“[The Virgin Islands], in brief, has not been an isolated and inward-turned community slowly and imperceptibly building up a powerful sense of meaningful communality on the twin pillars of stability and continuity, but rather an outward-confronting, tropical state of nature successively shaken by the rude, elemental force of invading immigrant peoples bound together, at best, by fragile and tenuous relationships.”
– Gordon K. Lewis, The Virgin Islands: A Caribbean Lilliput, (1972).
The problem of colonial education is a well-worn issue in Caribbean social criticism. Every major Caribbean thinker has had something to say about pedagogy. Frantz Fanon’s exasperation is memorable when he noted that school children in his native Martinique were learning their history from books that began with the words, “Our ancestors the Gauls…”, the problem being that the majority of “ancestors” to Martinican people were not Gauls at all.
And it is not just education in the Caribbean that may have damaging effects on local students. It is also the education that Caribbean people receive abroad. One of my favorite passages from George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile argues that British Caribbeans should not attend University in England:
“…Not because England is a bad place for studying, but because the students whole development as a person is thwarted by the memory, the accumulated stuff of childhood and adolescence which has been maintained and fertilized by England’s historic ties with the West Indies. It would have been better, perhaps, if he had gone to study in France or Germany, to mention countries with a different language; any place where his adjustments would have to take the form of understanding the inhabitants from scratch.”
I can’t help but think of this when I see school children walking around my home island of St. John carrying worn and outdated copies of textbooks entitled These United States. I couldn’t help but be reminded of it last year when I substituted for an elementary school class and was left a lesson plan to teach the students that autumn arrives with the changing of the leaves. This is I think what Édouard Glissant means when he refers to societies that “little by little get lost in the unreal, and so irresponsible, use of language.”
Addressing these issues requires consensus, and that is something that Caribbean societies — including my own — are not known for. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, where immigration has been emphatic and forceful, the present can seem under-determined. In America’s Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs, historian William Boyer writes:
“No other locale in the Caribbean […] or elsewhere in the world for that matter – had undergone such radical and rapid ethnic and economic change in the 1960′s than that experienced by America’s Virgin Islands.”‘
If our present isn’t neat, pure, or singular, the urge is to go looking for those qualities in the past. But since the past is often just a projection of our current anxieties and desires, our dilemma is never resolved. Yes, the pluralism that is often said to be an admirable quality of Caribbean islands is a gift; but it can also be experienced as a lack when we are feeling frustrated and cynical.
During the “development decade”, the era beginning in the early 1960s, the modern USVI economy was born, and along with it the demand for labor that would be met primarily by men and women from other Caribbean Islands. Thanks to the booming economy, more people from the mainland United States also chose to make the Virgin Islands their home during this period. Suddenly three major contradictory narratives existed side by side each other in the territory. Some Virgin Islanders had become Americans by the purchase of their home. Some had become Americans by choice, seeking economic opportunity in the USVI. And for some, habitation in the Virgin Islands was a half-hearted escape from America without the disruptions of a forfeited citizenship. These narratives — each saying something about our relationship to the United States — do not seem to be reconcilable
Those of us who grew up in the Virgin Islands from the 1960s onward are the heirs to the aspirations and degradations of the development decade, its successes and its failures. So why is this recent past so often invisible to us? The fluctuating world in which we were born has the illusion of permanence. But the development decade was nothing if not an abrupt rift in the past separating forever two eras, the time before and the time after.
Within the shifting realities of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the youth are the wildcard. Their memories are still fresh and untainted by nostalgia. They have no world but the one that is in the process of being born. How can educators in the Virgin Islands, responsible for helping the young develop, understand the nuances of the new world that their students belong to?
In 1983, Commissioner of Education and future Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands Dr. Charles W. Turnbull contributed an article to Volume I, No. 8 of VI Education Review, entitled “Migration and Educational Disequilibrium.” In it he charts the challenges faced by the Virgin Islands education system in the wake of the development decade. He puts some things in clear perspective. Here are the astonishing numbers:
“In the period 1960 – 1975 the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands almost tripled, increasing by 188 percent [!!!]. The fastest growing state in the United States in the same period was Nevada whose population increased by 103 percent. It should be noted that the change in population per square mile on St. Thomas increased from 506 in 1960 to 1,372 in 1975. This placed St. Thomas second only to Barbados in the Caribbean and higher by far than any state in the Union.”
The children of non-citizen residents were at first excluded from the USVI public school system on the basis that the schools were already overburdened, but when the courts ruled that all children be given access to public education, the Virgin Islands public school district became one of the largest under the U.S. flag (188th out of 11,000 districts by the late 1970s). Dr. Turnbull notes that public school enrollment in the USVI in 1968 was 11,497 students. By 1981 it was 25,585 students.
