On The Drive Over
The nap before Junkanoo can be as important as the parade. Junkanoo doesn’t start until two in the morning. Without a nap, the eight-hour festival can seem almost impossible to withstand. Most people only stay for one cycle either from 2-6 am or 6-10 am. In the past, I’ve always attended the first cycle, and I can never nap before, but sometimes I rest, close my eyes and sit in darkness for an hour or two. I am not often home in the Bahamas for Christmas. During the holidays, I think of leaving home rather than returning. We haven’t attended a live Junkanoo parade since I was nine, but nevertheless my mother and I wake up and ride to Bay Street to watch the 2010 Boxing Day parade.
Every year around Christmas time Bahamians are divided by the Junkanoo groups they support. I was born into a family of Valley Boy supporters, but in theory I could support any of the main competing groups—Valley Boys, One Family, Roots, Saxons, The Music Makers or The Prodigal Sons. These groups practice all year for the Boxing Day and New Year competitive parades. Those used to be the only mornings there were Junkanoo parades, but now there are performances called rush outs every week in Marina Village on Paradise Island and routinely throughout the summer at the Fish Fry, a once cultural landmark now overrun by restaurants that sell syrupy-sweet strawberry daiquiris and bland peas n’rice on Fiestaware. I do want to be, nor do I try to be a cultural snob, but sometimes I do wonder if anything can belong to a country that shares and bends its land and people so often for the benefit of others. I wonder at one point does the culture become something else entirely, simply a shadow of its former self.
My mother parks our car in a packed, dusty and rocky lot. My mother used to work in a bank. Now, she drives a school bus. One of my mother’s patrons, a Greek-Bahamian with a mole above her lip and chestnut colored hair that stops where her back ends, owns a restaurant, Athena Cafe on Bay Street. I have walked past the Cafe before, but only eaten there once because like most restaurants on this street the food is overpriced. Athena Cafe has a balcony overlooking the central parade site, and every year the restaurant profits off of its prime location and charges for seats on the balcony. The owner gave my mother a discount. For fifty dollars each, we will watch the celebration tonight on white plastic chairs instead of the cold metal benches below. We pay only for the privilege to stay warm. In the past when I’ve attended Junkanoo, we watched the celebration on the street side. But one morning a gangly man with dark-brown dreads broke a bottle over another man’s head in the middle of the crowd, and after that my mother said no more. “These things too dangerous for us to be running out there in the middle of the night.” Some years since, we’ve watched the festival live on the local television channel, ZNS, but everything on that channel has an eerie blue tint and the music doesn’t sound as moving, doesn’t have that potential to rattle your ribcage if you don’t experience the thing live.
On the balcony, there’s a pretense of safety. In the distance the wind blows the palm trees so hard the trees looks like cardboard cutouts about to tip over. Bay Street is a narrow street. In the daytime, the nightclubs are closed, but the McDonald’s by the US Embassy is open and so is the Dunkin Donuts, the Cyber Cafe, jewelry and souvenir stores, clothing stores like Gucci, Fendi and Coles. Aside from Paradise Island, there is no place in The Bahamas as markedly divided as Bay Street. Middle-aged men direct surreys drawn by clomping, malnourished horses for a colonial-type tour of the island. Cruises anchor by the docks. Workers in the straw market peddle fake designer bags and trinkets for tourists. Tourists look dismayed, exhausted, surprised by the poor quality of the streets and storefronts. During the late 1930s, Bay Street was the principal area for local Bahamians to shop for groceries, dry goods and hardware. Now the street is intended for tourists de-boarding from cruise ships.
Tonight, metal barricades bar off the side streets like Elizabeth and Charles Street. Below I see people huddled together wearing scarves and black coats and boots with fur insides. For a brief second, I think I am in the States again, but then I recognize the smallness of the buildings, the shingle roofs, and the imported palm trees, the broken bottles and craggy side streets, and I know I am home. Photographers of the two main newspapers on the island snap photographs of bystanders. Judges carry clipboards. To become a judge of this renowned cultural event, you must fill out a form, and if accepted complete a thorough training and examination process. There are three main categories of the competition: best music, best costume and best overall design. While we wait for the Valley Boys, scrap groups—church choirs or middle school students wearing hastily put together costumes and carrying flimsy paper banners—dance throughout the street. The scrap groups may not be sponsored by gas stations like Shell or local department stores like Kelly’s, but they embody the original spirit of the festival.
