The Quiet Violence of Being

The day before I put the proverbial pen to paper to write this, one of the most prestigious places of learning in the world decided not to remove the name of a forefather of the confederacy from one of its residential colleges. John C. Calhoun, an alumnus of Yale, is most famous today for his statement that slavery was a “positive good”. Any cursory examination of Calhoun’s record will reveal a man that stubbornly persisted with a perverted world-view that had at its centre the necessity of slavery and its benefits. In fact, he believed that it was not possible to build “a wealthy and civilised society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other.”

Understandably, many students of Yale see harm in retaining a symbol of hate and white supremacy who refused to see many of them as deserving the full slate of rights expected by citizens. All freedom loving people should be able to appreciate the psychic trauma that continues to be wrought by the continued immortalisation of Calhoun and similar figures. Instead of scrubbing his name from the college, Yale has decided to name two new buildings after Benjamin Franklin and Anna Pauline Murray – the first black woman priest in the Episcopal Church. The university has also agreed to cease the use of the title ‘master’ and replace it with ‘head of college’ in the new academic year. This change, interestingly enough, was instigated when the sitting master – Stephen Davis of the Pierson College at Yale – wrote to the community expressing his desire to no longer be addressed as such. Davis wrote that “there should be no context […] in our university in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member […] should be asked to call anyone ‘master’”.

I begin with this because I want to point out that the discussion that I am about to engage in (with no little hope of instigation) is one that is ongoing and sadly universal, and fraught with all sorts of tensions and uncomfortable silences, and all sorts of unchallenged privileges that we must drag out into the brilliant light of the day so that we may recognise the apathy and complacency that we must fight against. Too often, history, tradition, and culture have been the excuse for us continuing to commemorate and celebrate colonial icons and supremacist iconography. It is even more problematic when we realize that we often do so at the expense of the edification of our own heroes and values. It might be a symptom of a deeper identity war that we are still fighting within ourselves – a war that cannot end until the people of these islands seriously interrogate what it means to be who we are.

Thursday last week was a holiday throughout the British Virgin Islands in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. Interestingly, on that day, no public holiday was observed in the United Kingdom. You may wonder then, as I did, just what Her Majesty did last Thursday while our police force marched in their resplendent white uniforms alongside the crew of the visiting British naval ship HMS Mersey.

She unveiled a plaque.

After that she lit a beacon.

The beacon is one of 1,000 that were lit throughout the Commonwealth and there is a lengthy programme of events stretching into June, but none have been designated holidays in the UK.

We should note that the United Kingdom only has 8 public holidays, while we in the British Virgin Islands have 14 this year. A missed day of work in most sectors equates to a missed day of business. Businesses that close still have to pay their employees for that day’s work but many will miss out on the potential income they would have collected had they been open. RBS and Natwest opened on UK bank holidays in 2015 to combat that very reality and continue to view public holidays as a drain on the economy.

But this is not an economic argument. There are fourteen British Overseas Territories of which we are one. All of them celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, most on Monday June 13th this year. But the essential difference between those islands and us is that they all also celebrate a National Heroes Day to honour those who have contributed significantly to the building of their states and identity. In addition to the National Heroes Day, many also celebrate their territorial identity with commemorative dates for Anguilla Day, Bermuda Day, Constitution Day in the Cayman Islands, and National Heritage Day in the Turks and Caicos. This is an example we must learn from quickly. In a recent Facebook conversation on the BVI National Forum, former Deputy Governor Elton Georges pointed out that he was part of a committee that advocated similar changes. The 2001 Holiday Reviews Committee endorsed replacing Commonwealth Day and the Sovereign’s Birthday with a Heroes Day in November to commemorate the 1949 protest march and another locally relevant celebration. They also wished to replace St. Ursula’s Day with a more culturally suitable holiday. I would be extremely interested in hearing the rationale then and now against those recommendations.

