Performing the Native: Caribbean-ness in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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In 1995, the U.S. Virgin Island community was embroiled in a heated debate over the definition of what “native” meant to the territory. Brought on by the potential for gross profits promised by the Casino Gaming Commission determined to establish the Virgin Islands as a new and lucrative home for casino gambling, local communities engaged in a fierce dialogue about the nature and criteria of native-ness in the territory. Encouraged by the promise of fortune and employment for the general public, the Virgin Island Legislature, in a move to “protect” the interests of local people, sought to establish guidelines for the ownership and building of gambling houses on St. Croix and St. Thomas. The interests of a number of key legislators were to insure that native Virgin Islanders were entitled to a portion of the Gaming Commission’s profits and facilities. In order to do this, a definition of “native” was critical. And by creating a working definition of “native,” what the Legislature achieved was a simultaneous construction of what Stuart Hall and Judith Butler have called “the constituent outside”. Meaning that by the determination of what “was” or “is” native, we are at once required to designate what it is not as well. Teams of longtime and mostly white, island residents with financial and social stakes in the island’s present and future were excluded from the picture. Amid accusations of divisiveness, and reverse racism, pro-native figures were required to take sides in what ultimately became a racial and economic divide, and choose where they stood on the issue. This choice, by the nature of the Virgin Island economic scene, became a picture of the “have’s” and the “have not’s”, with cultural legitimacy, race, and economics a major and critical part of the political landscape.This paper, delivered at the University of the West Indies for the “(Re)Thinking Caribbean Culture Conference,” tells the complicated and entangled story of the construction of the native in the U.S. Virgin islands amidst its historic place of contestation as both a Caribbean nation and United States territory. Forced by a desire to protect black interests, Virgin Island legislators returned to history, to issues of sovereignty and citizenship, to slavery and empire to tease out the rights of a people to partake in their own profit making potential and assert their subjectivity. From the early works of Earl Leaf, who determined the islands “a happy melting pot of racial harmony,” to Gordon K. Lewis’s rigorous commentary on the creole mixture that has become the Virgin Island populace, to the more contemporary scholarship on migration and cultural and linguistic contributions discussed by Olivia Cadaval and Gilbert Sprauve, this paper offers an overview of the U.S. Virgin Islands patterns of migration, labor, and cultural development as we move toward a definition of ourselves and a simultaneous address of belonging, and longing for a true Caribbean identity.
Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - 2001
Event(Re)Thinking Caribbean Culture - University of the West Indies, Bridgetown, Barbados
Duration: Jun 5 2001Jun 7 2001


Conference(Re)Thinking Caribbean Culture


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