Virgin Islands: Paradoxical Identity Politics

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Cruising pigeons find the head and bust of the statue of King Christian IX the perfect perch but it was disturbing for me that this quintessential image of Danish colonialism dominates Emancipation Park in St. Thomas while the Freedom symbol lurks on the periphery.

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In chessboard parlance, it is therefore evident that the Danish crown still occupies the pride of powerful place in symbolic if not real terms in the so-called Territory.  This dynamic speaks to the need for critical discourse on identity politics and the persistent paucity of citizenship certitude on the ground in respect of Euro-American colonial and neo-colonial relations with Caribbean countries.

Further, Caribbean people have an ambivalent perspective on the Virgin Islands – British and North American; on the one hand, there is an impotent stupefaction that we still have colonial territories in our region despite the many waves of Emancipation that have washed over our shores and on the other, the perception that things are better in these so-called territories – a term that jars on our self-determination sensibilities – than in the Independent – especially Commonwealth (or uncommon poverty) states, makes these islands somehow the material envy of “down-islanders” who have flocked these islands, yearning for improvement in their status.

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The Eye of Horus (Third Eye) dominates the visage of this all seeing woman represented on a mural in Frederickstead, St.. Croix.  Perspective is everything.

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Oceana James (left), a Sister whose name escapes me right now and Dr. Chenzira Davis Kahina. Oceana memorably declared, “I am Seventh-generation Cruzian!”

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Virgin Islands Flag…which deserves deep content analysis…later for that. Suffice it to mention I noticed that in the night the details are invisible, waving as a white flag of peace/ surrender. Eagles don’t grow in the Caribbean so there is definitely something out of step here.This paradoxical attraction has significant implications for VI demographics; when someone introduces him/herself as x-generation Virgin Islander, what is being invoked is a critical commentary on the minority status of people who typically, trace their ancestry back to before Transfer. It is as if this watermark of identity somehow elevates ones status up a higher register of belongingness, a legitimacy that some would deny those whose roots extend to some other piece of the Caribbean jigsaw puzzle.

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Of course, one can also understand this yearning for assertiveness of identity agency; as Gerville Larsen, who has done his genealogical ancestry analysis also confounded me by revealing that his heritage includes 18% Amerindian (native Cruzian), this panorama is more complex than a surface glance might reveal. His name denotes Danish roots, which are liberally mixed with his Africanness and he has the nth degree Virgin Islanderness to boot.  But so does my friend Sophia Aubin, whose Frenchness of blood and looks is thickened by the creole she speaks from growing up in St. Barthelemy (St. Barths; St. Barth), while she is also Cruzian to the core.

At the bottom line is the victimhood people of predominantly African descent suffered during and after the Holocaust of Enslavement; no other race was dehumanized. So although all Virgin Islanders were technically disenfranchised with transfer(s), there are layers to this identity politricks business. The most curious cover-up is that though Virgin Islanders gained US citizenship – the envy of the whole region of course – this citizenship is not complete; incorporated territorians cannot vote for the US President and neither can US citizens residing in the so-called Territory. And though many “States-side” migrants – mostly white have now also bought into time-shares and populate exclusive communities, distinguished from where “locals” live, dramatically altering the topography, this is not, classically speaking, a state of the USA.

So there, I have described it; settler colonialism, writ large, by the Don of Democracy in the 21st century. Virgin Islanders enjoy the backhanded benefit of multiple holidays because beyond those that derive from previous colonial mis-masters, they have been incorporated into the network of USA holiday commemorations, like mimic-people, a la Naipaul. What a bangarang!

So why am I so interested? As I mentioned in a previous post, the project I am working on was actually inspired by the impending centennial and my Mentor, Dr. Thomas Overdick, Museum Director at the Flensburg Maritime Museum decided to advocate for an African-Caribbean perspective on Danish-German colonial legacy – in Flensburg, Virgin Islands and Ghana.  I will curate an Exhibition and write a paper on this Problematic.  I am about to initiate this ethnographic research in Flensburg.

