Helen Klonaris

 

White Creole Conversations

Here is an image: It is after midnight in Nassau on New Year’s Eve. The main streets downtown are thronging with people, most of them black Bahamians. Food and drink booths have been set up down Parliament Street and street lights and Christmas lights strung between them glow yellow in the excited darkness. It is Junkanoo night and the whole country, it seems, is coming out to watch. On Bay Street, this is how it breaks down: up in the balconies overlooking the street are the white kids with their beer and rum and cokes; the British expats are there too; the Greek kids hanging out with the British expats and some black kids; they are already laughing and having a good time. Down on the streets, behind barricades, are the majority of Bahamians, the majority of them black. Maybe a white tourist or one or two white or light skinned Bahamians walking through, or sitting in the bleachers. And then the parade. The goatskin drums begin and the grand costumes carried by the men begin the rushing. The women dance. There are horn blowers and cow bell ringers. And most of these Junkanooers are black. Once in a while a white or light skinned Bahamian will beat a drum (I have done so myself), but mostly, we watch.

I’ve always noted these demographics as telling of how we as Bahamians understand ourselves. We are all Bahamians. We love Junkanoo. But race and class direct us into different spaces, different vantage points, from which to participate in our collective culture. Race and economics determine who will participate from a distance, who will be on the sidewalks watching, who will be on the street itself, rushing, drumming, blowing horns, dancing.

As a child, I remember watching a parade coming down Bay Street and falling in love with the drums, the passion of the musicians, the sense of belonging to a common cause. I felt a yearning to be part of this (as a Greek girl growing up in an immigrant community I already felt apart from). As an older person, I felt conflicted about participation in Junkanoo – could I be part of something that was historically not mine? That emerged out of resistance to slavery, out of the history of black people in my country? I struggled with what it meant to be a white (Greek) Bahamian and how to participate in an African celebration of freedom from cultural, spiritual, and physical occupation. I could not get the origins of this cultural celebration out of my head. I did not think I should. It felt important to struggle with this as a white Bahamian. As a Greek Bahamian. I knew that in my cultural legacy as a Greek woman I had inherited a history of enslavement and occupation at the hands of the Turks – 400 years – freedom from which we as a small community of Greeks in Nassau celebrated every 25th of March. I knew that I was now part of a larger community of black and brown and yellow and white Bahamians and that somehow the friction of our coming together was part of our growing identity, part of the becoming of who we would be. And if I were to participate in Junkanoo, it had to be as a Greek woman, as a white woman who celebrated freedom from colonization, and in solidarity with my brown and black sisters and brothers.

I think as a white Bahamian what is consistent is that I perceive I am always being looked at as a. a tourist, b. as someone who does not care about black people, c. as someone who is not interested in black Bahamian history, culture, and concerns. And in the past this created a lot of tension within me because I wanted to be part of the culture, to belong. But over the years of being an activist, of working side by side with Black Bahamians in so many different organizations and communities, I understood how our history has perpetuated a spiritual, psychological, economic, and material distance that must continuously be challenged for our collective perceptions to change. White is often synonymous with tourist, expat, employer, for so many black Bahamians whose only interaction with whites is in the service industry where often both customer and executive bosses are white foreigners.

I think what has allowed me to feel belonging is my work in the community, my engagement with the larger black Bahamian community. I have been a reporter, a freelance journalist, an activist in various circles including work on eliminating capital punishment, and other human rights issues; most recently I have co-facilitated a program for Bahamian writers. My engagement in larger social issues particularly brought me into what I call the beloved struggle – struggle with others for transformation that generates beloved community. It has been for me a staying with the discomfort of the tensions our histories evoke that has shaped my relationship to and identity within Bahamian culture and community.

 

 

Bio:

 

Helen Klonaris is a Bahamian writer of Greek descent who grew up on the island of New Providence, Bahamas. In her mid-thirties she left the Bahamas to live in the Bay Area, California where she writes and teaches mythology and creative writing at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Her fiction appears in several anthologies including Let's Tell This Story Properly, by Dundurn Press; and her nonfiction appears in numerous journals and anthologies including The Racial Imaginary: Writers and the Life of the Mind, by Fence Books. Much of her writing is concerned with gender, sexuality, and race, particularly the dynamics of whiteness. She is working on the completion of a collection of essays entitled The Heresy of Wings, and is co-editor with Amir Rabiyah of the soon to be released anthology Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices, published by Trans-Genre Press. Visit her at www.helenklonaris.com

 

 

 

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