This is the last year of the 20th century, and in 17 years we will mark the centennial of our status as a United States territory. We were colonized by the Spanish, Dutch, French, English, Knights of Malta and Danish. Danish rule was the longest: the Danes controlled St. Thomas from 1671, St. John from 1717 and St. Croix from 1733 all until the Danish period ended in 1917 with the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States.
Most African-Caribbean Virgin Islanders hold few fond memories or affections for de Daneman. In retrospect, many of our idiosyncrasies and social defects have arisen from the benign neglect and overall disinterest of Denmark in advancing its islands.
Despite the modern myth among some "ole timers" concerning the good old days of racial harmony and social peace, the Danish era was hell for the African/black masses. That is why many of our ancestors and relatives emigrated to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and the U.S. mainland between the 1870s and the 1930s.
For better or for worse, today's Virgin Islands has been profoundly influenced by the American experience. The Americanization process intensified in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, we are a hybrid society with some of the best and worst traits of American civilization. Our material conditions, or patterns of consumption, are at par with any U.S. state or other territory.
It is amusing to see how up-to-date our people are when it comes to the latest fashions, cars and "in-thing." In fact, we are more abreast in fashion than many rural areas in the South! However, our political system and approach to economic development are the most backward in the nation. Politically, we are moribund or at the point of dying.
Despite Americanization, we have failed some basic lessons on democracy and economic development. Over the last 20 years, most of our political leaders have flunked Politics 101 or have forgotten everything that they learned. The few who do well in our political system have mastered the Virgin Islands political culture and psyche and/or have extraordinary political instincts.
For these past 20 years, we have been guided politically in large part by failures, flunkies and/or flukes. It's amazing that our Americanized electorates do not use the criteria stateside voters use in making political choices. Perhaps this is a result of negative tendencies in our Caribbean mentality such as a weakness for the "personal touch," a weakness for jump-ups, fish fries and other socializing, and our collective dislike for sacrifice and struggle.
Hence, among us, any Johnny- or Janey-on-the-Spot can run before the people dem, shout at the top of his/her lungs about all of our problems, solve nothing, divide everyone, entertain a particular constituency who can re-elect him/her, and remain a major force in our politics.
The mainland United States matured beyond this form of politics decades ago, even in such holdouts as Louisiana and Chicago. We have not.
Except for a few unusual personalities such as Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot, stateside voters tend to look for the cream of the crop when it comes to picking political leaders. Even if the leader cannot spell potato and may not know where Grenada is located, he/she knows what is "in the best interests of the American people" and pursues it relentlessly.
We have not learned this lesson to identify our interests and then to pursue them. Our political leaders do not even conceptualize "national interests" or "territorial interests"!
Now, before anyone calls me communist or anti-American, let me inform you that a people can have multiple loyalties, but a mature people puts its own interests first. A good example is Puerto Rico, wherein the U.S. Navy bombed an observation tower last April 19, killing a civilian, one David Sanes Rodriguez.
Suddenly, todo mundo in Puerto Rico wants the Navy out, now! The loss of one life has galvanized the Puerto Rican people. This does not make them communist or even anti-American. The mass support against the Navy only shows that our sister territory has its own interests that diverge from the American national interests.
Here, in the Virgin Islands it would be treason and unpardonable blasphemy to speak of the Virgin Islands nation, national interests or nationalism.
Political leaders in other U.S. territories Guam, the Northern Marianas, Samoa and Puerto Rico use nationalist terminology as nouns, pronouns, adjectives and punctuation marks in their daily conversation. Here, we are terrified even to think about self-determination and national interests.
Collectively, we have failed our basic courses on modern democracy and political development. Thus, it really is not surprising that our political leaders always go to the negotiating table with investors or even local unions and walk away empty-handed and confused. They do not know the basics!
When we do become serious about reforming our political system, and by extension resolving our economic crisis, we are going to have to deal with these difficult issues. In politics, the need to make difficult decisions will not disappear if it is based on fundamental problems. They must be dealt with.
We need not despair, throw our hands in the air and pray for a federal takeover. What we do need is to do some soul-searching, to create internal consensus and to change the system. We must take the best of both worlds, North American and Caribbean, and turn this territory into a model of prosperity and development. (Right now, we border on the worst of both worlds).
The major problem of our political and economic crises is the human element. Lacking the political will to change our socio-economic and political problems, we do nothing. By doing nothing, we consign ourselves to remain in a disastrous state.
We must decide to be whom we want to be. We must make tough but well-thought-out decisions. We must rise to the occasion of reforms without being cowards and weak-kneed.
?Malik Sekou practices what he preaches. He's a legislative employee and a political science instructor at the University of the Virgin Islands.