I sit on my seat next to my mother, watching the scrap groups, waiting for Valley Boys. Waiting is half the experience of watching the Junkanoo parade nowadays.
While We Wait
Junkanoo is as Bahamian as the yellow elder flower, as Bahamian as our “March on Bahamaland anthem” or a Styrofoam bowl of conch salad. Erudite Americans might recognize Junkanoo from the 1960s James Bond film Thunderball. Occurring at the non-traditional time of year, the dashing Sean Connery as the British spy James Bond escapes the villainous henchmen and weaves his way through the passive revelers, who we are led to believe are so entranced by the music they take no offense to a random chase interrupting their performance.
Forty years since The Bahamas’ independence from Britain, and I’m not sure I know or my country knows how to define what we mean by Bahamian. I would say it’s because we need more artists, more writers seeing the island differently, writers who might create distinct images from the brochures and advertisements that so often overwrite our history and culture. Dr. Ian Strachan wrote in his book Paradise and Plantation: Tourism and Culture in the Anglophone Caribbean: “Bahamians have a kind of brochure self-knowledge. The tourism industry as well as the tourist gave Bahamians an idea of what is worthwhile and beautiful in their country.” Strachan refers to here a process of colonial-era logoization. When colonialists discovered the islands, they found a way to instantly categorize those areas, a way to describe and recognize the islands easily. Tropical birds, exotic fruits become the recognizable features of a tropical landscape, and not, for example, poorly maintained roads or overburdened garbage collection sites. It’s this brochure self-knowledge, an ability only to see the world as tourists might, that stifles the creativity. The type of touristic narratives one sees in tourism brochures and advertisements are one-dimensional depictions devoid of history. Bahamians see that image and rarely its history, and so street festivals, like words and places, have a tendency to lose their meaning over time.
The Junkanoo festival dates as far back as the 16th and 17th century when slaves would celebrate their day off the plantation. Anyone could participate in the festivities. They made their costumes with any material they could. Over the years, the country starved for cultural expression began to fixate most of its artistic energy onto the festival. Around the 1940s, the committee overseeing the parade instigated cash prizes to encourage participation. Junkanoo became an organized event, a pageant, with themed costumes. Technically, the scrap groups or anyone can still participate, but people only care about the competition between the main Junkanoo groups.
Before the country’s independence from Britain, an oligarchy of white men called the Bay Street Boys owned most of the shops on Bay Street street. They occupied most of the seats in the House of Assembly, which is less than a few blocks from the parade site. Throughout the colonial period, the Government banned the festival whenever Bahamians got too far out of line. The greatest ban from 1942 to 1947 happened after the Burma Road Riots, a two day riot that occurred as a result of unfair working and compensation practices on a hotel construction site. White Americans were hired and paid higher rates than Bahamians, though both groups performed the same tasks. In the newspapers, Bay Street and the buildings were described in more detail than the people who were hurt or injured in the riot. Reporters listed the damage done to each shop on Bay Street, writing, “Shops were looted by unruly mob.” “Coca Cola truck parked in the street was set upon, and the bottles were used as handy missiles.” Charles Baxter wrote an essay about the passive voice, “Dysfunctional Narratives or ‘Mistakes Were Made’ Mistakes Were Made, and the way politicians, in particular, use the passive voice to distort social narratives. When I think about the egregious misuses of the passive voice, I think of Burma Road Riots, the reporters who engaged in a rewriting of history, leaving forever open the question, “Who was throwing the bottles?” Because of this, Bay Street is the political heartbeat of the Junkanoo parade. A symbolic time of the year when regular Bahamian citizens “own” Bay Street.
I attended the second most expensive private school on Nassau, a school for many years was considered a “Bay Street” creation, because the parents who owned the shops on Bay Street were also the school’s shareholders. The school was officially integrated after Bahamian independence, but when I attended in 1993 there still weren’t that many brown Bahamian students, and the school still has a stigma today of being a place for white people and not true Bahamians. The teachers are mostly expatriates—British, American, Australian, Scottish, Irish, New Zealanders. They taught me how to speak “proper” English, and that’s why I speak now with no lilt, no cadence, no Bahamian accent that’s recognizable.
Perhaps because I was so often asked about my ethnicity, I used to buy whatever books about the Bahamas I could find, believing I wasn’t receiving a true Bahamian cultural education—not knowing, of course, that no one was. I’d try to write plays or short stories set in Nassau, but somehow they felt insincere. I felt incapable of writing about my own experiences of attending a private school with predominantly white students, and then even more so writing about my experiences in upstate New York at a private liberal arts institution with predominantly white students of extraordinary wealth and reckless sensibilities and then writing of my life as an expatriate, not an immigrant, but an expatriate in the U.S, what a horrible position that might be.
