Listen to the story:
My parents were never more than cordial toward each other after they divorced. But whenever I asked them to tell the story of how they met, their eyes would soften.
I can see my dad, eyes fixed on the country highway, a sheepish grin on his face. Me, 11, whining and begging until he told the story again.
My dad was 19 when he travelled from Steinbach to The Bahamas for the first time. His childhood friend, who was visiting relatives, invited my dad to tag along.
One night, my dad and his friend ventured into a beachside club in Nassau. They couldn’t find a table in the dark, crowded club. So, they settled for a spot at the bar.
That’s where he saw my mom.
They made eye contact, then quickly looked away. He continued talking with his friend, stealing glances when he thought my mom wasn’t looking. Their eyes would meet, then they’d look away.
My dad nursed his drink, pretending to listen to his friend as he weighed his options. He could be bold. Walk up to my mom and her friends, introduce himself… but no — he didn’t want to seem rude.
He could wait until she came to him… but —
My dad looked across the bar. My mom was looking at him, walking toward him, and then right past him.
Before she got too far, he asked her to dance, practically yelling after her over the blaring music. She looked back and said yes.
When my mom tells the story, she says my dad was the funniest man she had ever met. My dad thought my mom was kind, a bit shy, but had a way about her that made her easy to talk to.
My dad only had a few days left on the island, so my mom took him to the fish markets the following day. She introduced him to her favourite foods — scorched conch, fresh off the boat, with freshly squeezed lime juice and crispy fritters with hot pepper sauce.
After my dad returned to Canada, my parents wrote to each other every week, and my dad visited whenever he could.
A year later, my dad left my mom’s Nassau apartment and bought her a stuffed panda bear. He took out a piece of paper, wrote, “will you marry me?” and Scotch-taped the note to the panda’s belly.
“A panda?” I laughed.
He shrugged. “Hey, it was all I could afford at the time.”
I know why I loved this story as a kid. First, I thought it was extremely romantic, a snapshot of what my parents had shared.
Second, I felt their stories were my stories too. They came together and made me. They were both a part of who I was.
After the proposal, my mom moved to Canada to be with my dad. They got married, built a house and then created a family.
I was five when my family moved from Steinbach, Manitoba to a small town on Abaco, Bahamas. Some of my memories are foggy, but I never forgot the major differences I noticed when we arrived.
Rather than a long winding row of suburban houses, there were only four houses on our street. Rather than a freshly cut lawn, our front yard was covered in sand-coloured dirt and gravel. I remember thinking how weird and different it was.
Luckily, a little girl my age, Larenique, lived across the street, and our complex was surrounded by a thick tropical forest.
Larenique and I only made it into the forest a few times before my mom caught us. But we continued playing together on the wide dirt road between our houses.
Sometimes, we’d hop into the box of my dad’s truck, and he’d drive us to the beach, picking up neighbourhood kids along the way.
Riding in the back of my dad’s truck, barefoot and covered in sea salt and sand, I remember loving my new home.
Larenique and I attended the same private school, a small, white building on a hill overlooking the central part of town. Each morning, we arrived in our knee-high socks and clean tartan uniforms.
Before class, we were expected to line up outside the school and wait politely until our teachers collected us.
I remember looking up and down the line at my classmates, noticing there were as many Black students as there were White. A few were even mixed like I was. Very different from Steinbach, where my mom was one of the few Black people I ever saw.
When it was time, we filed into our classrooms, where our teachers checked our uniforms before singing the national anthem and “God Save The Queen.”
I made friends quickly. My little group included three British girls from Hope Town — a small village island occupied by ex-pats and tourists. Then there was quiet Marissa, another mixed girl in my class. “Twins,” our teachers would call us whenever we came to school with similar ribbons in our dark, curly hair.
The five of us stuck together every recess, chasing boys until our shoes were full of sand, swinging from monkey bars, or playing jump rope on the scorching pavement. Sometimes other kids joined in. Except for Larenique.
My neighbourhood friend never played with my group while we were at school, but once we returned home after class, we were regular playmates.
One afternoon, Larenique and I were playing at her house when her mom walked in. We were chattering on and on about something when her mom interrupted. She began lecturing Larenique about the way she spoke.
“You hear the way Stacha speaks?”
I paused nervously, suddenly feeling a shift in Larenique’s mood. Shame.
“Talk proper. Like your friend, Larenique.”
Many years later, I decided to ask my parents about Larenique and her mom.
My dad shared that Larenique’s mom, and a few other parents often gushed over my Canadian accent. They encouraged their kids to play with me, hoping my way of speaking would rub off on them.
