Peter Bailey is an author and a St. Thomas native. Here, in a jeffpearlman.com guest post, he expresses his anger of the mainland dismissiveness over his home. You can follow Peter here.
It took Irma, a hurricane that blew with the vengeance of a woman scorned to make the rest of America realize we in the US Virgin Islands are actually Americans.
The ongoing joke here on St. Thomas is that Irma was upset at her boyfriend Harvey and went looking for him. We do have a plethora of beautiful women here that would make even Hugh Hefner’s head spin so the idea isn’t that far fetched.
Of course, the devastation that’s now decimated my native home is no laughing matter, but as a people residing in the Caribbean’s tiniest cosmopolitan oasis of opportunity we’ve always found a way to turn our cries into smiles.
I’m just heartbroken it took such devastation for the world and, most importantly our countrymen to the north, to take notice.
Living on the US mainland all this time I kept having to explain time and time again that I’m a US citizen. My first year in college at the University of Delaware a state trooper called for back up when he saw my US Virgin Islands license after a routine traffic stop:
“St. Thomas? Where the hell is that? You Caribbean immigrants are always invading our beloved country with drugs corrupting our youth,” he scoffed.
I emphatically repeated: “I’m a US citizen”.
Well not quite.
I was elated when I voted for President Obama back in 2008, the first time I ever voted for an American President. Although we are U.S. citizens, we Virgin Islanders have to become a resident of the state we live in to be able to vote for President. Since I reside in Miami, my vote counted as a Floridian and not a Virgin Islander.
However, my vote counted as a New Yorker not a Virgin Islander. I’ve described this dilemma to friends as the United States being a cheating husband and the Virgin Islands his mistress he sees now and again, shelling out a few dollars for a good time.
Our loyalty to this abusive matrimony has made for an uneasy relationship with our Caribbean neighbors who see us as having no true identity, but who also grudgingly envy our US citizenship, however second-class.
We’re basically a glorified colony of the United States, a country that celebrates its crusade against tyranny far and wide.
According to a landmark decision rendered from the famed Insular Cases inhabitants of unincorporated territories may have limited to no constitutional rights.
Regardless of our important role to American security – purchased from Denmark in 1917 to protect the US mainland from any European incursions – our second class status and the ignorance that reinforces it isn’t exclusive to that unruly cop who pulled me over many moons ago.
It also permeates mainstream media.
Like the media coverage of hurricane Marilyn that took the first part of my roof – Irma just took the second half – mainstream media all but ignored us before Irma wreaked historic havoc upon us.
Myself and my family sat their dumbfounded flicking between network news channels. It was as if we didn’t exist.
In the fleeting moments when the US Virgin Islands was mentioned reporters painted a scene ripped from an episode of Gilligan’s Island:
“American tourists on the US territory are being cautioned to hunker down”.
I guess the estimated 100,000 Virgin Islanders who reside between St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island are “other” or “locals” as we’re called with a tinge of condescension.
Now seeing those same tourists and US mainland transplants having to navigate this catastrophe depending on us “locals” for their survival and how we’ve been more than happy to help is a sight to see.
Our governor Kenneth Mapp met the deluge of complaints by basically telling visitors stop whining telling them:
“If you’re not prepared to go through these challenges in a realistic way, with realistic expectations, I am strongly urging you to take one of the flights or one of the mercy cruises, and go to the mainland for a few months and come back,” he said.
It’s because there’s been some benefit of being disconnected from our American counterparts to the north. The sense of entitlement and bigotry that rips at the fabric of our country isn’t given life here. We see human first and color a distant last, myself being introduced to racism upon my arrival to the US mainland.
In Irma’s aftermath one white American transplant Mary Anne Steele sitting comfortably on her boat over on St. John lamented in People magazine about the “the overwhelming smell of death in the air” instead of offering aid to those who now need so much of it.
She’s since been chastised by local Virgin Islanders of all races.
Now that we Virgin Islanders have beenforced onto the national psyche Mary and other fellow Americans stand to benefit from the lessons in humanity we’re sure to offer.