And the educators? Many teachers, too, during this period were recent arrivals to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Turnbull writes:
“Particularly challenging and critical was the dilemma of the many non-Virgin Islands and non-West Indian teachers, most from the continental United States…who faced the awesome task of assimilating the immigrant child into a new and different school system. Very little in their background and training had prepared them for this. Not to be forgotten was the fact that the continental teachers faced assimilation problems themselves in some ways, not unlike the very immigrant children they were recruited to serve.”
I think this is Turnbull’s very polite way of saying that many well-intentioned people may have in fact only added to the confusion of young Virgin Islanders of the late-20th century.
Such an enormous increase in enrollment would naturally put strains on any school system, but this was an influx of students into schools which already, according to Dr. Turnbull’s article, “routinely held thirty, forty, and even fifty children per class.” Virgin Islanders made great sacrifices in this era, but sometimes the challenges were daunting enough to create strains within the community, or as Turnbull writes of the conflict over limited public education resources:
“Manifestations of this conflict were vividly evident at P.T.A meetings, school registrations and on radio talk shows. This had the effect of straining the chords of unity and tolerance in the multiracial, multicultural Virgin Islands.”
This sort of conflict, born of mass-immigration, is not at all unique to the USVI. The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote of the hypocrisies of our age that, “We celebrate the so-called globalization process because it facilitates the movement of goods, services, and securities around the world in a truly extraordinary manner. Things are free to circulate. But workers, human beings, are not.”
The equation, everywhere in the world, even in very generous communities (which I believe the U.S. Virgin Islands to be), is that an overcrowding of the commons creates conflict. This is only interesting insofar as these conflicts shape societies, and that they also can produce the conditions for healing.
More than these conflicts, I am interested in the idea of education itself, and what it means to a culturally-diverse community. Do educators have some obligation to put us all on the same page? What about the erasure of difference that this entails? I think this is where the idiosyncratic USVI dynamic I have just described may resonate beyond our shores. What path should schools take when faced with an influx of students (and teachers!) labeled by society as “alien” or foreign? Isn’t the language surrounding assimilation a bit frightening? But at the same time, raising a generation of outsiders also seems problematic. Today all teachers in the USVI are required to take a course in local history, but is that enough? Dr. Turnbull makes his opinion on the role of education clear at the end of the article when he writes:
“..as a result of institutional stress, the role of the school as transmitter of traditional social values became blurred and defused.”
I did not attend public school in the USVI. Others must speak to that experience. I was a student at private schools on both St. John and St. Thomas, and as a result of this, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of teachers I had who even identified as Virgin Islanders. Many would say this shouldn’t matter. In part, I agree. All human hearts have the same capacity for understanding others. Falling into a myopic nationalism is useless, even when we are faced with confusing times.
But there is another side to this story as well. What do private school students in the U.S. Virgin Islands lose by being educated in what are essentially mainland-oriented institutions? Does it matter that many of these students come from families who have arrived in the Virgin Islands relatively recently? If they choose to integrate into the mosaic that is the Caribbean – their home – they will not learn how to do so at school.
Following this line of thought can lead to distressing comparisons to an era in the Caribbean that we like to believe is over. There is a long tradition in the region of education serving the sinister – at least, to local people – purpose of creating good British, French, Spanish, Danish and Dutch citizens.
Shouldn’t local knowledge be given precedence in our schools over classes in U.S. Civics and U.S. History? Shouldn’t all children raised in the USVI be given the knowledge to place themselves in the context of their society, and indeed, the broader world? A very wise man once said that “national consciousness, which is not the same as nationalism, is the only thing that can give us an international dimension.”
One of the legacies of the USVI’s development decade is an education system that has frequently given young Virgin Islanders a conflicted sense of national consciousness. As for those educators who do their best to instill in their students the sort of generous global sensibility that can only come from a strong pride in place, I can only hope they know what a difference they make.
From 2009 until 2011, I worked as a custom art framer in Portland, Maine. I never imagined that during this time in New England I would frame so many photos of the Caribbean. During long winters, pictures of the tropics were often dropped off at my workshop, and the idealized images of palm-lined beaches made me homesick for the Virgin Islands, even if their airbrushed vision of the Antilles was far from my own.
Images are powerful. Even something as superficial as tourist art can be relentless when it presents itself as truth. The landscapes found on posters and in glossy photographs felt bludgeoning to me during those years; sometimes they even threatened to become more real than my memories. Everyone has a home. And whether we like it or not, the images of our homes that confront us shape our identity.
