sacrifice your needs to their in a minute. How do we change that. That’s the challenge and I need your help on that. I don’t know how to advise you on the alleged boundary interference but it’s the same issue, corrupt Black officials. Believe me, I know . Been there done that . You need to find a lawyer you can trust then hope for the best. In the absence of agricultural development, oil or natural gas, the same natural beauty that you describe is priceless as a means of economic development so we can’t have a schizoid approach in inviting people to live and vacation here then despise them based on color and gender. In ten years they will be Asians.

  6. Amazing take on life in the beautiful islands of the Bahamas..particularly Exuma.. Wow..if only the people could see the great blessings God have given .. the grass always seems to be greener on the othet side..ofcourse there are exceptions to the rule..my frw words for now..

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