When I asked my mom, she said Bahamians spoke broken English, and to get a good job one day, parents and private schools taught kids to speak “proper English.”
I wasn’t old enough to question my mom or think deeply about what she was saying. When I was older, I wondered how this made Larenique feel. How did this way of thinking impact the way she saw herself?
My mom had two choices when she and my dad decided to divorce. Raise me and brother in The Bahamas, close to her family and friends, or move back to Canada.
She chose Canada.
Leaving her home again was one of the hardest decisions she ever made. And even though it broke her heart, she made the decision out of love for my brother and me.
My mom knew Canada offered opportunities she didn’t have as a child, and she couldn’t stand the idea of her kids living so far from their dad. So, we moved back to Steinbach and then to Winnipeg.
Without money for travel after the divorce or family members in Canada, my mom became severely homesick. She was lonely. Struggling to raise two kids while adjusting to life without the emotional support of a partner. That’s when she began to lean on me.
As the eldest child, I became my mom’s confidant. It made us close. I could tell her anything, usually during the hours she spent straightening my hair. Eventually, my mom started to share things about her life too.
I remember listening to stories about the racism she experienced. Random strangers correcting her when she spoke her dialect, the condescending treatment she experienced in stores, or the time two teenage boys harassed her in a McDonald’s drive-thru.
At the time, I wondered why my mom told me these stories. I figured she needed someone to vent to, as anyone would if they experienced what she did. I couldn’t change the bigotry she faced, so I did the only thing I could do. I listened.
It’s Grade 2 show and tell, and I’m standing in front of my class with a bowl.
I was excited when our teacher asked us to bring something that represented our culture. We had been living in Canada for two years now but I remembered The Bahamas. I ran to my mom, hoping she had something I could bring, but she said it would be better to ask my dad.
My dad took me to my grandma’s house, where she brought out a delicately painted Russian bowl.
“Are we Russian?” I asked.
She said no, we were Mennonite, but Russia was the last place our family lived before immigrating to Canada.
So, I brought the bowl. This bowl I couldn’t speak to. A country of origin I knew nothing about and that no one in my immediate family had been to.
“It’s from Russia,” I mumbled in front of the class, the bowl in my outstretched hands.
Seeing my classmates with their keepsakes and the stories they carried, I felt I was missing something.
I grew older and became more aware of this missing part of my identity. I’d ask my mom about her culture, again and again, but she usually had very little to share.
Perhaps it was too painful to talk about after years away from home. Maybe Bahamians didn’t have much of a culture, I remember thinking.
However, there were times she’d point to the designated tea drawer in our kitchen. “The Bahamas used to be British,” she’d say.
Frantz Fanon, one of the most influential de-colonial thinkers of the 20th century, was born on the French colonial island of Martinique in 1925. And although his parents were of French and African descent, Fanon was raised to be French. He was a French citizen, felt an affinity for French culture, and even fought for France in the Second World War. But, as Fanon grew older, he realized that even though he saw himself as French, the French would never see him as equal.
In 1953, Fanon moved to Algeria to work as a physician and psychiatrist in a colonial hospital. At the time, Algeria was engulfed in a bloody fight for independence against the French.
As a physician, Fanon treated Algerian victims while France normalized the torture and massacre around him. As a psychiatrist, Fanon noticed an internal sort of conflict occurring in his patients.
Colonization, first and foremost, is about resource extraction. But how does one nation walk into another, seize power, and maintain it? How do you justify human rights violations and the enslavement of an entire people over generations? You frame colonial conquest as a civilizing mission. We are not here to take your land, your resources. We are here to make you better than you once were.
Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, describes four phases in the colonial model. The first phase is forced entry into a foreign group or territory to exploit resources, whether natural resources or cheap labour.
In the second phase, the colonizer imposes its culture, differentiating it as superior to that of the colonized. This creates a necessary hierarchy for phase three — building a structure of tyranny and domination.
In the fourth and final phase, the colonizer establishes a society where the political, social, and economic institutions benefit the colonizer and subjugate the colonized. The fourth phase is also characterized by institutions that reward those who assimilate and punish those who do not.
I was in university when I learned about Fanon’s ideas around internalized oppression and the psychological effects of colonization — self-doubt, identity confusion, and feelings of inferiority among the colonized.
Sitting in a packed lecture hall, I considered the internal conflict that accompanied my identity as a Black person.
I was mixed and knew that my proximity to whiteness offered me privileges my mom never benefited from. But these privileges, the choice to blend and adapt, to change my hair or the way I dressed to fit a certain standard, indulged a tendency to make myself small and palatable.
