Saturday, February 21, 2009

Virgin Islanders: The Other African-Americans

Virgin Islanders: The Other African-Americans
Written by Shelley Moorhead on February 04, 2009, 12:45 PM
It was a feeling of mixed emotions. An extraordinary pride filled the air, but also the feeling of not wholly belonging; a sentiment of satisfaction descended upon all, but yet still for many Virgin Islanders the inauguration of the United States’ first African-American President – all its glory, historic achievement, present-day significance, and stimulus package notwithstanding – has yet to merit the shouts of “We have overcome!” now being clich├ęd on every high hill and from under every green tree in black America.

Painfully accentuated during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign bid was the fact that there exists African-Americans “in the U.S.”, men and women born on American soil, citizens who are not qualified to participate in the election of the U.S. president. At the same time, many of these Virgin Islanders have fought and served the military in every major U.S. conflict since World War I and have shed blood and lost lives on foreign soil as recent as Iraq and Afghanistan.

These truths exist at a time when the Virgin Islands’ representative in the U.S. Congress serves only as a delegate with no vote in the House of Representatives and little if any influence over policy decisions. Inasmuch as the right to vote remained a matter of racial discrimination for blacks in the United States during the greater half of the 20th century, the 21st century issues which challenge democratic governance and today threaten socioeconomic and sociopolitical advancement and success in the Virgin Islands far exceed suffrage and are directly linked to the contest between sustainability and dependence...between self-determination and hegemony, and the related expiration of colonial era thinking and outdated principles of power, privilege, and exploitation.

“Although the people of the Danish West Indies oppose annexation to the United States, their wishes are not likely to be considered if the Danes at Copenhagen can make a good enough deal with the United States. Any Government needing funds and possessing a few worthless islands can procure a bargain by addressing William McKinley, Washington D.C.'' (International Herald Tribune; November 28, 1900; Bargain Islands).

A brief review of the history shared in the territory by Virgin Islanders, Americans, and Danes alike will add perspective to the discussion.

From 1666 to 1917, the Kingdom of Denmark owned and occupied the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix - the now U.S. Virgin Islands. For 175 years Denmark enslaved over 200,000 men, women, and children, transporting them to the Danish West Indies through the horror of the middle passage and forcing them to endure the remainder of their lives as chattel, bound to the brutality of harsh estate and plantation labor - with no accompanying wages. However, half those displaced by Denmark who were destined for the islands' shores were not as fortunate. More than 100,000 Africans perished during the dreadful journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Made up of four main islands, several inlying cays, and more than 120,000 people, the Virgin Islands became the Caribbean possession of the United States of America when in 1916, the U.S. purchased the then Danish West Indies from the Kingdom of Denmark for $25,000,000. Immediately following the March 31st, 1917 transfer of the islands, many domestic challenges arose associated with and emanating from the assignment of a new Virgin Islands political status that had been authored and handed down by yet another colonizer. In the years following and until the early 1930s, issues ranging from citizenship and statelessness, to civil liberties, racial discrimination, and human rights dominated the local, national, and international debate on the matter.

Since that time, the morality of the treaty which was entered into by 2 colonizers governing the session of the Danish West Indies has been challenged; and, more recently the legality of the sale by Denmark and the purchase by the United States has been questioned, citing fundamental human rights violations which remained central to the theme of the sale/session/transfer and until today continue to impede social advancement in this U.S. territory.

The document distinguishes between “citizens” as Danes and “inhabitants” as African descendants and demonstrates absolutely no consultation with the latter. This neglect of the African-American Virgin Islander’s inalienable human right to self-determination during the sale of the islands and the years which follows is reminiscent of the slavery-era sale and exploitation of African peoples and remains an international human rights violation of the worst sort.

Now, yet still un-repaired by the sale of their islands to the United States of America, today's African-American Virgin Islanders have yet to recover from the cultural, political and economic underdevelopment imposed by 250 years of the Danish institutions of slavery and colonization.

With the institution of slavery ending in the Danish colony in 1848, and in the United States in 1863, how then are the sale, purchase, and/or cession of more than 100,000 “free” people justified generations later?

Which nation is responsible for repair? Who must bear the still-lingering, inevitable burden of decolonization?

Today, for Virgin Islanders the statistics are ominous and bleak and cast a dark shadow against the sun, sea, and sand which for many visitors characterize the islands as a tourist destination. A review of the facts is shocking:

  • Although tourism is the lifeblood of the Virgin Islands economy, not too many native Virgin Islanders are industry stakeholders directly benefiting from the ownership of hotels, resorts, or marinas; rather, the local population has been marginalized and tasked generally with performing in more service oriented areas of the industry like cooking and housekeeping, maintenance, transportation, and entertainment.
  • The Virgin Islands Government is the largest employer in the territory, but at present unemployment rates are nearing 10%, poverty exists at a rate of 30%, and 5 in every 10 people impoverished in the Virgin Islands are children under the age of 17. The related drop out and illiteracy rates are at obscene levels and undermine public educational efforts as evidenced in the fact that less than 2 in every 10 high school graduates obtain college degrees.
  • In the areas of health and wellness, 3 in every 10 Virgin Islanders die from heart disease, diabetes is the fifth leading killer, and both stem from the fact that more than 7 in every 10 Virgin Islanders are not aware of the connection between diet and health. Additionally, the percentage of people living with AIDS/HIV in the territory is second only to that of Washington, D.C., the city having the most known cases of the disease in the U.S.
  • The major environmental issues stem mainly from the presence of the third largest oil refinery in the western hemisphere on the island of St. Croix, but are not limited only to the oil industry as inefficient waste management has also been a general contributor to environmental pollution locally. Although oil is refined in the territory, fuel costs are comparative to prices anywhere else in the U.S. mainland. Local consumers not only feel the bite at the pump, but being solely dependent upon oil for energy has in the last year – with the surge in global per barrel prices – resulted in electricity bills that are often higher than mortgages, the cost of day care for children, car notes, and many other daily necessities.
  • More than a decade ago, a study conducted by the U.S. Government revealed that over $300 Million in food items were imported to the U.S. Virgin Islands annually. The study also revealed that more than 50% of food imported to the territory could be produced locally to generate local revenues which would exceed $100 Million annually, but today the Virgin Islands agricultural industry that once dominated the region and boasted a variety of international exports remains nonexistent. As a consequence, Virgin Islanders live the reality of a society that manufactures nothing, consumes everything, and does not sustain itself economically.

From health, to education, to energy, to the economy, the people of the Territory must be willing to submit to a comprehensive, 21st century plan for redressing these issues. But, what should this plan look like? Who should develop it? The Territory’s leadership must work with the people to develop such a plan, creating a way for the average, everyday Virgin Islander to have a say in the future of the Territory and its people.

As the great majority of African-Americans in the United States celebrate the first black man’s ascension to the Office of America’s President and prepare to enter an era of unprecedented political and social achievement, Virgin Islanders – the other African-Americans – are both filled with joy and longing. We take great pride in the moment and in its meaning; however, the leadership, the will and determination to make the necessary changes, the teamwork, tenacity, vision and accomplishment demonstrated by Barack Obama are but sobering reminders that we in the Virgin Islands have yet to manifest both the leadership and the tools that are requisite for the re-charting of our destiny.

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