I love traveling to the U.S. Virgin Islands. After each semester at university, I’m always deeply happy to return home. I tend to let out a sigh of relief at the first glimpse of St. Thomas. There is something about being in the U.S. Virgin Islands that makes me feel so incredibly “loved” and, by extension, human. I’m not certain what exactly it is that makes me feel so loved. Perhaps, it is the way that we speak to one another with our creole language without hints of mockery and appropriation. We speak to each other with a depth and a breadth of emotion. Sometimes what we say is laced with more anger than love but It’s genuine more often than not. I could feel loved because people care enough to greet strangers in passing or because many local restaurants gave me free servings of food when I was pregnant despite the fact that this had to cut into their bottom line. In essence, I feel loved because I feel as though people actually see me for who and what I am. I am not invisible.
I talk about race and colonialism in the margins of the American empire often. I, like many other Africana thinkers, call colonialism a dehumanizing and objectifying experience. Yet, at times, these discussions that we have about systemic racism and oppressive power structures feel woefully inadequate. The truth is: these discourses often recenter dominant power structures and systems of thought. Constantly speaking about how oppressive power structures perceive the people that I love (self included) can feel all consuming, at best, and depressing. We are so much more than the one dimensional caricatures that “Western” power painted –uncivilized, lazy, violent, savage, fit for exploitation and domination, and unfit for citizenship. Yet, in an effort to resist continuous colonial subjection, we often find ourselves talking back to the drives of the imperium. While there is a place for this, there is also a drawback: you continue to recenter the very ideologies and praxes that you are committed to dismantling.
My great uncle Larry Sewer is constantly telling me that “we are free,” despite the fact that we are “colonized”. His reminders push me to center the question of ontological sovereignty. Colonization creates an “existential deviation” (Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks). It is not who we are. I love traveling home to the USVI because I don’t feel “double consciousness” (DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk) as acutely. While I am aware of how I see myself and how the dominant power structure sees me, this split in my psyche becomes less pronounced. It fades into the background and I spend a great deal more time dwelling in the present and fully inhabiting myself. I am better able to frame and articulate my worldview in a way that doesn’t see Western power as the totalizing monstrosity that it, perhaps, pretends to be.
One of my colleagues (I’ll add her info once I ask her permission) does phenomenal work on race in Puerto Rico, Black love and intimacy. She is constantly reminding me to make room for being human whilst studying processes of dehumanization. To be frank, I struggle with this deeply. At times, self care seems like a luxury. Audre Lorde would beg to differ. She said that self care is “an act of political warfare”. I don’t always listen to my elders and my contemporaries. I prioritize activism and scholarship over health in some futile hope that these offerings will create more opportunities for all of us to be more politically, economically, and ontologically “free”. This line of thinking troubles me. In prioritizing resistive work over health, I am allowing my mind, body, and spirit to serve as a “fault line” or Gloria Anzaldúa’s “borderland” (in Borderland/ La Frontera: the New Mestiza). I am allowing myself to be one of many sacrifices for a greater good. Candice Jenkins (in Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy) argues that Black women typically make these sacrifices for the greater good of the “community”, namely the Black community.
As I write this, I am realizing that I need to revisit Sylvia Wynter (in 1492: A New Worldview) on this question of colonialism and the use of Black and Indigenous bodies as the disposable “ritual sacrifices” for the greater good of Western society. Black and Indigenous bodies were disposable precisely because they were sacrificed for the Western accumulation of wealth, which is largely regarded as being the “greater good”. One can argue that my failure to care for myself deeply is rooted in a colonial logic and in the interest of decolonization, I have to work on radical self care. Gloria Anzaldúa says that to survive the borderlands, one must become a crossroad.
Home– the U.S. Virgin Islands– is a good place for me to relearn a praxis of radical self care and to learn how to be a crossroad. As I mentioned, I feel “free” here even though I am also aware of the impact of American colonization. There are so many symbolic orders in the U.S. Virgin islands that are incommensurate with the dominant categories of thought and I love it. Rastafari is one example. “Island time” is another. The ontological sovereignty that some practice is not legible to Western episteme and, therefore, it is constantly mangled by theoretical frameworks.
In the interest of decolonizing, I need to spend more time taking care of myself and sitting with this question of “being free” despite being “colonized.” If you are looking for me in the next few weeks, I’ll be enjoying and theorizing relaxing days on the beach and all of the bacchanal I’m sure to experience in St. John’s carnival.
In love and solidarity always, #DecolonizingtheUSVI