Monday was a red-letter day in Virgin Islands history.
In a long-needed cultural leap, the territory left behind the quixotic St. Ursula’s Day and celebrated the first Heroes and Forefathers Day, a more VI-centric observance focused on honouring the stalwarts of the territory’s rich history.
Though the celebrations were far more muted than we had hoped, perhaps because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the VI Studies Institute and the Culture Department nevertheless came through in a big way: They hosted an informative virtual discussion that included many carefully considered ideas for the way forward for the holiday. During the session, panelists discussed various facets of the territory’s history and floated many sound suggestions for how national heroes should be selected and honoured.
Such conversations are exactly the sort of dialogue the VI needs as it works to untangle its own stories from the colonial history that led in the first place to peculiar public holidays like St. Ursula’s Day, which ostensibly commemorated Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of these islands.
To add our two cents to this discussion, we would suggest that choosing the community’s heroes should always include carefully considering history and looking beyond the obvious choices. Politicians’ names naturally tend to pop up, but we would point out that wielding power for many years does not necessarily make someone heroic. Indeed, many heroes of the past are the unsung teachers, historians, church leaders, boat builders, fishers, farmers and other residents who quietly sacrificed to make the VI stronger.
There is much more to be said on the topic, and we hope the conversation will continue in the 12 months leading up to the next Heroes and Forefathers Day. Next year, we would like to see much more robust celebrations led by government, non-profit organisations and the private sector alike.
The annual holiday should always include discussions like the ones hosted Monday, which we hope will help lay the observance’s DNA. But it should also include family events with exhibitions, plays, readings, oral histories, storytelling, films, award presentations, and many other activities centred around the territory’s heroes and foreparents. By next year, we also hope the name of the holiday will be changed to a gender-neutral alternative like Heroes and Ancestors Day.
Kudos to the organisers who kicked off the observance this year. And kudos again to the current government for its recent decision to refashion St. Ursula’s Day and other public holidays that were relics of the territory’s colonial past.
Such reforms are important and meaningful.