Having just returned from an extraordinary experience in the Virgin Islands, I wrote a thank you note to all who received me so well, which, since this is already so long, I will post next because their respect is well due!

Imani  M. Tafari-Ama, Ph.D., Curator, Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum | Schiffbrucke 39. | 24939 Flensburg  | Germany | Telephone: +49015638551335 | Email: I.Tafariama@gmail.com | tafari-ama.imani@stadt.flensburg.de | www.schifffahrtsmuseum.flensburg.de | Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/i.tafariama | Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNwIZ_xHjm0 | Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CCSC6LENovel: Up for Air http://www.dvbernard.com/Multimedia/ | Ex-Talk Show co-host: Fresh Start, 6-9 a.m. www.newstalk93fm.com |Twitter: @itafariama

Three Small Islands: The Political Economy of Size

No image is more didactic of the plantation experience than the windmill such as this one still found on the Whim estate in St Croix; though it is still intact, the quarters that once housed enslaved Africans is entangled in bush, also speaking eloquently to the neglect that typifies the majority class’ psychosocial and socio-economic security. The plantation was the flashpoint of existential contradictions; for over three centuries, seven European nations that ruled the Virgin Islands’ roost – principally Denmark.

“Since Columbus encountered and named the Virgin Islands (he landed on St Croix on his second trip in 1493 at Salt River), many countries have planted their flags on our shores. St Croix switched hands the most of any of the Virgin Islands and has a rich cultural past having flown seven flags over the island: Spain, England, Holland, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark, and finally, the United States. In 1733, France sold the islands to the Danish West India Company and Denmark ruled the island colonies for almost 200 years.”

(http://my-stcroix.com/transfer-day-in-the-virgin-islands/).

The question of celebrating or commemorating Transfer Day is a very troubling one; it rubs salt in unassuaged wounds of some Virgin Islanders who consider their neo-colonial status criminal as Denmark usurped the citizenship rights of Africans who had been emancipated for 69 years and those who had never been enslaved and were free were also denied autonomy when in 1917, the so-called three small islands were sold to the United States of America for $25million (over $509 million in today’s money).

I journeyed to St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix to engage with people there to figure out how they defined their identity politics ahead of the 2017 centennial of said sale.  The ethnographic engagement threw up an existential maze; US colonialism has all but trumped (if you’ll pardon the unfortunate expression), memories of Danish (and German) colonialism – those being the penultimate, somewhat double-headed flags to fly. It is very complicated how this duality comes about; Denmark and Germany (then Prussia) fought two seminal wars (and there is a symbolic lion that embodies the exchange of land that resulted although of course, lions do not grow in Europe but the incorporation of such symbolisms into Eurocentric cosmological representation is a whole nother story).

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Anyways, after the decisive 1864 war, much of what used to be Denmark became Germany; a Danish minority was left behind in the South while a German minority remained in the North.  So technically Germany was interested in the transfer and from a self interested point of view too but then the USA took up the offer that by-passed Germany, for strategic geo-political reasons, the most popularly cited being that it provided access to the Panama Canal. The onslaught of the first great European war was then imminent and the alignment against Germany was also important.

So that is how the Virgin Islanders got caught in this mega chess game; people bitterly recall the decade after Transfer when martial law was instituted when people would be brutalized in the streets by army officers who felt entitled to use openly racist tactics to control a bewildered population.  I went searching for memories of Danish colonialism and although I found that, it was so enmeshed in the imperative of US hegemony that it seemed difficult to even discursively detangle this many stranded paradox.

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So I wrote a poem that captured some features of this contradiction.

