A discussion of culture, ancestry and Carnival was led at the university by Dr. Chenzira Davis Kahina who presented several keynote speakers displaying their personal heritage while prompting attendees to remember their own.
“Why do we have to wait for funerals to find out who our family is,” Maekiaphan Phillips asked the audience gathered for the Seventh Annual VICCC Symposium.
The event took place Tuesday in the first floor conference room of the Administration and Conference Center on the St. Thomas campus of the University of the Virgin Islands.
Philips, who founded Opi’a Taino International in 2011, is part of a subgroup aboriginal to the Caribbean islands.
“I am asking the community to check their DNA to see if they are any one of the indigenous,” Phillips said. “We believe that having indigenous ancestors, that we should bring the community together because we have been displaced as a people.”
Master drummer Baba Tyehimba Mtu, who led the audience in several musical performances dotting the event, said it’s important for people to deal with and understand their ancestors.
“Ancestral legacy, it’s important to recognize your family,” he said.
Mtu agreed lineage is often how culture is defined, but said, “We use the term culture loosely but in reality everyone is living their culture all the time.”
George Franklin, a shaman and natural mystic, challenged the audience to remind themselves of where their ancestors came from and to “live their truth.” Franklin shared his own lineage, being native to Frederiksted, St. Croix.
He placed a mask over his face to symbolize the lies told to oneself that formulate a mask to an individual’s heritage.
“I am challenging the European inside of all of you,” he said. “Our culture is not to accept it when they say this is how things should be. Otherwise we get to thinking they know better than we know … but this is not their history to write, this is our history.”
Dance and musical performances were showcased to highlight Caribbean culture in the V.I., including bamboula dancing from the UVI Bamboula Dancers, and a short film presented by Dr. Hadiya Sewer. Sewer said cultural festivals such as Carnival are needed, declaring, “What cultural and artistic spaces allows us to do in part, is to make some of these tense conversations a bit more palatable to larger audiences. And creates an opportunity where we can mobilize around the things that we want to share and enjoy.”
Several audience members participated in the discussion, sharing views and anecdotes about their cultural experiences and what significance Carnival held to them in terms of customs and tradition. Some shared stories of how Carnival used to operate and what it represented, sharing dismay for how commercialized Carnival had become to them. Others shared delight, viewing Carnival as something intended for expression and enjoying that it remained an opportunity for them to express themselves freely.