While the fourteen Overseas Territories are just that – territories, and therefore the property of the United Kingdom, they do not enjoy a very beneficial or equal relationship with the main. Much like the unincorporated territories of the United States, we do not have a vote in the general elections of the United Kingdom and we often find ourselves at the negotiating table without any bargaining chips. Our constitution can be suspended from afar, and our governmental operations suspended without any possibility of legal resistance. Less I be misunderstood, the purpose of this essay is not to argue for independence or even greater autonomy. That is a greater conversation with no less relevance. What I am insisting on today is that we begin to have an internal dialogue about what it really means for us to call ourselves British Virgin Islanders. Similar conversations are happening across the channel in the USVI and to the northwest in Puerto Rico.

The Royal Virgin Islands Police Force Honour Guard, the crew of the HMS Mersey, and assorted primary and secondary school students.
The Royal Virgin Islands Police Force Honour Guard, the crew of the HMS Mersey, and assorted primary and secondary school students.

A fortnight ago, there was an essay competition with the prompt: “What does being British mean to me?” (full disclosure: I served as a judge on this competition). I won’t elaborate on any specific essay here, but what struck me profoundly about that prompt were two things. First, are we truly British? In terms of feeling a patriotic loyalty to the United Kingdom, I doubt that many who were born and raised here have much meaningful sentiments to being British. It is arguable how British even the British consider themselves! Primary loyalties often seem to be to the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish flags. In fact, a 2011 study published by The Guardian found that when asked to choose, 52% of English voters choose British first, compared to only 19% and 30% of Scottish and Welsh voters respectively. It is telling that the survey did not so much as bother to poll voters in Northern Ireland.  As such, British nationals usually identify as something else first and Brits second, if at all. So, if we are to answer that question sincerely, shouldn’t we at first consider what being a British Virgin Islander means?

The adoption of a Territorial Song and the consideration of a Territorial Pledge are welcome steps to spur these kinds of thoughts in the populace. The gusto with which our young people sing the Territorial Song demonstrates a sense of ownership and identification which is frankly often absent from renditions of the National Anthemn. This tells us that our people are thirsty for these kinds of symbols of identification, even if they have not yet formed the words to request them.

The second thought that was ignited in my mind by that essay prompt was: how are we supposed to know what being British means in general, much less what it means to us individually? While the wonders of the information age mean that we can consume British popular culture and news in ways our forefathers could not imagine, it is only in the last ten years that we have seen large numbers of BVIslanders migrating to the UK for careers or education. We know why that is. Prior to the Overseas Territories Act of 2002, we were not citizens. We were classified under the British Nationality Act of 1981 as British Dependent Territory Citizens and did not have the right to live, work, or go to school in the United Kingdom. How could we be British when the British did/do not see us as British?

Gaining full citizenship and all the rights that come with it is indeed a boon to us. But as can be observed in all the other Caribbean islands with similar relationships with the United States, France, and the Netherlands (many of whom have had full citizenship long before the BVI), having those rights does not automatically assimilate people into the nation state. A look at the politics of St. Martin, Aruba, and others will demonstrate just how fractious relationships between colony and the main can be.

As the remnants of colonial power, the last ruins of the Empire, we are often asked to perform the song and dance of colonialism, simultaneously celebrating emancipation and the Empire that enslaved our ancestors and nearly eradicated the original possessors of these islands. Whenever we do that, we quietly reenact those violent realities with little more than a passing thought, a tacit submission, a regression to being good colonial subjects. There must be something more. There must be a better way of being BVIslanders, one that takes the focus away from the first letter of that acronym.

So while I sincerely wish the Queen a hearty and hale happy birthday, just as I would anyone achieving the milestone of entering their tenth decade on this planet, I must ask the question: where are our heroes? When and where do we commemorate our own rich history in this corner of the Caribbean? If we continue to meet these sorts of questions with silence, we are dooming ourselves to genuflection without introspection – a life performing the eternal mimicry of the mute and passive subject.