Two sides of the Coin

Where I come from

We have a proverbial

Saying

What is joke to you

Is death to me and

beyond language barriers, that saying

Is self-explanatory

Celebrating rum wealth

As romantic myth

Of colonial legacy

Denies the mess made

During slavery

Or in politically correct

Terminology

the Holocaust

Of African enslavement

By selling colonized territory

In Ghana in 1850

And Virgin islands in 1917

What Denmark was really bent

On doing

Was historical

Denial of

our common

colonial legacy

in three instances

Europe, Africa

and Caribbean

fantasy

[carried beyond…]

Mistakenly

named West Indies

The post colonial project?

to erase this criminality

from living

memory

and

the collective

cultural psyche

so in Flensburg today

we find people that say

This is Rum City

Nowhere near historical honesty

there is celebration of wealth

while truth exited by stealth

with no thought in mind

of inhuman trafficking

of people

from East, West, North, South

Central and every other part

of the African continent

And the centuries of tortuous plunder

Being dis-connected

To exploitation of limb and labour

To produce the firey liquid

That built the fine houses and

Legacy that made merchant

Families

proud and scornful of the

rebound on the people

Who paid rum’s cost

With blood sweat and tears

While some with fanfare hail

2017’s centennial

Of Denmark-USA-Virgin Islands

sale

of the land and people

for twenty five million US dollars

unrested souls’ wail

rent the silence

of complicit politricks

Reparations advocates say

Denmark and

Nay

Also Germany and USA

Must pay

That transfer value

Is over 509 million today

This is a travesty

Robbery of people labour

And justice

This autohypnosis odyssey

Writ large

Constitutes political psychosis

and involuntary

loss of memory

plus simultaneous

Schizophrenia regarding

Moral responsibility

A plague on rum’s great houses

Adding insult to injury

You feign invisibility

Yet without timidity you

Ask me

Sugar in your tea?

One or two in die koffie?

Drinking colonial

Legacy

While my cup of sorrow

Runneth over

We all desire reconciliation

From clinging horrors still haunting

our present situation

colonialism

Racism

Sexism

Classism

And

All otherisations

And isms

And schisms

But reconciliation

requires the responsibility

Of re-membering

Transitional justice

Now quoting Marcus Garvey

A people with no knowledge of its past

Is like a tree without roots

Sankofa!

We have to go to our roots, bloody as they are

Fetch the memories

And taut as a bow

Shoot revolutionary arrows

To the Future

Next post will pay homage to the people of the three small islands, so called by Flensburgers who do not really know how monumental their significance is in the cheme of things.

Contact: Dr. Imani M. Tafari-Ama

Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum

@itafariama

Email: tafari-ama.imani@stadt.flensburg.de

 

Kultur Transfer Launched May 31, 2016

Greetings!

So much has happened since the official launch of the project that it is prudent to perform my griot duties and document my impressions so their elusive effervescence will be captured in a medium in which they can be re-viewed.

So this was the project launch at the Flensburg Maritime Museum or Schifffahrtsmuseum as it is called in Deutsch i.e. German.

http://www.flensburg.de/Startseite/Koloniales-Erbe.php?object=tx%7C2306.5&ModID=7&FID=2306.860.1

If you copy and paste the text from this story into Google Translate, you will get the English version.
I am also a part of the Fellow Me! Academie:
Click on the images and film at the bottom to get the atmosphere of the first encounter of all 17 fellows and our mentors  in Leipzig last May. We  are located in musea around Germany and are working on various projects.  On this site, click on Fellows and scroll down and you will see my name, which links you to a summary of the project. Of course, all projects and fellow Fellows, our Mentors and the organisers are all amazing too!
I will be one of four presenters focusing on colonialism at the next Fellowship, which will be held in Bremen in August.  More on that anon.
As you see from the calendar of events on that site, we are travelling around the country to interact in discussions pertinent to how exhibitions are curated and the political economy served by such endeavours.
I am sharing these videos to give you information about some of the work I have done in Jamaica:
By the way, when I started working at the Schifffahrtsmuseum, this was the first time I was encountering three fs in one word, a recent linguistic innovation, which you should research. It seems to me actually, as I learn some Deutsch, that like Amharic [which I encountered when I visited Ethiopia] and German have the habit of composing a long word with many meanings built into it.