At the time, I was going to therapy, working to peel back the layers of past trauma. But I had never considered the extra layer of work that came with the identity my mom passed down to me.
I wondered how I could heal from this part of my experience.
I settled on the couch and flipped open my laptop, deciding where to begin. I typed Bahamian Culture into Google. The information I found was shallow and repetitive; most of it curated for tourists.
I clicked through one website after another until I stumbled across a familiar word, Junkanoo.
I selected a video, and my living room was flooded with rhythmic drumming, brass instruments, and cowbells. Masked performers danced across the screen in vibrant costumes made with feathers and straw, as I remembered the first time I learned about Junkanoo.
When I was a kid, I had also turned to the internet to learn about mom’s culture and found a travel blog about the annual celebration of Junkanoo.
I read that Junkanoo originated during the colonial era when slaves were given a few days off during the holidays.
The slaves would dress up in masks and costumes made from sea sponge, grass, feathers, or anything discarded or found on the land.
The travel blog continued, saying that Bahamian slaves dressed up to become something they weren’t, to escape the harsh realities of their existence, even if for a few days.
I immediately ran to my mom to show her what I had found. Even at 12-years-old, something about the celebration sparked a need to learn more.
When I asked my mom, she shook her head and said Junkanoo was just a bunch of partying.
“Foolishness,” she’d said.
I remember walking away disappointed.
At this point in my childhood, I was aware of the way some people saw my mom and the way they saw me. I had witnessed it, experienced it, and was searching for something to be proud of.
I thought I had found something special about my culture but was beginning to feel there wasn’t anything interesting about it.
As I sat in my living room many years later, watching the exuberant dancing, the passion and ferocity of the celebration, I felt the same tug I did when I was a child. Junkanoo was more than partying or escapism.
There are a few different theories on how Junkanoo began. The most famous story is of a Bahamian slave who convinced the English to give enslaved Africans a day off at Christmas.
Over time, the colonial government began calling the yearly celebration and its perceived disruption “junk anew” or “junk enough,” which eventually evolved into Junkanoo.
This story came up again and again until I found a recent article about a Bahamian historian named Christopher Davis.
After examining overlooked written and oral histories, Davis and archaeologist Micheal Pateman uncovered a different backstory. What they found tied Junkanoo’s origins to the Gold Coast of Africa and an Akan king named Jan Kwaw.
Jan Kwaw, who Europeans called John Canoe, was born around 1670 when slave trading and plantations were two of the most profitable ventures in the Western world.
As king, Kwaw was known for driving slave traders out of his territory with his army of 15,000 men.
In 1712, Kwaw and his forces defeated the Dutch at Elmina Castle, one of the largest forts on the Gold Coast, where an estimated 30,000 slaves passed through its Door of No Return each year. In the same year, on Christmas Day, Jan Kwaw blew up the gunpowder room in the Royal African Company’s slave trading base.
After the Dutch defeated Kwaw in 1724, two slave ships departed from his territory with many of his followers. According to Davis’ sources, those ships sailed to The Bahamas, where the Black population doubled.
These newly arrived Akans brought their fear, their anger, and their culture to The Bahamas, along with their memories of Jan Kwaw.
Junkanoo became a symbol of resistance, and a celebration of the identity and empowerment the English colonial powers would have tried to strip away.
Davis explained this was why British colonizers feared the celebration, why it was banned again and again over the centuries.
As of now, less than one per cent of Bahamians know the true roots of Junkanoo.
I leaned over, grabbed my phone, then opened the last conversation I had had with mom nearly two months earlier. It had been two months since we had last texted, six months since we had been in the same room.
Maybe I thought what I found was bigger than our issues. Maybe I just wanted to connect with her and thought this was a way in. I copied the article link, pasted, sent it into the void, then sat there.
I turned back to my research and found a Q&A video with an older Bahamian woman named Arlene Nash Ferguson. She spoke passionately about the celebration and its true meaning. It was clear Arlene was part of the one per cent I read about.
So, I looked her up on Facebook and began typing a message.
In 1942, the British authorized the construction of two American military bases in The Bahamas.
British officials promised the project would bring jobs to local Bahamians, over 2,000 that would pay each worker eight British shillings per day.
However, colonial officials doubled back, convincing the local contracting company to only pay Bahamians four shillings, while the white American workers who were brought over received eight.
When Bahamian workers found out that their American counterparts were paid twice as much for the same work, they sent a request for equal pay, which the colonial government denied.
On June 1, 1942, thousands of Bahamian workers marched from the predominantly Black neighbourhood, Over-The-Hill, through Bay Street, down Burma Road and into the Public Square.
