50 Years of Bahamian Independence & The Legacy of Junkanoo

The Bahamas recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. Formerly a British crown colony, the country celebrates the affair each year with events that honor its culture and freedom. Junkanoo, a tradition they celebrated since slavery, holds a special space in Bahamians hearts.

Arlene Nash Ferguson dedicated her life and her childhood home to exploring and celebrating this beloved event. As the co-owner and director of Educulture Bahamas Limited, the veteran educator embodied the spirit of Junkanoo, since she was a toddler. Ferguson’s work ensures that Bahamian youth and visitors have access to its history year-round.

Since 2000, Ferguson and her husband have spearheaded the Junkanoo Development Association. For Junkanoo Rush attendees, Ferguson shares that the rules are simple: come in [Bahamian] flag colors and be on your best behavior. Travel Noire spoke with Ferguson to learn more about the history of Junkanoo and its role in affirming Bahamian culture and pride.

Arlene Nash Ferguson as a child during Junkanoo on Bay Street
Photo credit: Arlene Nash Ferguson

Travel Noire: For those who are unfamiliar, what exactly is Junkanoo?

AF: Junkanoo is now officially the National Cultural Festival of the Bahamas. It has been documented in our country for over 200 years. We have a young Bahamian who was able to establish a link in Ghana. We also have an anthropologist, Dr. Nicolette Bethel, who has been able to make the connection between Junkanoo and several West African cultures and festivals.

Junkanoo, the National Cultural Festival of the Bahamas, has its roots in West Africa. [It] is a combination of a variety of West African traditions that were brought here in the hearts and memories of enslaved Africans. They were granted [a] three-day holiday at Christmas and they used that time, and other times, to recreate their festivals from home. Junkanoo started in the Western hemisphere as defiance.

You are in an environment that has classified you as an animal. You are saying, ‘I don’t think so, because animals don’t have festivals. Let us remind, if only ourselves, that we have a rich history [and] a rich heritage. That we are from proud cultural backgrounds, and we will do that by recreating our festivals from home. We will steal away under the cover of night to make sure that nobody stops us.’

I tell the children that Africans were not permitted to learn to read and write. The fact that our costumes are paper, that we stuck the paper on, is another symbol of defiance. You always decorate yourself fully for [the] festival and cover your face. That symbolizes the presence of the ancestors.

From the leaves, the shells, the sponge, [and] all of the indigenous materials that the Africans used initially to decorate themselves, these traits have come down to us today. Even today, our costumes are still paper. We are still beating our drums. We are still shaking our bells. It is, as Peter Minshall said, ‘a completely homegrown festival and true to itself.’

TN: What inspires you to share Bahamian and Junkanoo culture? 

AF: I have seen in so many Bahamian children the same excitement and passion for Junkanoo that I experienced as a child. My Junkanoo story started before I was born.

The Americans entered World War II after Pearl Harbor. They made an arrangement with the British government to build airstrips in British territories in this part of the world to train airmen. Two of those strips were built on New Providence. Bahamian workers got wind of the fact that they were making less money than their American counterparts on Friday, June 1. That’s why Labor Day is the first Friday in June. They rioted. It came to be known as the Burma Road Riots.

Because of the damage they did, the government banned all street parading. There were no Junkanoo parades through 1947, although the drums never stopped beating in the African townships. In 1947, my uncle was one of a group of Bahamians who petitioned the government to have Junkanoo return to Bay Street.

The government said, you can have a trial parade, New Year’s 1948. If the people behave, it will continue. The people behaved [and] it continued.

I mark the start of the modern era of Junkanoo from Jan. 1, 1948. In gratitude to my uncle for the part he had played in getting Junkanoo back on Bay Street, the Junkanoos would come up the street, rushing every Junkanoo morning. They would stop outside our house and beat their drums across the street.

They waited patiently for my uncle who was waiting for them. He would get up and put on his coat. He then took Bay Street [and] went to Junkanoo in a full suit. They would escort him to Junkanoo every year in gratitude and when the parade was over they would escort him back. It left such a deep impression on me.

As I went to Canada, to university, and discovered the peculiar traditions that were so normal for me as a Bahamian against the frigid background of Canada, I discovered who I was. I discovered what it meant to be a Bahamian. Before that, I did not know I had an accent. There was no conch. Nobody was getting up in the middle of the night to dance in the middle of the street. I had to discover why, as a Bahamian, I do those things.

I said, ‘There’s something deeper here. We are denying our children the power, the force, and the strength of their heritage. I have to share that story and I am a teacher, let’s go for it.’

Those are the reasons: my experiences as a child and the determination to ensure that our children understand their heritage and the power of their past.

TN: Having just celebrated this 50th anniversary, what significance does that hold for you since The Bahamas was previously under British rule for over 300 years? 

AF: It is a proud moment. It forces us to reflect on where we have been [and] where we have come. It forces us to commit to ensuring that some things that we want to see in our country will happen.

One of my most poignant memories of independence is a week or two before July 10, 1973. I completed my first degree in Canada [at] the University of the West Indies. I, along with a number of Bahamians, were on our way home. We were very excited because we were heading home for the independence of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.

The stewardess came down the aisle and handed out the immigration cards. The Bahamian sitting beside me, generally so all the Bahamians could hear, said, ‘Where they ask for your nationality, write Bahamian.’

I never forgot it. I get goosebumps even today because it suddenly hit me. We were going to be our own country and we were going to belong to ourselves. We had the power to shape our future.

I have been trying to write Bahamian ever since.

This article has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.