Writing about home, The Bahamas, the experience can feel for me somewhat like watching Junkanoo on a television screen. The work never moves me in the same way. Yet still, I listen astutely, for those moments in which I might recognize a flicker of that experience. It’s my writer’s burden. Sometimes, I feel ill-equipped for the task. How to describe a country that most of my readers rarely encounter on the literary page? I’ve spent hours contemplating perspective. If I’m writing a close third-person perspective, and my Bahamian protagonist sits under an avocado-pear tree. Does he refer to the tree as an avocado tree, a term most Americans would recognize? Or does he call it a pear tree, the way Bahamians would describe it? To whom should I write? My writer’s burden. My avocado-pear conundrum.
I’ll get home later and feel so moved by the performance, so full of artistic light. I will find a clip of a Junkanoo parade on Youtube. I will send a link to an American friend, who’s white and wears colorful paint-splattered hoodies and who listens to hip hop without trying to be ironic. He will reply, What is that?
I will feel as I give him an answer straight out of a travel guide. I will feel as if I’ve failed once again. I’ll think about what I should have said. Perhaps that art has no business being art if there wasn’t some hard truth it needed to expose. That art outside of a political or social context might very well just be some tepid recreation of already accepted hegemonic practices or a syrupy pageant of tropical colors.
It’s an hour before the Valley Boys appear. This year their theme is “Let The Music Play,” celebrating all genres of music. My mother and I stand up. I forget how cold I am or how long I’ve been waiting. I lean over the balcony to see the hundreds of Valley Boys, rushing down the street. The Valley Boys’ banner this year comes attached to a huge golden gate made out of cardboard, ecofoam, and crepe paper. Everything below is now feathery and colorful—nothing but bright oranges and pinks, lime-greens, aquas, purples and yellows. Tomorrow, feathers and broken pieces of Junkanoo costumes will litter the sidewalk. Prince, Rick James, T-Pain, MC Hammer, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, impersonators walk in zigzag patterns and pose before the crowd. One particularly artistic individual has made a cardboard cut out of the West-coast rapper Tupac’s head and lined his eyebrows with glitter. Hype men dressed in purple and lime green suits with feathered top hats have microphones and megaphones. When they say their mantra, “Who Are We?” The crowd responds, “The Valley.”
Every Junkanoo group has the same standard formation. First, the free dancers, half-naked women of all sizes and shapes, blow whistles and whine their hips. This morning Valley Boys have women wearing bright red glitzy braziers, short skirts and cardboard musical notes, and faux country girls wear white cowboy hats with purple stars. These women shake their hips and cowbells, and every inch of their moves.
Members of Junkanoo groups sometimes spend thousands of dollars to create costumes made of cardboard, crepe paper, aluminum rods, and contact cement. It’s hard to describe a typical Junkanoo structure. When I think of American Macy’s Day Parades, the closest word that comes to mind to describe the structure is “float,” though these elaborate cardboard cutouts are not towed or carried by any vehicle. Men lift and carry these huge floats down the street all morning, alternating as best as they can. The times I’ve watched Junkanoo by the street side, I’ve seen the men crawl on their stomachs from under these floats, puffy and sweating. There’s a float of a train, meant to remind the watchers of Soul Train, and the Valley Boys made tribute floats to Bahamian artists like Ronnie Butler and Sweet Emily. The faces look somewhat like a three-dimensional expression of a caricature artist’s portrait.
When the band arrives, the buildings pulsate with their energy, bringing with them the force a hundred years of history. The drummers smack their palms against goat-skin drums. The men holding the trombones, the trumpets, sousaphones, and black horns play KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Put On Your Boogie Shoes” and Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and Alphaville’s “Forever Young.”A girl no more than eight years old leads the choreographed dancers. Every one of dancers in this section are brown-skinned disco Barbies, wearing nappy blonde fros, baby-blue tops and pink skirts. They perform a coordinated line dance, a basic Junkanoo step, a double stomp on the right foot, a weight shift to the left and then a double stomp on the left foot. It’s hard to stand in this crowd and not move your feet. I’ll be just as happy when the other Junkanoo groups perform because each group brings beauty to Bay Street, in their own way. When the Valley Boy’s choreographed dancers move together, the feathers on their costumes look like waves.