For Mainers, it must be the paintings of Andrew Wyeth that seem inescapable. During my time working in Portland, I framed hundreds of his prints. Wyeth, the second generation of a dynasty of American artists, spent his summers in Maine, and his work has become strongly attached to the state. His most famous painting, “Christina’s World”, is a symbol of New England to many people around the globe. Despite being made into an icon, the painting can still seem eerie. Is the subject a young girl daydreaming in the fields of her family farm? No, the woman is Christina Olson, crippled by polio, the isolated heir of a family of puritanical North Atlantic sailors, dragging herself back home after visiting her family cemetery plot. I stood in that same cemetery plot in Cushing, Maine in 2009. There was a fresh burial, a mound of dirt marked by a single yellow daffodil. I knew, although the headstone had not yet been placed, that the grave was Andrew Wyeth’s.
- “Christina’s World”, 1948. (Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art)
In the context of contemporary art, Andrew Wyeth can seem like the defender of an unfashionable realism. A painter of solemn rural scenes, Wyeth’s apparent nationalist streak has made his work sit uncomfortably with those critics who are curious about his ideological judgements. When art historian Robert Rosenblum was asked in 1977 to name the most underrated and overrated artists of the 20th-century, he mentioned only Andrew Wyeth.
What Rosenblum meant by this is that Wyeth is popularly overrated — by the kind of people who trained art historians probably believe don’t “understand” art — and critically underrated, maybe for the same reason. Wyeth’s designation in the United States, “The People’s Painter”, was always an insult in avant-garde circles, meant to categorize Wyeth as a reactionary painter and a defender of mainstream Anglo-American values.
But what exactly are the politics of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings? His aristocratic bearing, his attachment to realism, and his disdain for most of the bohemian art of his era say enough about his cultural conservatism. But I doubt that Wyeth is described accurately as a defender of mainstream Anglo-American values. As far as I can see his values are the values of an outsider.
Wyeth’s vision of a desolate and decrepit America is not the vision of a man at ease. His biographers often emphasize the frail health and isolation of his childhood. Andrew was frequently ill and home-schooled, not allowed much contact with people outside the family compound. His father, the famous (and famously intense) illustrator N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher. The Wyeths were an old New England family (the first Wyeth to arrive in the United States was Nicholas Wyeth, who settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1645), but more recent immigrants had also influenced Andrew’s branch of the Wyeth clan. His father, in his twenties, wrote about this lineage:
“My grandmother was born in the mountains of Switzerland. When twenty-three years of age she tore herself away from all her people and the quiet romantic little dairy home to follow my grandfather to America. Dropped into the heart of Cambridge, Mass., among strange people, unable even to speak a word of their tongue, she lived for three years. Then it was, in 1867, that my grandfather purchased a lonesome bit of land in the outskirts of Needham and on the Charles River, and here my dear old grandmother almost pined her heart away for her home and people in the Swiss mountains…. [this nostalgia] has always impressed me profoundly, and I in turn have inherited that strange love for things remote, things delicately perfumed with that sadness that is so exquisitely beautiful.”
N.C.’s nostalgia isn’t surprising when taken alongside his work; melancholy currents run deep through his famous “blood and thunder” illustrations.
What’s more interesting than his sentimentality is that he finds the source of his own pathos in the inherited dispossession of a “self-exiled” ancestor. Maybe it is partly this dispossession, passed down another generation, that gives his son Andrew, whose best-known portraits are of loners and exiles, his outsider’s edge.
Andrew’s America is an austere, wintry world populated with people whose surnames are not exactly associated with the Anglo-Yankeedom that has sometimes championed his work. The Olsons, Kuerners, and Testorfs who wander Wyeth’s bleak countryside are strangers. “I pick out models who are misfits. And I’m a misfit,” he said.
Aside from the warmth and identification with which he portrayed a few of his “misfit” models, Wyeth is best known for coldness and alienation. In 1945, Andrew’s father, N.C., was killed when his car stalled at a railroad crossing, an event that was the catalyst for Andrew’s maturation as an artist and his subsequent obsession with death and loss. Every landscape that Wyeth painted after that year was, by his own admission, a portrait of his father – severe, imposing, and possessing the qualities of an eroding memory.
It’s bizarre that Andrew Wyeth, an artist of obvious eccentricity and some might say opacity, became so beloved in the United States as a national painter. To this day, his vision of New England, so clearly his own harrowing psychological landscape, is often read as conventional American realism by those who hang his prints above their fireplaces. Frank Fowler, a dealer of Andrew Wyeth’s work, is on to something when he argues that Wyeth is, despite his ties to the realist tradition, better thought of as an abstractionist since:
“…his trees, birds, and kitchen stoves, which look precisely like trees, birds, and kitchen stoves are likely to be metaphors for loneliness, violence or decay.”
Is there anything more death-haunted and despairing in 20th-century American art than the solitary cresting wave in “Adrift”? Or the long shadows in “Young Bull”?
