Another outing for a 2007 column
So it’s the 40th anniversary of Sailing Week and congratulations are in order. But it’s a mixed bag, to say the least; and even as we’re clapping ourselves on the back for having made it into middle age, we’re looking around the party and wondering who, exactly, has it made.
Sunday at Dickenson Bay was the most perfect day to be on the water; and, indeed, everyone who could was out – slooping, schooning, clippering, catamaran-ing, and yachting. And not to be outdone in the diversity department were the sailors themselves, as the traditional white faces were enlivened by all shades of black and brown, all riding the wave.
Those old enough to know could not help but remark on how much the celebration had changed; how much more inclusive it had become; and how the younger generation, especially, was erasing the old lines of race that had previously segregated this water sport. Yet, one veteran remained … well … not quite satisfied.
“We’re here,” he agreed, “but as spectators. I want to see more of us begin to own the event.”
Which brings us to the crux of the matter.
A couple weeks ago, we listened to Colin Warman trying vainly on the radio to engage locals in a discourse on why more Antiguans and Barbudans were not involved in Sailing Week. His puzzlement was genuine, particularly in light of the fact that Antigua & Barbuda’s economy benefits greatly from the yachting sector and its boat workers are internationally renowned for their skill with a varnishing brush.
More recently, we spoke with an English Harbour-based entrepreneur, who wondered aloud why locals were not more “tuned in” to the festival; why they did not patronise the events – apart from the obvious Lay Day. The question, the conundrum, has been engaging us since; and we have concluded that Race Week is really all about race.
Surrounded as we are by water and boasting 365 pristine beaches, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of black Antiguans do not and cannot swim or sail. Maybe it is the ancestral memory of the Atlantic passage between West Africa and these shores. Maybe it is the inherent fear middle-country dwellers have of the sea. Maybe it is the bald fact that water sports are simply beyond the financial reach of most local blacks.
Whatever it is, we have been satisfied merely to dip our feet in the shallows while other, paler, ones have left their footprints in the sand for other, paler, ones to follow.
It is more than pop psychology, however. At the risk of giving offence – though, certainly, none is meant – we believe that the success of Sailing Week has been predicated on the event remaining, largely, expatriate white. We say this without rancour; merely as a social and economic observation.
The fact is there are many locals with deep enough pockets to make them avid yachtsmen. But, based on the associations witnessed on Sunday – as black, white, and brown Antiguans crawled across and clambered aboard their bevy of boats to sample food, drink rum, talk cricket and politics, and trade fishing stories – the local sensibilities remain local.
In Antigua, the races are simply too intertwined and interdependent – and increasingly so – to make Race Week really matter. Though, ostensibly, the hundreds of locals had sailed down to Dickenson Bay to “watch the race,” what really occupied our attention was ourselves, and those “other” people and their pastime became irrelevant to our real lives. Apart from all that is a fact that most people don’t want to face: White people are made nervous by “hordes of natives” descending upon them. That is what has accounted, for hundreds of years, for the phenomenon called “white flight”: when blacks move in, whites move out.
It is one thing for white tourists to flock to Shirley Heights on a Sunday to fete; after all, soaking up some of the local atmosphere is part of every vacation in “the islands.”
It is quite another to have your thing taken over by someone whom you perceive as different from you. And lest you think we exaggerate, it was only last year, remember, that a letter-writer detailed his/her barely concealed panic at having to drive through throngs of young black people hanging out at a dance in English Harbour.
… The bare truth – unpalatable only to the self-deluded – is that Sailing Week works because of the way it is. It is an economic venture for those locals whose businesses are tied up in the yachting, provisioning and, to some extent, entertainment sectors. For the rest of us – white, brown and, especially, black – sitting in the spectator seats is not that bad.
Ask one of this country’s celebrated women who, this past weekend at an English Harbour restaurant, was taken for a waitress by a sailor hopping off a water taxi. We know our place in this race, and we’d rather not settle for second.