I wrote last week about the recent vacation my husband and I took to the Bahamas. That post focused on the beauty of ocean and beach and on all the things we saw and did. Today I am writing about what I learned from Bahamian history and art. Because that nation’s history and art developed through experiences of slavery and colonial dependence, it seems a fitting topic for this week in which we in the U.S. celebrate our own independence.
At the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, we learned of the slaughter of the Lucayan native tribes by Europeans, beginning with Christopher Columbus. Some exhibits taught us about the English Eleutherians, who came to the Bahamas seeking religious freedom. Other exhibits showed the trade triangle—ships carried firearms and alcohol from England to Africa, then brought African slaves to the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Americas in inhuman conditions, then shipped molasses from sugar cane and other agricultural products grown in the New World back to England. Each of the three legs of this triangle earned a profit for the shipping companies, and each was in some way dependent on the free labor of African slaves.
Slavery was abolished in Great Britain in 1833, and slaves became apprentices and then free by 1840 in Britain and in most of its colonies. Nevertheless, the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, which is housed in a former meeting place of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (something like our Daughters of the American Revolution), was clear about the racial stratification that remained prevalent in Bahamian society even after the abolition of slavery, just as such stratification remained a fact of life in the United States (and we had slavery for decades longer).
Moreover, the Bahamas only became an independent commonwealth in 1973. Before that, the islands were a colony of Great Britain. The Bahamian economy remains heavily dependent on tourism. Thus, even in independence, most Bahamians perform service roles in support of tourists like my husband and me.
When we visited the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, we saw a lovely exhibit of watercolors by artist Thierry Lamare. Mr. Lamare’s still lives, portraits, and landscapes depicted traditional aspects of Bahamian life—the local life that we as tourists did not see. He painted elderly Bahamians in their homes and at their work. The culture he painted was beautiful, but it wasn’t the clean and polished facades presented to visitors. Other works in the Art Gallery took as their theme how a modern culture that originated in slavery and colonialism can express itself and its independence through art.
These experiences in the Historical Society Museum and the Art Gallery caused me to ask myself—what impact does a history of slavery and colonialism have on people once they become independent? My interactions with the Bahamians of today—the restaurant waiters, the hotel employees, the taxi drivers and tour guides—made me reflect on how all of them were dependent on pleasing me as their customer. How did that dependence mesh with their status as an independent people?
Once I thought about this question, I saw tensions between the struggle for independence and being dependent on foreign tourism all around me, from hotel and restaurant staffs, to the boat pilots and guides, to the craftspeople hawking their wares on the street. All these people had to provide good service to be successful. I expected them to serve me well—I was paying for the privilege.
Still, I was more conscious of being served on this vacation than I typically am in hotels and restaurants in the U.S. Receiving service became uncomfortable on occasion, even when the people serving were doing their jobs well and providing me what I expected.
To add to my introspection, while we were in the Bahamas, I read an essay in the current issue of Persimmon Tree by African-American writer, Dawn Downey, entitled “The Cleaning Women.” In this essay, Ms. Downey described her efforts to find a housecleaning service in the U.S. and reflected on her feelings as an African-American daughter and granddaughter of housekeepers. I compared her feelings about service and race with what I experienced as a white tourist in the Bahamas. We both felt discomfort and being served, but for different reasons, because of our backgrounds and our expectations.
Though I believed I should receive good service, this trip caused me to think about how people in service roles feel. I believe that it is important to treat everyone with courtesy and respect (though I admit to sometimes getting peeved at poor service and failing to follow through on my beliefs). I did not intend to—and did not want to—demean them, though service roles are often seen as demeaning. I simply saw them as doing their jobs—and usually doing them well.
In particular, I thought of the tour guide on our Island World Adventures excursion, an older Afro-Bahamian gentleman whose role seemed to be to keep the tourists on the boat happy with food and drinks and gear. When the time came, he outfitted us with snorkeling masks and fins, then stayed in the hot boat while we cavorted around the reef. As an inexperienced snorkeler and a poor swimmer, I panicked and thrashed back to the boat shortly after we started. This guide handed me a life preserver and showed me how to fit the mask properly so I could breathe without inhaling water. His calm voice turned my fright into fun, and I told him later that he had the most soothing voice I’d ever heard. In no way did I view him as “just” a service person. He made my experience what it was supposed to be and deserved credit for doing so (and a large tip for exemplary service).
Moreover, I have generally viewed myself as a service-provider in the jobs I have had—whether as an attorney, a Human Resources manager, a mediator, or a writer. In all these roles, I have had customers—just as the Bahamians had me as a customer. It has been my responsibility to please my customers within the confines of my expertise and ethics. Indeed, the concept of “servant leadership” has been important in my definition of success throughout my career.
Nevertheless, this trip taught me that it is important to be sensitive to how service is viewed through different lenses. Racial and cultural lenses can impact both service providers and service receivers. (Gender is another lens that makes a difference, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) For each individual and for every nation, the experiences of our past influence our present and our future.
When have you taken a vacation that caused you to reflect on cultural and historical diversity?