Jamal is a blogger that I’ve known for years. His blog has opened me up to many issues about the U.S. Virgin Islands and how it’s similar or dissimilar to other islands in the Caribbean. As a St. Lucian, I always assumed that the U.S. Virgin Islands was a world away from St. Lucia and the rest of the Caribbean. Hopefully in this interview you’ll be able to see how similar the experience of US Virgin Islanders is to non-territories in the Caribbean and recognize that our similarities are much more important for you to focus on than our differences…
Jamal | 25 | St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands)
What island(s) are you and your family from?
I’m from St. Thomas. My mom is from St. John, and my dad was born in Tortola, but moved to St. Thomas when he was a young child. A large part of my mom’s side of the family lives in St. John and a large part of my dad’s family lives in Antigua.
Tell me a little more about yourself? What do you currently “do” in your spare time? What are your interests?
I love to write, listen to music and dance. I have a B.A. in Communication Studies and I am currently working towards a Masters in Public Administration. I find myself intrigued by world politics, particularly in the United States and the Caribbean.
How would you describe your ethnic/racial background?
I would consider myself Afro-Caribbean. I have considered the term “West Indian” a bit too broad as it can refer to numerous people who are from the West Indies of are of any race. As far back as I can trace, my family includes people of Afro-Caribbean heritage.
I’m really interested in talking to you about what it’s like as a USVIslander. What are some common misconceptions other WI have about you?
There seems to be this idea that we cannot be “West Indian” and “American” simultaneously. The idea that we have to choose a side is utterly ridiculous. There are those that question our “West Indian-ness”, even though we are quite literally a group of islands located in the Caribbean.
How do you think USVI status as a US territory affects your identity (as an individual) and the identity of others in your country?
I would say that our relationship with the mainland United States can get awkward sometimes. There are times that we feel neglected by the mainland, and feel as if we are basically its side chick [for lack of a better term]. I lived in Charlotte for 7 years, and whenever anyone would ask about my background, I would say I was from the Virgin Islands. The accent is probably the first thing that gave myself away. Even though I am legally obligated to call myself “American”, I believe that calling myself a Virgin Islander much more accurately depicts my identity.
What ways do you think you are different from non-territory Caribbean islands? What do you think are the biggest similarities?
The biggest thing is that we are still attached to the mainland United States, and still depend on them for some critical things, even though we are largely self governing. I think that all Caribbean Islands have a shared sense of history due to our similar backgrounds.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why is your answer (yes or no) important to you?
Yes I do consider myself a feminist, and I believe this largely has to do with my upbringing. I remember for a period in elementary school, my mom had a more stable job than my dad did, and I don’t recall him being totally threatened by that. In fact, there were several times throughout my life where she made more money than he did, and he was not threatened. I also remember seeing them both eschew the “traditional” gender roles. They both cooked, and they both cleaned, so I believe that seeing that for myself helped shape my views.
Do you think there’s a difference between how boys and girls are raised in the Caribbean? What are some of those bigger differences?
I do think that there is a difference with how boys and girls are raised in the Caribbean. The Caribbean is this very traditionalist society at times, and I think that we are still bound to many of the traditional gender roles, though I believe that they are slowly being chipped away. I think boys are largely groomed to become the “head of household” , and to be dominant in society. Traditionally, we have not groomed girls to think the same way, but I do think that is changing with every generation.
Is being a feminist acceptable in your community?
I would say that it is definitely acceptable. There are times that I have seen the term thrown around disparagingly, but I do think that most of my community agrees with the basic tenets of feminism.
If Caribbean men could gather together and fix one cultural issue amongst themselves, which one do you think they should focus on? If you can’t pick just one, you can expand.
I think we have lost the family dynamic that existed for the entire island. We need to return to the concept of “It takes a village to raise a child”, where I believe everyone was looking out for you. I think we have lost that and we need to return to that.
If you had to raise a son in the Caribbean, what would you keep from your own upbringing and what would you change?
I had a very strong family background and felt like I could depend on my family for anything. I felt like I could call on any one of them and they would help as soon as possible. If I do have a son, I would like for him to have that same feeling.
I know you played mas for the first time recently and I’d like you just ask one last question about that experience… Was there anything that surprised you about the experience that you didn’t expect?
I think communication could have been a bit better. I actually didn’t get my costume until a few hours before parade day, and I was very frustrated by that. We did give them our contact information, and they could have easily sent a text or email informing the masses. We relied solely on a Facebook page, which wasn’t updated a few times. Besides that, I had a great time, and it was the fulfilling of a dream.
I really enjoyed this interview with Jamal, especially his background with his parents which is a common Caribbean reality that we don’t often hear about in the larger Caribbean narrative. If you enjoyed reading through this interview, I recommend reading my previous interview with Kerlea (from St. Lucia).