There is still at 94 both an irrepressible humour and twinkle in the eyes of Sir Durward Knowles. They are permanent features of his exuberant spirit and dedication to squeezing out of life every measure of joy.
The title of Sir Durward’s biography is Driven by the Stars. He has been driven by a constellation of lodestars and virtues, among them extraordinary generosity, sportsmanship and a passion for national unity. In turn, he has become a guiding star for others.
Quite a bit has been written about Sir Durward’s contribution to sports and his exemplary philanthropy particularly in the areas of physical and mental disability. Athletic prowess and disability may seem incongruent, but not to Sir Durward.
In both areas the champion athlete and champion of the disabled has sought to empower others, no matter their physical or mental capacity or disability, to be driven by their own stars, overcoming limits to achieve more than one ever dared imagine.
Decades after making history with both Olympic bronze and gold, Sir Durward, in his capacity as a Director of the One Bahamas Foundation and in his own right, apologized for the oppression of blacks in The Bahamas.
At a flag-raising ceremony attended by hundreds of students and sponsored by One Bahamas, Sir Durward embarked on a mission of truth and reconciliation:
"Boys and girls, you are living in a great country. I was brought up when white people were in charge of these lands and they treated the black people very badly. I'm here to apologize on our behalf. Today, we're living in a great society. We've [beaten] all the trials and temptations and now we're here as one Bahamas."
It is easy for both some blacks and whites to dismiss his apology on any number of grounds. But such dismissals would be too easy. And, they would deny an opportunity for dialogue on the truth about racism and attendant opportunities for the hard and often faltering work of reconciliation.
At 94 Sir Durward knows the tortured racial past of the country including entrenched discrimination and the struggle for majority rule. Yet, just as in the areas of athletics and empowering those with disabilities, he knows that we can overcome even the most outsized limits to achieve personal or national success.
A black friend told the story of going to a dance on board a catamaran which was to sail around Nassau Harbour for a night of enjoying things Bahamian. When she walked on board she was one of few blacks and an overwhelming number of white Bahamians.
Yet when the skullin’ and dancing started, her apprehensions about the occasion evaporated, as did the distinctions of black and white. Here was an example of one Bahamas, Bahamians from various backgrounds savouring the same music and reveling in each other’s company.
Some black Bahamians see white Bahamians as sort of foreigners in the land. The former are not convinced of the patriotism of the latter. That white Bahamians on every island celebrate with a passion and seek to protect the natural and built heritage of the country is a testament to the same love of The Bahamas Sir Durward felt when winning the first Olympic gold medal for the then colony.
The love of Bahamian heritage and history is a natural space where black and white Bahamians can remember and celebrate a shared history in a unique island expanse, the very diversity of which is an invitation to mutual discovery of the treasury of the Bahamian experience.
But before celebration, there is remembrance on many levels. The descendants of the Loyalists came with much of their history intact. The descendants of slaves had their historic chains broken even as they were imprisoned in the chains of slavery and a long history of brutal racism. They were also forced into a historical amnesia about their past.
If we are to truly celebrate one Bahamas, this history cannot be whitewashed with throwaways like, “Well that’s the past.” What if a white Bahamian was told to forget about their roots with such an insipid throwaway? Any history that seeks to anoint the pleasant and disregards the painful is mere nostalgia.
It is curious that those white Bahamians who dismissed Sir Durward’s apology are not prepared to alleviate themselves of the historic privileges of wealth, status and connections that came with such white privilege.
We will only be one Bahamas if we recognize our shared history and the roles played in that history by our ancestors in creating the nation we have today. These ancestral contributions include triumphs and tragedy, which we must all acknowledge.
Sir Durward has given us such a legacy. How we respond to that legacy is up to us. If we do so united in spirit there is a big payoff which the sage Durward Knowles has already seen in the stars.
His dream and our great opportunity is a nation succeeding beyond it wildest imaginings with success around the world in fields of endeavour from athletics to academics to the arts.
Sir Durward knows that we can only achieve this greater success as one people beyond the boundaries of colour, creed, ethnicity, national origin or disability. He has taught us how to reach for the stars that are in our grasp if we recognize the truths about our past and seek the reconciliation that may make for a better future.