The British Colonial Attorney came outside to address the crowd. But, rather than quell the protests, his words incited what is now known as the Burma Road Riot.
The labourers rioted for two days. Some protestors were killed, some were thrown in jail and others were sentenced to hard labour. Those who remained received an extra shilling per day and a free meal at lunch.
After the riots, the colonial governors banned large gatherings, including Junkanoo, until 1947, when a group of Bahamians got together to petition the government to return Junkanoo to Bay Street.
The government gave in, allowing the petitioners to organize a trial parade on New Year’s 1948. If the people behaved according to their standards, the government promised to reinstate the celebration permanently.
One of the petitioners was Arlene Nash Ferguson’s uncle, Ivern Bosfield.
Arlene and I met over Zoom early one Saturday morning. I sat with my coffee and Arlene with her tea as we chatted about the freezing weather in Winnipeg and her time spent at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
One minute we were talking, and the next, Arlene was on her feet shouting instructions out the back window to a worker checking on Junkanoo preparations.
She settled back into her chair with a beaming smile. According to Arlene, the year’s Junkanoo drama was at full tilt, and after two years of pandemic isolation, she welcomed it.
In 1950, when Arlene was a baby, she and her mother moved in with her Uncle Ivern after her father’s death. She, her mother, her two aunts, and her uncle all lived under the same roof on the corner of West and Delancey Street, Nassau.
Arlene shared that every Junkanoo morning, a mass of celebrators from Over-The-Hill walked down to their house, rested their drums in the vacant lot across the street, and waited outside until her uncle came out.
Arlene could still see her uncle rising from the kitchen table, slipping on his jacket, and walking out to the crowd that would escort him to Bay Street.
Arlene said it was their way of thanking him for bringing Junkanoo back and that it made a tremendous impression on her as a young girl.
Arlene remembered lying between her aunts on Christmas night, squirming and listening for the crinkle of paper costumes or the clang of a cowbell tied to someone’s waist. When she heard those sounds, she would ask her aunts, again and again, “Is it time? Is it time to go yet?”
Finally, her aunts would suck their teeth and say, “We bettah carry this chile to Junkanoo.”
Arlene wore her first Junkanoo costume when she was four and has been attached to what she describes as the “magic of Junkanoo” ever since.
I hesitated, then stumbled over my words as I asked Arlene if she ever felt deterred from participating in the festival.
Arlene nodded slowly.
When Arlene was about to begin high school, her mother said that Junkanoo was no place for a young lady trying to better herself, so her association with the festival would have to end.
Arlene described the colonial mindset of many people at the time. Junkanoo was just a bunch of noise for the lower classes. It wasn’t something that “good” families wanted to associate themselves with.
She said everyone aspired to be as close to the British as possible, and Junkanoo was purely African.
Over time, the meaning of Junkanoo was lost for many people.
It wasn’t until The Bahamas elected its first Black prime minister, Sir Lynden Pindling, that this mindset began to shift.
Pindling, who used to rush Junkanoo himself, made the statement, “I am Junkanoo.”
“When people come by to pick up their costumes, they don’t say, ‘I come to get my costume,'” Arlene said. “They say, ‘I come to get me.'”
Sitting on our Zoom call, my throat began tightening, and my eyes swelled with tears.
I began sharing what brought me to my research, my mom’s experiences in Canada, and my experiences with her.
“I know she was doing the best she could,” I swallowed. “To protect me.”
I realized then that this was the first time I said this and truly meant it.
Arlene said she understood.
I continued, telling her about the blog I read as a child saying that Bahamians were trying to escape who they were…
“Chile please!” Arlene said beside herself.
Then, I told Arlene about the tug I continued to feel.
“Kids today don’t understand what their ancestors went through. That they stole away under the cover of night to claim their heritage and reclaim their being. And here we are 200 years later saying, ‘I come to get me.'” Arlene laughed.
“Junkanoo is not just the costumes. It isn’t just a parade. It’s a part of who we are, and that’s why you felt that tug.”
At this point, I wasn’t even trying to hide that I was crying.
Arlene and I talked some more, and before we hung up, she asked what my mom’s maiden name was.
“Bain,” I laughed, remembering my dad telling me just how common the last name was in The Bahamas. “About as common as the last name Penner in Manitoba,” he had said.
Arlene’s eyes lit up. Then, she quickly shared that Bain Town was one of the original settlements of freed Blacks in The Bahamas.
I gaped at her.
“Don’t worry,” Arlene chuckled. “We’re going to make sure you know who you really is.”