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Symbols are the punctuation that shape the narrative of our lives. When driving in a car, the symbol for the STOP sign is the period that divides the sentences of our travel, a set of diagonal lines on the roadway is the comma that gives us pause. The policeman’s uniform makes us feel safer, and the golden arches call us to lunch. The porch tells us we are at home. Government House, Queen Victoria’s statue and black men in white wigs remind us of our Colonial heritage, while burial societies and lodges remind us that we are responsible for one another. Stained glass celebrates the wonder of sunlight and marble tiles celebrate wealth. In one community the cross honours God, while in another it honours the Ku Klux Klan. Doric columns are more rooted and serious than Corinthian columns. The symbol of a museum tells us where we are and how we got there,  and the symbol of the street sign tells us where we are going.

Symbols shape our perceptions, especially of value. Powerful or important nations flaunt their symbols of power and wealth. A football game begins with the fly-over of the world’s most battle-ready jets, and the halftime show obviously cost a fortune, so we know America is the most powerful nation on earth. So-called First-world countries are expected to celebrate themselves with monuments and symbols that celebrate their history, their accomplishments and their lifestyle through expressions of their culture, while Third-world countries are reminded that they cannot “afford” to “toot their own horn”. Whenever the media wants to convey the idea of poverty, it displays images of non-white, naked children, looking longingly into the camera, although there is no reason to believe that any of these attributes is an indication of poverty. But they have become our symbol for poverty.

The development of the Bahamas is not a function only of the promotion of economic activity. It is also a function of the social and emotional development of its people, largely through the development of the symbol language in its social and built environment. “Downtown” development or “Over-the-hill” development, or even “National” development can never be successful unless the clear, expressed, and at every point confirmed purpose of the development is the development of Bahamian self-value. Simply declaring a belief in the importance of Bahamians is not enough. To impress the psyche of our young, the expression of that value must be a feature of their perceived environment. Enlisting the energies of those who understand the language of the built environment is therefore more urgent than finding consultants that simply focus on how to make more money. Slavery is the pursuit of income without the pursuit of nobility.

“Please speak up. Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

February 2016