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We Are All Historians

Molly Perry is an assistant professor of history and geography at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas. (Submitted photo)

Who tells the better story? The meteorologist who can trace the record of Atlantic cyclones over a span of 150 years and who adds more to the database? Or the woman who remembers hiding in a kitchen cabinet with her grandmother, sobbing, while a hurricane leveled her childhood home?

The text in most history books is weighted more heavily on the “expert” version of an event than on a personal tale. Yet both accounts are part of history.

Two professors from the University of the Virgin Islands are set on a mission to create more of a balance to the record of the Virgin Islands, with the production and preservation of individual stories drawn from everyday life.

Thalassa Tonks, who teaches English on the St. Croix campus, and Molly Perry, who teaches history and geography on St. Thomas, recently received an award to help fund their work.

“You miss a lot of the fabric of life” if you rely solely on official, expert, or government versions of events as history, Perry said.

They plan to use a $50,000 “Digital Humanities Advancement Grant” from the National Endowment for the Humanities to continue teaching students how to solicit and record oral histories from V.I. residents and to create a website to showcase and make the accounts accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Their project is titled “Community Conversations: A Digitized Cultural Preservation Project in the United States Virgin Islands.”

The current grant is actually the third one they have received for related work. They have had a previous Humanities award as well as a grant from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, Perry said.

The earlier grants helped to purchase video recorders, microphones, lighting equipment and other items for use by students working on the project.

While the major motivation may be to protect and promote the Virgin Islands’ culture, Tonks and Perry said there are other, contributing factors.

“There’s a decline in humanities (study),” Tonks said. Gathering oral histories makes the subject come alive for students.

“A project like this empowers them,” Perry added. A lot of first-year UVI students arrive needing remedial work and some think they don’t speak “properly” because they commonly speak in one or another V.I. dialect. “We want to flip that narrative.”

Initially, the project zeroed in on three themes to explore with participants: movement and migration; carnival and fete; and languages of the Virgin Islands. All were “in part, student-generated,” Perry said, and represent things students are passionate about. They also lend themselves to personal accounts.

Future subjects may include climate change and natural disasters, the professors said. That could expand the project from humanities courses into science classes.

The materials and student training that the professors have developed already are being used in social sciences, Caribbean geography, cultural geography and Caribbean history.

The women are well aware that they are not the first and certainly not the only people to conduct an oral history project in the territory. They said they have connected with people involved in similar programs, including the Caribbean Genealogy Library.

They are also cognizant of many pitfalls for oral history projects. They have attempted to short-circuit some of those by careful training of the students who solicit and record information, emphasizing the importance of preparation and research and keeping an open mind.

It’s also important to “cross-reference” information, Perry said. “There’s a lot of work being done” studying the relationship between memory and history. Inaccuracies can creep into accounts, written or oral, because of faulty memories.

A major challenge for an oral history project in the Virgin Islands revolves around language.

Thalassa Tonks is an assistant professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix. (Submitted photo)

“I consider Crucian a language,” Tonks said, although many people view it as a dialect.

“Dialect” or “language” there are many distinctive variations of talking in the Virgin Islands.  Although there is overlap, each of the three main islands has its own local pronunciation and syntax. Add to those the speech brought by migrants from other Caribbean islands and you get a cacophony of language.

There is one thing most variations have in common, Tonks said: They are spoken, not written.

“How do we capture a language that doesn’t have a written form?” Tonks asked. “There is no consensus on it.”

It’s a problem in search of resolution if oral histories are to be transcribed and digitalized.

Meanwhile, the oral histories captured through the project will be available for access on a website now being designed for that purpose. Tonks said she is hoping it may be operational by the summer. Once it’s up and running, people can access it from anywhere.

“We want our webpage to be a repository for everybody,” she said.

If you are interested in participating in the project, and sharing your own historical account, contact one of the professors by email at thalassa.tonks@uvi.edu  or molly.perry@uvi.edu.

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