If Wyeth’s paintings are deceptively quiet, it is only to make the violence they conceal more unnerving. Karl Keurner, one of the his frequent models, was a former German soldier during World War I, and a neighbor of the Wyeths in Pennsylvania. Andrew spent years painting the Keurner farm, which he once noted in an interview did not interest him in any picturesque way. Instead, he was impressed by the place abstractly and emotionally, noting its utilitarian, nearly militaristic nature. He once said of Karl Keurner that “[his eyes] have looked down a machine-gun barrel, squinted great distances… those are my father’s lips – cruel.” Rarely does Keurner appear in Wyeth’s world without also the suggestion of violence, as in the painting entitled “Karl” with its meat hooks and cracking ceiling.
Even the serenity of “Groundhog Day”, otherwise be a tranquil rendering of Karl’s kitchen, is interrupted by the menace of jagged saw cuts in the logs outside Keurner’s window.
As for Maine, Wyeth was not a native of that state, but in many ways it has adopted him, and his choice of a final resting place suggests that he found this fitting. His paintings have become a part of Maine’s mythology.
An insular state that depends heavily on tourism for its revenue, Maine is another place where images threaten to become more real than reality. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that the state’s most familiar aesthetic was born in the tortured, anti-modern imagination of Andrew Wyeth. I wonder, at least, how native Mainers experience this. What is their truth?
Wyeth described Maine as “spidery, light in color, windy perhaps, sometimes foggy, giving the impression sometimes of crackling skeletons rattling in the attic.” It’s a romantic description, and with the same Gothic sentimentality found in his father’s illustrations. But maybe every place deserves its romance as long as it doesn’t thrash the inner-landscapes of those who live there. I admit that, years from now, when I think of my time in Maine, I will partly think of Andrew Wyeth and his battered vision of New England: a place forceful enough to be bruising, yet brittle enough to appear fragile.
“Whatever the opposite of native or rooted, that was what we felt ourselves to be. We thought of ourselves as sojourners, temporary residents, and to that extent without a home, without a homeland.”
– J.M. Coetzee, Summertime
J.M. Coetzee’s early novels place him squarely in the tradition of “white settler moralists” — those writers who turn against their own imperial histories with a special sort of clear-sighted anger. There’s no shame in being a bastard, Coetzee wrote in his first novel, Dusklands, except that for the illegitimate children of Western Europe — Afrikaners, Pied Noirs, Anglo-Indians — there’s plenty of shame to go around. And Coetzee has spent his career trying to find a moral use for his.
Coetzee’s situation isn’t unique. Even the banal dispossessions of colonies produce sensitive types who evolve, with any luck, from solitary provincial youth into worldly writers. But how does one deal with historical disgrace, guilt, and the paralyzing demands of the present without settling into a refusal to see. “What historical role is available to a writer born into a late colonial community?” Coetzee asks in a 2003 review of one of Nadine Gordimer’s later novels. It’s a good question.
One option is to take a cue from the most famous of the “white settler moralists”, Albert Camus, and follow a route of unwavering political commitment. The obstacles along this path are formidable, but no one admires moralists whose choices are easy. Gordimer herself has chosen this route; “Camus was a strong influence,” she says. But it might be the case that the era of Camus is over for good; earnestness and transparency don’t quite fly in our cynical, confused era. Camus’s anachronism comes in the form of his armor of French humanism — Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — the sort of humanism that provides confidence and cultural connection, apparently even to poor boys born in Mondovi. Coetzee’s humanism, on the other hand, is a patchy kind of armor – the remains of a discredited individualism left to crack in the dry South African Veldt.
Coetzee is a lousy activist, and this makes him more interesting than most moralists. In a review of Coetzee’s 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K Gordimer wrote of the book’s “revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions” and concluded that the author wouldn’t deny that the revulsion was his own. That’s true. He wouldn’t. Coetzee has described himself as “alienated, when the crunch comes, by [radical] language – by all political language, in fact.”
What this sort of anti-politics often means is a cowardly crypto-conservatism, and some critics have accused Coetzee of this. I disagree. While It’s hard to imagine the famously aloof Coetzee ever writing anything as open and searching about his country as Camus did in The Algerian Chronicles, his disgust with power and hierarchy in his nation is the engine of his writing. Sometimes the only reaction to an oppressive society is to withdraw from it in the hopes of escaping its poisonous influences: “The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and open revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration,” Coetzee writes in Diary of a Bad Year. He does not imply it is the morally superior way, but I strongly suspect that he feels it is the way he has preserved his dignity.
A belief in individual dignity won’t take you far as an activist but it helps when confronted with the totalitarian trapdoors of collective identity. Can a person be “morally steadfast in a bad situation” and at the same time withdraw from social commitment to focus on nurturing and healing the self? Even Camus was forced to concede, during the period he remained silent on his own troubled and beloved Algeria, that sometimes “too much is expected of a writer in these matters.”