Colonial Amnesia

My introduction to Flensburg included participating in the 37th annual Rum Regatta, which brands Flensburg as “Rum City” – didactic of the wealth derived from the unrecognized and unremunerated labour of Africans enslaved in the so-called Virgin Islands.
Incredibly, the blurb on the Braasch Rum Manufactuur Museum, which offers tours mon to Friday in Flensburg, mentions these islands in the context of rum production thus:
The “Caribbean Gold once made Flensburg rich and famous. Sugar and rum and lots of other so-called “colonial” goods were transported on sailing ships from the West Indies to the then Danish city on the fjord. In the private collection of distiller Walter Braasch you can experience the history of rum in the city of Flensburg. Take a short voyage to “the three small islands” in the Caribbean and learn lots of interesting facts about the production and history of rum and sugar…”
Not one word about Africans and their Holocaust of enslavement in this marketing blurb. The Braasch site is as intent on glossing over this messy history with golden odes to rum and leveraging the political economy of the wealth creation project that provides this autonomy.
What is amazing about this mythicized re-enactment of the arrival of the rum and sugar in the Flensburg port is the concerted colonial amnesia that characterizes this commemoration. Participants in this spectacle are oblivious of the bizarre contradiction in which they are entrenched because this colonial amnesia was contrived by the powers that be to represent the production of rum wealth as an exclusively European endeavor.
Historical Erasure
The narrative of Flensburg as wealthy rum city sanitizes the process of “Caribbean Gold” production from the brutality of the Holocaust of enslavement and the violent transatlantic trialogue it entailed.  It is may seem obvious to overstate the fact that three centuries of Denmark being the 7th most powerful European enslaver/colonizer caused rum production profits to flow in the coffers of the King of Denmark, the merchant class and ultimately, Danish-German society. Tautological as this is however, it is a fact that is stunningly absent from the body politic; colonial history is not taught in schools so citizens are disconnected from their history and thus celebrate their development in a decontextualized manner. A kind of cultural schizophrenia.
The consequence of this systematic epistemological and ontological subterfuge is a corresponding anxiety about revealing these cupboarded skeletons in the public sphere. The naked emperor desires to consider himself fully frocked.
[As I write this, Burning Spear is singing “Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar…”]

As a result of the sanitization of history [watch Prof. Zimmerer who is working on this theme in Hamburg], the majority of the approximately 90 thousand inhabitants of the German [formerly Danish] city of Flensburg is unaware of where the rum came from. Like seriously.

There is a paucity of critical thinking about the source of this resource of wealthy Rum City. Or the Africans whose Holocaust of Enslavement, which started from their kidnapping from Africa and continued to their incarceration in Danish forts in Ghana, their transshipment to those three small islands (indeed!) and their brutal dehumanization and enslavement on the said islands’ plantations (read Neville Hall’s detailed account of this travesty). Enforced labour, blood, sweat and tears of Africans produced the sugar cane, that made the sugar, molasses, rum and all derivatives, including the money.

I just returned to Flensburg after an extra-ordinary visit to the Virgin Islands (research the ridiculous fantasy concocted by that brigand Christopher Columbus  that influenced the moniker choice for these strategically important not-so-meta-physically-small islands). The complicated identity politics playing  out on that landscape begs the question that truth and reconciliation are perquisites for the realization of transitional justice. Flensburgers could also benefit from acquaintance with their own history; I will also go to Ghana to engage in this process of critical re-membering..

In the next post we will consider the significance of the Kultur Transfer concept, which derives from Denmark’s outlandish sale of the Virgin Islands and its people to the USA in 1917, trumping the Emancipation victory finally won by Africans in 1848.  Suffice it to say, in an Orwellian turn, the majority of people in the Virgin Islands – partially incorporated by the United States of America (how come?), has never heard of Flensburg, the city that rum built, although this city in more ways than one, constitutes the opposite side of its own coins (or lack thereof).

More on this complicated state of affairs and the decontexualisation of historical events in the next post.

The featured image is the waterfront in the Frederickstead township in St. Croix, USVI, the largest of those so-called three small islands which have been ruled under seven flags as popular culture records….

Contact: Dr. Imani M. Tafari-Ama

tafari-ama.imani@stadt.flensburg.de