St. Thomas 𑁋 A silent revolution is taking place on social media in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It can be described as silent because it’s all in written form, a careful documenting of the territory’s current and differing opinions on how adults should conduct themselves during traditional events like Adult’s Parade.
It’s silent because these are thoughts, carefully written out by those who agree with allowing what has been termed as “vulgar” behavior in our parades and those who believe that provocateurs should simply tone it down. Both sides make strong points on what Virgin Islands Carnival entails.
What’s more striking is that it has taken the form of viral internet memes, where locals and Virgin Islanders living abroad are chiming in. Some have weighed in to scold the Division of Festivals and WTJX in what some have viewed as an attempt to censor the free nature of the territory’s festivals — others also chimed in to crack jokes and there are also a number of people that agree with taking a more modest approach in showcasing Virgin Islands culture.
In a recent legislative hearing, Senator Myron D. Jackson said, “These are family events, not adult entertainment. Many of our residents think they have gotten out of hand.”
An article published by the Virgin Islands Source detailed public testimony by WTJX where the public broadcast station said that Federal Communication Commission guidelines regulated what their staff and videographers were allowed to broadcast. WTJX added that the station’s camera people were often “under a lot of stress” in following those guidelines during the Adult’s Parade. Adding that said they often had to resort to filming “from the waist up.”
Last year, WTJX began working with national television providers such as Dish Network and is likely reaching a broader audience than it did in past years. Federal broadcast regulations are extremely strict, however, changing policies governing free expression to accommodate a television network is a bit of a reach in the age of selfies and clever camera angles.
Then Biko McMillan entered the chat, with the phrase, “give me debauchery or give me death.” According to Dr. Hadiya Sewer, the phrase, and what it meant for people once living under oppressive colonial rule became much more clear. It quickly reverberated around social media and became a comical history lesson of what our ancestors endured as enslaved people who were viewed as savages who constantly needed to be tamed while ascribing to European whiteness and the overwhelming supremacy of white culture in the western hemisphere.
Interestingly enough, without choosing a side, but clearly acknowledging the uproar, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett posted a photo of herself enjoying the Crucian Christmas Festival, saying “Love my islands.”
A simple remedy would be for individuals who would like to experience a more modest approach to each island’s annual Parade would be to join the festivities with a brand new troupe that could diversify the line-up. Many of us would welcome a more inclusive approach to our cultural events.
Plaskett’s post (at least from my perspective) was viewed as a subtle nod to the notion that the display of debauchery and modesty was a choice and that we were free to make a conscious choice in how we parade our bodies during our festivities as consenting adults. I mean, after all, she works in Washington, D.C. and is only the frontlines of destructive forces like colonialism, white supremacy, and disaster capitalism.
Biko, who has published two books of poems titled, “Writing on Roots” and “Blue Period” is a quiet figure who pushes the boundaries of thought and at many times respectability. He carefully embodies what it means to be an intellectual who viciously defends the rights and culture of what some might consider, well, simply savage behavior. No pun intended.
This isn’t the first time Biko has given young Virgin Islanders a history lesson on our violent history under oppressive European monarchies by emploring comedic interpretations and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
To conclude, I leave you with a short analysis by Dr. Hadiya Sewer on what the discussion means for Virgin Islands culture and how colonialism affects our everyday discourse surrounding social and cultural issues:
“My final thoughts on this for the night are rooted in philosophy, and Black existentialism in particular. Why is it that we say, “give me debauchery or give me death?” This is a phrase I saw first on Biko McMillan’s page but it quickly reverberated around VI social media. I wondered briefly, “will we launch the anti-colonial revolution over our right to fete?” It’s possible that we might because, for us, it is debauchery or death. It’s funny…. but also…To be clear, this will be an ontological death, a death in the core of our being. Michael Delano’s status was so important. The colonial project has always been fueled by the policing of our bodies, the taming of a “savage” other, the mission to “civilize”. Carnival has always been ground zero for our anti-colonial refusal to make ourselves immediately and continuously amenable to power and the colonial status quo. For a short time each year, we allow ourselves to be everything the dominant culture tried to shame us out of being. Our Moko Jumbies, our masquerading, our skinning out has always served as a vessel for what’s left of our revolutionary spirit. This ownership of our bodies and sexualities is a feminist project. It’s also our most honest performance of the colonial milieu. How beautiful it is for Black and Brown people to be so unapologetically free in the government road and unconcerned with the white gaze, to have space to see our coloniality and our desires clearly. It’s where we create space for humanization and remember that respectability politics are not in our best interest. For generations, the more respectable members in our community have complained and we’ve pacified them and carried on. If we’re honest, it’s neoliberalism that’s snatching this last torch from us. This shift is designed to make us more palatable to an American audience. How much more crushing can our souls take? Debauchery or death. Social death has been our reality for a long time; must we be zombies too?”
Note: Biko McMillian has been the chief editor of State of the Territory News since the spring of 2019.