Symposium Explores True Meaning of ‘African Descent’

It wasn’t your regular Sunday afternoon on UVI’s St. Thomas campus as local panelists explored the importance of the territory’s African heritage and its role in the future of V.I. education.

The energetic discussion filling the ACC building was part of a symposium to help launch the International Year for People of African Descent (IYPAD), a United Nations’ initiative to promote a greater knowledge and respect for the rich African heritage and culture found across the globe.

“We need to really recognize ourselves as a great people, and we need to let the younger generation know that,” said organizer Ludlow Bailey, who spearheaded the St. Thomas community’s adoption of the initiative.

In March 2010 Bailey embarked on school-to-school campaigns, contacted possible panelists for a major symposium, and organized a series of events designed to promote African awareness in the territory.

Reiterating Bailey’s point was the Family Resource Center’s Celia Victor, who emphasized the need for cultural literacy.

“That’s what’s important about this event,” she said. “It aims to teach the Caribbean youth to understand the importance of knowing what makes us African descendants, what our culture is, and what ‘African’ means to us.”

Sunday’s symposium consisted chiefly of a panel presentation, which included a historical overview of Africans in St. Thomas, led by local historian Whitmore Browne, as well as a discussion of their current state of affairs, led by Ayishih Bellew and Dara Monifah Cooper.

Punctuated by questions from the audience, which Bailey moderated, the dialogue frequently veered toward V.I. education.

“We may teach language arts or mathematics, but we ultimately teach children who they are,” said panelist Thelca Bedminster, principal of Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. “There is a need for a more Afro-centric and more Caribbean-centric curriculum so that the children understand this.”

Maanazo Lamakalo, program manager of the Division of Culture and Education at the V.I. Department of Education, agreed.

“We need a total redefinition in the Virgin Islands about what education is,” said Lamakalo. “It is not an issue of learning to count, but of what you are counting; and it’s only in knowing who you are that you can know that.”

While the symposium and its related events were inspired by the U.N. declaration, community organizers emphasized that local efforts toward African awareness are not new in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“There are organizations that have been doing this before I was born,” said panelist Darah Monifah Cooper, who also teaches African drumming at Gladys A. Abraham Elementary.

“What this year probably does is it legitimizes our effort for those who do not want to support it because they think it’s just local,” said Cooper.

Other symposium panelists included Tregenza Roach and Lonnie Hudspeth, who spoke on spirituality; Dr. Fletcher Robinson, who addressed health issues, and V.I. cultural expert Mabel Maduro. Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone and Janette Millin-Young were also present to answer questions on agriculture and education, respectively.

Other IYPAD St. Thomas events include an appearance on WTJX’s “Face to Face” on June 15 and the Emancipation Day celebration on July 3.

For more information about IYPAD St. Thomas, visit their website.

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