One evening after finishing a jog, I spied a young lady walking through the graduate residence I lived at during grad school. I walked up to her and introduced myself. Upon hearing her accent, I asked her where she was from. She told me Guyana. I responded enthusiastically and by saying that I was from the U.S. Virgin Islands. A sour look came across her face. She went on to tell me that I was American and not Caribbean. I became indignant, wondering why she would draw that conclusion and told her that I was just as Caribbean as anyone from the region. She walked off with a look on her face as if she had stepped into a hornet’s nest.
I entered my apartment still pissed at what I perceived as an insult, but as I calmed down and started to process her observation, I saw, reluctantly, where she was coming from. Independence, it sounded like, was prerequisite for claims to being from the Caribbean region. Whether you came from an independent nation determined where you stood on the region’s totem pole.
For a number of reasons, I may have put this consideration out of my head. At the time of my encounter with the young Guyanese woman I had been on the U.S. mainland for roughly 15 years. I had become increasingly immersed in American, especially Black American, culture. One of my saving graces had been the remnants of my accent. The other, closely related now I realize, was the company I kept while in Tallahassee. Most of my friends were either West Indian, descendants of West Indians, or preferred the company of West Indians. The few Black Americans I hung out with were some of the most open-minded people you could meet. Although I had received that type of treatment, albeit a lot less subtle, from the time I moved to the mainland, it had via that encounter become more pronounced.
Island nations had been going their own way since the early 1960s. The British Empire was in decolonization mode after the end of the second world war and the Caribbean was benefiting from it. Great Britain and Europe determined to take another route that would see them still exercise economic influence while dumping political responsibility on to their former colonies. The United States got into the colonizer game pretty late in the Caribbean.
In 1898 the United States put the island of Puerto Rico into their portfolio. In August 1916, the U.S. entered an agreement to purchase the Danish West Indies from Denmark for a cool $25 million and renamed the territory the Virgin Islands of the United States. The purchase and eventual transfer in March 1917 were just in time for the territory to play a role in the protection of the Panama Canal via the establishment of a submarine base and other military facilities.
I will have to post on the legal uncertainty surrounding citizenship for the descendants of slaves in the territory but for now bear in mind that American citizenship became a crown for jewel for islanders and through the years, especially post World War II, the United States Virgin Islands (less of a mouthful nomenclature) would attract Caribbean people especially from the other islands in the Lesser Antilles. Among those people would be my parents who met and married in St. Kitts and moved to St. Thomas in 1962. I would enter this physical realm a year later, one foot in a Caribbean still under the direct rule of Great Britain, the other foot in a culture increasingly tainted in Americanism.
From childhood especially when traveling “home” to St Kitts, I was conscious of being in two different Caribbean realities. One night I am sitting in my great aunt’s house listening to the BBC. The next night I am in my living room in St. Thomas watching a one-week delayed television broadcast of “Mannix.” Visiting cousins in New York, yes, I was from “the islands”, speaking with the funny accent, but I would have no qualms slipping into my best version of a Brooklyn accent just to fit in. I was an American after all, wasn’t I?
And it is this attitude, that we are Americans versus Caribbean, that pervades the Virgin Islands’ culture. The separateness from the rest of the Caribbean because of American citizenship is expressed with pride, so much pride that for the native-born Virgin Islanders, they look down on immigrants from St. Kitts and other islands. When I look back at my family’s network back in the USVI, it was primarily made up of people from St Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua. Even today the Virgin Islanders I socialize with are either from St Kitts-Nevis or, as in my case, our parents were from St Kitts-Nevis. But whether you were born in St Thomas or an immigrant who became a naturalized citizen, your Americanism was viewed as a sign of superiority over the other island nations.
The irony, for it is for that reason that island nations look down on us and it is not coming from a place of jealousy. I believe that they view a people who exercise little self-determination as second rate. While I disagree with the description of my homies from the USVI as second-rate, I would agree that given our brain power and deep-water port, if we leveraged today’s technology to create our own economy, an independent Virgin Islands could be a force to reckon with in a Caribbean that needs to be led by a example of a dynamic fellow island nation. I would like to see that happen.