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Virgin Islands History with Stacey Plaskett at the Dorsch Cultural Center

Congresswoman Plaskett (Photo by Joan Keenan)

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett hosted Virgin Islands History to a standing-room-only crowd at the Dorsch Cultural Center Thursday evening.

Plaskett’s focus for the events was to reach into the depths of the rich history of our Virgin Islands. She was very conscious about highlighting the contributions of Virgin Islanders, not only during March but throughout the year, Communications Director Tionee Scotland said.

Although born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Plaskett’s parents were intentional in teaching her about her V.I. heritage. As a history buff, she developed a positive love for directing her attention to the greatness of Virgin Islanders, both past and present.

Director of V.I. Cultural Education in the Dept. of Education Stephanie “Chalana” Brown and Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (CHANT) Executive Director Frandelle Gerard presented stories of V.I. culture, heritage, and history. Dept. of Education Social Studies Coordinator Larry Larsen shared the stage with his presentation of the history of traditional music of the Virgin Islands.

Stephanie “Chalana” Brown (Submitted photo)

Emancipation Now – Understanding History – Living a Legacy – Creating a Just Future for All Ah We  – are the components that we are observing for the 175th anniversary of the 1848 Insurrection, Brown said of the [Cultural Education] department’s commemoration. 

“We are celebrating, not on a surface layer, [the wearing of madras]. We want to provide opportunities for teachers and students to be more responsive and to build heritage,” Brown said. 

We must stop thinking of these towns on St. Croix as “Danish Towns.” The schematics, the architectural designs are not exactly what is happening in Denmark. The ingenuity of the Africans who were building the towns put some of their identity into them. The island’s essence and the structural evidence of coral can be seen in some of the buildings. I would say “African Towns” since the enslaved Africans, who were very skilled, built the towns, Brown said.

Brown spoke about the importance of the sugar mills and the necessity of preserving them. “Some are derelict. Some are falling down. There needs to be preservation laws put in place to maintain them. We need to see them as what they are – a place of reverence – see them on a spiritual level,” she said. 

During the COVID-19  pandemic, Brown began visiting and documenting sites that resulted in her exhibit “Claiming Spaces: The African Story of the Sugar Mill” Brown’s work continues. She recently visited the 67th [Bodkins Mill – the highest mill on the island] of over 125 sugar mills on St. Croix. 

This month’s event also addresses the National Heritage Area Designation, which speaks to the importance of V.I. history and heritage – and the ability to hold sacred space for our history and for the location and landmarks that communicate that history, Scotland said on behalf of Plaskett. 

Gerard highlighted some aspects of the National Heritage Area Designation. “It is a new economic engine with historic preservation economy and preservation economy. There is so much that has been identified that is significant in the whole planning process. That is something that we have an opportunity to do,” Gerard said.  

CHANT Executive Director Frandelle Gerard (Photo by Juliana Berry)

“All levels require a policy commitment on the government level. The federal government has given us this designation recognizing the areas of environmental concerns that are also critical and allows us the opportunity to focus on preserving and promoting that heritage. This goes hand-in-hand with heritage tourism,” Gerard added.

One of the things that Gerard pointed out from the original study was that the local fishermen got involved with protecting the ocean and the reefs – the traditional fishing areas. “This is not just land-based but marine-based, as well. The community at the grassroots level has the opportunity to get involved,” she said.

“The management plan is critical,” Gerard said. In the legislation that was passed designated the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office as the management entity. They have three years to create a management plan.”

Gerard made reference to the feasibility study done in 2009-2010 with a grant SUCCEED worked on with St. Croix non-profits and individuals in the heritage community. The group received an award for the report, she said.

Before closing her presentation, Gerard shared her heritage with the audience. Her family can be traced back to her maternal great-grandmother, who was Taino and Spanish, with links to Puerto Rico. On her paternal side, her Crucian heritage goes back to her 5th great-grandmother, Kwasiba of the Akan Ashanti people in Ghana, Africa. She was brought to St. Croix and baptized Henriette Williams. 

Larry Larsen (Submitted photo)

The remainder of the evening was devoted to traditional music of the Virgin Islands presented by Dept. of Education Social Studies Commissioner Larry Larsen, who is also a member of the legendary Stanley and the TSK Quelbe Band.

Larsen began with V.I. music and how it has evolved over the past 175 years. “It was through our ancestors’ resiliency that we are able to enjoy this music today,” he said.

Quelbe is a manifestation of African culture, traditions, beliefs, and values. “The music has evolved over time, he said, because culture is not static. It changes from one generation to another.” 

“What sounded to our ancestors was before electronics and technology and sounds different to us today.”

Stanley & TSK (Photo by Elisa McKay)

People of African descent were brought here in the 1600s and early 1700s and were stripped of their culture, their traditions, their beliefs, and their values, Larsen said. The playing of drums, singing, and dancing, was prohibited and, if practiced, was under severe punishment. Drums are basic to African culture, music, and values, he added. Yet, some of those traditions survived in spite of this. 

Cariso, not to be confused with calypso, is a cultural expression that survived and came straight out of West Africa. It began as a “call and response” chant pattern and evolved to where there is a female singer accompanied by drummers. Sometimes they can be heard in the fields without drums. This was a way of communicating what was happening on the estate or on other parts of the island through the so-called grapevine.

They could plot a rebellion – a runaway – or some sort of mischievous deed. 

Although drumming was not allowed, they would go into the hills with homemade drums and practice. Up to the years before 1848, it was all done in a secret manner.

The Bamboula is an African dance that somehow survived and has been passed on through generations. The Quadrille, though it has a European influence, has developed into a strong African twist. The Masquerade [Wild Indian] is another African tradition that survived after 1848.

“After Emancipation, we were allowed to practice whatever we wanted with limited distractions, interruptions, or attempts to prevent the practice of our culture,” Larsen said.

The basic fundamentals of music is rhythm – the soul of African people. Every instrument in the TSK is a rhythm instrument: the squash, banjo, pipe, and triangle. There’s the violin and accordion and the human whistle. The flute and saxophone came later in the 19th century.

“The music that evolves under the guise of Quelbe reflects life in the V.I. It’s about life, love, betrayal, gossip, inequities and what people experience on a day-to-day basis. Quelbe is our life, our past, most importantly our culture in its physical expression.”

Larsen closed his presentation with an introduction of Kendell Henry, the youngest Floormaster in the V.I. and the Ay Ay Cultural Dancers and their performance.

 

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