“Report from the Bahamas”: The Legacies of Colonialism and White Supremacy
*This post is part of our series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.
Thirty-eight years ago June Jordan wrote “Report From The Bahamas, 1982” about vacationing in a postcolonial Caribbean country as a Black American woman. The aftermath of Hurricane Dorian requires a personal reengagement with her essay, which dissects tourism, colonialism, academia, and the social categories (race, class, gender) that are supposed to lead to solidarity but which more often obscure possibilities for meaningful relationships across difference. As June said, “partnership in misery does not necessarily provide partnership for change: when we get the monsters off our backs all of us may want to run in very different directions.”
June was a Jamaican American poet, the child of immigrants to New York City, and she became a full professor of English at UC Berkeley. She attended Columbia University, although she did not graduate because she could not adhere to the supremacist curriculum. She took graduate anthropology classes at the University of Chicago. She was married and divorced, and she did not always identify as heterosexual. She raised a son and published more than 27 books of poetry and essays before she passed away in 2002 at the age of 65. As June herself said, she was no fool.
My own life has some small intersections with June’s. “Report from The Bahamas, 1982”, was written the year after I was born, and then reprinted in the journal Meridians in 2003, the year I graduated from Columbia University. It is a famous text for women’s studies, but I did not find it until I was in graduate school in anthropology at UC Berkeley in 2008, during my fieldwork in The Bahamas. Of course June knew that the personal is political and the political is professional. She once said that her goal was to “stitch together the personal and political so the seams didn’t show.” This means that my own consciousness of race, class, and gender identity matters for my work. I am the eldest child of Sandy and Wes, who married in 1980. They formed an interracial family in Seattle, which was not a post-racial utopia, but it was not the Jim Crow south, where they were both born, and it was not WASPY New England, where they went to college. It was a place where they felt they could become themselves on their own terms.
My mother is African American. Her great grandfather was a runaway slave who settled in Rhode Island where my great grandmother was born. She eventually moved to Kentucky, married a pastor, and had seven children, one of whom was my grandmother, Emma. My grandparents, Emma and Saunders, raised my mother on the campus of Tuskegee University, where they were both English Professors. Founded by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee would not have existed but for the American apartheid that was the segregated south. My mother spent her most formative years in a Black bubble of elite education in the middle of rural Alabama, where my grandmother wrote her dissertation on Hemmingway and Faulkner. My grandfather started the Bucket Theater to introduce Shakespeare to sharecroppers.
My father’s parents were born in Kansas, descendants of “hardy” white farmers. His parents, Eleanor and Francis, met when they were students at the University of Kansas. They came from the conservative Midwest, but they somehow ended up politically radical, living through the Great Depression and experiencing real poverty. Grandma ran for lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1952 as a Socialist (she got 250 votes).
My brother and I are typical Americans: products of coincidence, connection, and uneven and underexplored privilege. My genealogy helps me to understand that our very bodies, minds, and ecologies are formed in conditions of inequity. I am also aware that we can reconnect our way to a better future.
Last November, I traveled to The Bahamas to help document the experience of Hurricane Dorian. June was on my mind, reminding me that I will always be a part of the “weird succession of crude intruders” stretching back to at least Columbus. Our team of American and Bahamian scholars attempted to answer the question: What does it mean to survive after Dorian? (posed by another scholar, Angelique Nixon). Dorian revealed miracles of connection in the form of rescue from people who risked their lives to save strangers and feed and house the displaced, reaching across race, class, and nationality to help one another. But there were also missed connections, especially the prejudice against Haitian migrants whose communities suffered the most deaths and who faced deportation instead of support. Indeed, Haiti is misrecognized by Bahamians and Americans as merely the origin point for dangerous “illegals.” There is also the risk that this storm will be misrecognized as an incident of tropical weather, instead of as a manifestation of chronic global warming. And there is the tourism industry, whose solution to precarity is always to travel more, buy more, spend more, take more. These are the missed connections that we don’t talk about.
While on the island of Abaco we encountered a young woman I will call Glory. Glory is a Black woman in her 20’s, born in Haiti but living in The Bahamas with a work permit. She has an infant son and a Haitian husband who also has work status. In 2019, they worked in the tourism industry as wage laborers. I didn’t recognize her voice, but one member of our team realized that she was the author of the viral “pray for Abaco video” posted during the storm. In the video the woman encountered waves reaching the top of her apartment building after the storm tore off the roof. She had no option but to swim with her four-month-old son, and she did not know how to swim. You can hear the heartbreak in her voice through the video. That voice still trembled as she recounted her story. She had never experienced a hurricane before in her life, and yet there she was in the middle of a cat 5. She needed to swim, and so she swam.
Throughout the interview I had June’s words in my head. She reminded me that I do not appreciate my privileged capacity to come and go across many kinds of borders. She also reminded me that my racial ambiguity has protected me from the overt acts of racism this woman experiences in a country that will never forgive her for being Haitian. June knows that Glory and I cannot easily share a kinship just by being part of the African Diaspora. Yet we all cried together when Glory explained that the hardest part was sending her son to her sister in Florida, and the fear that he would become a burden there because she was not allowed to go with him. Glory lost 16 souls she knew in the storm from the Mudd and Pigeon Peas sections of Marsh Harbor along with her home and all her possessions. She almost lost her life and her son’s life. She was experiencing what it means to be a scapegoat as the country’s politicians echoed American anti-immigrant baiting.
I have never admired someone more than Glory of Abaco. I will never forget her courage in front of our inelegant questions and her calm acceptance of some small amounts of cash and our contact information. I cannot forget her grace in the face of one of the most ferocious storms to make landfall in the Caribbean in recorded history. Glory may not remember me, but I will never forget her.
The effects of Hurricane Dorian have only further metastasized in conjunction with the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, revealing the ongoing disasters of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy that unevenly shape the region’s vulnerabilities. And June reminds me now that making connections across difference is the only thing that will save us and that these connections may be hard to maintain. We have to actively build empathy into our research, and we have to share our stories because we are all interconnected through processes of history, lifestyle, economy, emission, disparity and disaster, even more than we may be obviously connected by race, class, or gender. Glory, June, and I are all female members of the Diaspora, but critically, we are also connected in death through changing planetary conditions that affect us all.
Knowing June allows me to ask: what connects us across difference? The things that link people to each other, to the other-than-human world, and to place are not necessarily obvious. Connections are often painfully hidden, yet decolonizing begins with reimagined connections. What connections are we making in the Anthropocene? How do we understand our role in systems of inequity? Whose rights and freedoms matter? What connections might unite us if we can only manage to make them?
June ended her 1982 Report with a prescient reflection: “I think, even here and even now I must make the connection real between me and these strangers everywhere before those other clouds unify this ragged bunch of us, too late.”permission.