The following is my keynote address at BVI Territory Day 2017.
I must say I was deeply honoured when I was asked to present today’s keynote. However, I was also gripped by a deep feeling of hesitation and consternation. While I am an academic with an unwavering love and commitment to the history and culture of these British Virgin Islands, I am no historian. I would not dare step on the toes of the many venerable historians, cultural workers, legal experts, and politicians who could do a much better job than I in examining all the bends and twists in the road that has brought us this far. But, perhaps reassuringly, this keynote is centered on the theme of renewal, and that is something that writers such as myself constantly think about. As a poet and in my station at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, my daily life is deeply preoccupied with language. In particular, I am deeply invested in words and what they mean, the various connotations that they contain when spoken that we are compelled to confront and the multitude of emotions and implications that may slip past us if we are not paying due attention. As such, there are two words that accompanied my invitation that drove home certain truths about our peculiar realities in the British Virgin Islands and I therefore felt compelled to confront them. Those words are of course: awakening and resilience.
So let us awaken. It should not be lost on us that the day that we are celebrating is Territorial Day. Territory. As in “an area of land under the jurisdiction of a ruler”. As in possession. As in property. As in the inescapable fact that these 60 islands, rocks, and cays are the colonial possession of the United Kingdom. Let us be clear. We are one of the 13 remaining colonies of the British Empire. Regardless of your politics and regardless of whether you are an advocate for self-determination or to remain under British rule, this is the first inescapable fact of our reality. It is the first distinctive fact of who we are that separates us politically if not culturally from most of our Caribbean family. So, while we rightly celebrate the 50th anniversary of our ministerial system and the increase in autonomy enjoyed over that time, we must remember that we neither have complete authority over our own affairs nor representation in the institutions that largely determine our future. You will forgive me therefore to explore what this means in the present day.
In 2002, the United Kingdom granted full British citizenship to the citizens of its Overseas Territories. By default, those citizens also became citizens of the European Union. In 2016, the United Kingdom’s referendum on its membership of the European Union led to the ongoing political and economic saga that is Brexit. No one predicted this, and as such, we still do not know what the ultimate consequences will be for the Overseas Territories. Following Brexit, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by Theresa May, who held a parliamentary election a few weeks ago in order to solidify her mandate. That election resulted in the Tory party losing the clear majority that they held just last month. Talks to form a government between the Conservative Party and the marginal Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party have just concluded. We do not know what that government will look like. We do not know what their policies are going to look like in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the terrorist attacks in Manchester, London Bridge, and Finsbury Park. We do know however, that we are not part of those conversations. With all this uncertainty swirling around in the minds of British society, the political status of the Overseas Territories is not at the forefront of their concerns. As such, when the British media – liberal or conservative – engages with the territories it is exclusively in a critical and interrogative examination of our financial services industries or a fetishizing of this place as another unspoiled place to be conquered by the Western tourist.
At the same time, we are facing our own period of uncertainty in the BVI. The public sector is facing serious financial challenges while there are clear and pressing needs to maintain, improve, and in some cases develop our physical infrastructure and utilities. We also have to deal with the social challenges that come with the sort of rapid population growth we have experienced over the last 30 years – in particular: crime, health care, and education, all while grappling with the uncertain futures of our main industries. We are all in the proverbial trenches trying to find and develop solutions to the significant problems that we face. Perhaps paradoxically, these great challenges and changes also represent great opportunity.
It is times like these that require, as the Turkish writer Elif Shafaz says, “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the soul”. We must question everything, especially the local and global status quo that has led us to these difficult circumstances. We must question what it means to remain a colony in the 21st century. We must question what our priorities have been and what they should be. We must question what the core values of this place must be. We must question the very notion of what it means to be a Virgin Islander.
The themes of today’s ceremony are awakening and resilience. But Virgin Islanders have always been a vigilant and resilient people. We are not newcomers to challenge. The history of these islands is steeped in trial. The genocide of indigenous peoples; the scars of slavery and the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade; the cholera outbreak and insurrection of 1853; the cocolo generation and the loss of the Fancy Me; all the storms and tsunamis that have led us to today.
It is in these times that we need to develop our cultural capital to arm our citizens with a sense of self and belonging that is greater than the colour of their passport. Look at how lustily our schoolchildren sing the territorial song, look at how proudly they wear our territorial dress and recite the pledge. Look at the entrepreneurial “Be V.I.” and “Virgin Islands Made” brands and their success and resonance with our youth.
Our young people are desperate for opportunities to express their pride in these islands and it is our responsibility to equip them with the tools needed to take advantage of them. Just last weekend, the Culture Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Stephen Lashley admonished the region to take the cultural industries seriously if they are serious about economic development. He pointed out that, in the U.K., £90bn of GDP comes from the creative industries. Every 1 in 11 jobs in the U.K. is in the creative industries. More importantly, creative industry jobs cannot be automated. In South Africa, creative industries created 192,000 jobs in 2014 alone. Worldwide, creative industries generate more than $2.25 trillion in revenue, substantially more than the entire global telecommunications industry and more than the GDP of India, Russia, and Canada.
In the BVI, we are seeing a renaissance of sorts in this area. We can see Virgin Islander fashion designers, musicians and music producers, actors and filmmakers, writers, and visual artists popping up home and abroad and enjoying varying degrees of success. The talent is there. These are our present day culture makers. What are we doing to support them and what can the territory do to capitalise on this moment? How do we facilitate those children who are exhibiting incredible artistic and creative potential in our schools right now? When do we stop telling them that the arts do not lead to a viable career? When do we start telling them the truth?
Three new books: The Fuzzy and the Techie, Cents and Sensibility, and Sensemaking, are arguing that liberal arts majors are the people best equipped to succeed in the digital economy and not those who have chosen to major in the STEM fields. Arts majors are taught to think critically about human contexts and the human experience. They are the ones who are best equipped to understand people and their various perspectives and are therefore the ones best equipped to tell us the stories that help us to understand others and ourselves. I fear if we do not start telling our story, someone will come and start telling their version of our story.
In facing these new tests of our mettle however, we must be brave and remember the ingenuity our ancestors showed when they faced their own obstacles. We must reject the status quo that has brought us to this juncture and be brave enough to find the creative solutions that led us to invent the Virgin Islands sloop and the traditional style of our gingerbread houses. We must find again the courage and the genius that led us to establish our financial services industry and institutions like HLSCC and the National Parks Trust. We cannot conceive of making our way through the storm by staying the course and continuing to sail straight through it. Fellow Virgin Islanders, what great ideas do you have for our beloved home? What new passage will we chart for ourselves? How brave a world can you imagine?