It has been several days since I read the headline article in last week’s BVI Beacon, “Irma unearths human bones on remote beach: Remains suspected to be those of slaves.” The story is still so heavy on my mind. On my spirit too. On the first night I posted a response on social media when I could not sleep but lost internet connection. When I checked in the morning the post had disappeared. Might as well. I should not have re-presented those bones. Not now. If those are indeed the bones of my enslaved ancestors, for me, they are so much more than “these people.” That is why I covered them in the photo when I reposted. I could not participate in this pre-study display of their human remains. African diasporic cultures largely shun the exposure of their dead, however much Eurocentric approaches to the study of otherness have disregarded that sacred tradition in their earnestness to exhibit their “discoveries.”
The president of H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Dr. Janet Smith, is wise to caution that the remains have not been confirmed to be those of enslaved persons. That such a recovery was made months ago, and the news released only now amidst prior whispers and speculation, indicates some amount of confusion about how to proceed without the research protocols, archaeological ethics, and cultural heritage legislation to regulate this kind of important and complex work in the territory. In 2018, we cannot proceed with 1918 methodologies as when we had no say in our destiny.
I do not believe any clear guidelines exist, not in the National Parks Trust laws nor in the general framework of the cultural policy which my dedicated colleagues and I drafted and redrafted through many years and many different administrations. How can we talk so much about cultural pride when macrocultural issues always seem to be relegated to the backburner, never quite making it on the list of immediate priorities? And now this. One more time, Hurricane Irma, with her winds of change, has exposed the ugly truth about our unreadiness for these times — just like the proverbial fowl bam bam!
I am outraged. For nearly two decades I have been advocating for an active research review board to establish and exercise guidelines for the conduct and evaluation of researchers and research work in the Virgin Islands. To no avail. I have served in both professional and voluntary capacities on countless cultural committees and have heard repeated lamentations on the disappearance of artefacts and the downright “tiefing” of national heritage. In my own cultural work, which includes the design and teaching of qualitative research methods, as well as long and ongoing study of the African Burial Ground at the historic liberated African settlement of Kingstown, I have discovered that the extravagant courtesies and liberties extended to visiting researchers have not been similarly extended to local researchers and scholars, including our college and university students and faculty. But who cares?
In all fairness, Dr. Michael Kent, the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College archaeologist who has been investigating the bones, seems to be aware of a certain cultural sensitivity. I do not understand, though, why his first contact was with the Governor’s Office and not his college president, or his director in the Virgin Islands Studies Institute. Why too is he featured in the field and in the story independent of even one of his team of history and humanities colleagues at the college?
Those are valid and necessary questions. But without a research review board and international ethical standards to ensure that this astounding recovery, the finding, and the site are not compromised, anything goes. And there too goes the integrity of the work.
While a sacred burial is ultimately the respectful thing to do, several cases of recovered African burial grounds in the Caribbean and the wider diaspora prove that this is far easier and quicker said than done.
Take the case of the African Burial Ground in New York and the contestations from which we can learn, particularly the self-determination of the invested African American community and people of African descent worldwide in resisting external corporate interests and successfully changing the outcome as never before anticipated. Such things can never be taken lightly, not when rigorous scientific and cultural investigation and analysis demands we do all we must to help us better understand ourselves by virtue of knowing the life and times of those who came before us.
This is not solely an academic, governmental, or special interest undertaking. Even before biological studies identify the bones as those of our enslaved or emancipated ancestors, whether from before or after the 19th Century, we, the ascendant community, have to be involved. We have to ask hard questions. But do we have the kind of collective historical consciousness required to challenge colonial methodologies, speak truth to power, and ascertain that our legacy is not given away or stolen from us in this 21st Century as has happened over and over before? I’m afraid we just don’t care enough.
But I hope I am wrong.