“Freedom is doled out, or taken, in slices,” I wrote in “We Are Bridges,” a memoir that explores the impact of lynching on my Southern family and follows my journey to becoming a mother to a Black child in America, this land where liberty and bondage continue to clash.
After nearly two decades of writing, researching and revising, my ultimate thesis was that no one is fully free, and that we — country and individuals alike, Black, Brown, Asian and White, rich and poor and everything in between — carry the ghosts of our pasts within us, as invisible and certain as the blood running through our veins. And yet, even after coming to some semblance of acceptance, I remain obsessed with this notion of freedom. The umbilical cord should be the final “chain” to ever bind anyone — not iron links trans-Atlantic slave traders used to shackle the wrists and ankles of Africans, not the rope some White Mississippians used to swing around my great-grandfather Burt Bridges’ neck.
As a parent, journalist and teacher, I’ve maintained that it’s vital to teach our kids all of history, right alongside urging them to fully embrace the present and prepare for the future. We do that by delving into our personal and collective histories. While I haven’t yet had the privilege of stepping foot on African soil, each time I visit the Caribbean, I meditate on how it is a gateway to my ancestors’ motherland in both geographical and metaphorical ways. This summer, I visited St. Croix (the largest but less touristy of the U.S. Virgin Islands) to cover the commemoration of its 175th “Emancipation Day,” and my odyssey into the history of slavery deepened.
From 1672 to 1917, St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas were part of a Denmark colony dubbed the Danish West Indies. According to the History Channel, Denmark was among the countries — behind Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.S. — to enslave the highest number of Africans. And the site of these dreamy islands, to which we flock from around the world to soak up the sun, swim in gemstone-hued waters, savor island flavors and sip Caribbean rum-infused cocktails, is where the Danes exploited the labor and lives of enslaved Africans to produce sugar, rum and molasses for a burgeoning and demanding European market.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard students, friends, family members (and myself) say something along the lines of “I couldn’t have been a slave. I would’ve fought back.” Easy to spout off on this side of history.
But on a hot and humid day in 1848 – July 3 – fighting back is what more than 8,000 enslaved Crucians did, brandishing sugarcane knives and machetes. Organized by John Gottlieb (or “General Buddhoe”) and other leaders and activated by the blowing of conch shells, the Black islanders marched en masse to the very point of their arrival on the island, Fort Frederik. They far outnumbered Danish soldiers and plantation owners, so in a swift attempt to avert massive bloodshed, Governor-General Peter von Scholten abolished slavery immediately, 17 years before the end of our civil war and the passing of the 13th Amendment officially abolishing slavery throughout the U.S.
The U.S. purchased the islands as unincorporated territory from Denmark in 1917, and the mainland would do well to look to this “cradle” of emancipation as we approach our own 175th anniversary of emancipation (in 2040).
“Freedom Week” on the Virgin Islands kicked off just after the U.S. commemorated Juneteenth and just before Independence Day. Sandwiched between these holidays, I boarded a plane to Miami, then changed planes to fly into St. Croix, carrying with me a bag of thoughts about America’s promises of liberty and justice. Would spending time off the mainland to celebrate freedom with the Crucian people boost a sense of renewed hope? And can introducing my child to the bravery, pride and self-determination of the Crucian people, as well as the way they honor and commemorate their history, help balance his understanding of the people who endured and overcame slavery?
“People all over the world ask us what is it that makes us who we are,” said Rep. Stacey E. Plaskett, who represents the Virgin Islands and introduced legislation in Congress for the 175th commemoration. “I’m always asked where I get my confidence. It’s because I know who my ancestors are. We’re grateful that the Danish were very meticulous about making money, and so we have records that many Africans of the diaspora don’t have — church records, slave and runaway records…”
Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. urges people from all over the country to visit the islands and learn about its history. “To be a Virgin Islander is to carry within us the flame of hope and the spirit of liberation,” he said. And yet, “while we have come a long way, the emancipation of our minds, especially towards education — which is truly the enlightenment and the freedom that people of color really need — must continue. As the Supreme Court has made this announcement on [ending] affirmative action…, it’s signaling that things are equal now, but the inequality range throughout the United States, one of the most free countries in the world, is a constant reminder that there’s still so much work to do.”
Under the cover of night. In the light of day.
Entering a new territory in the black of night piques the imagination. As my plane hovered over this cluster of islands that emerged from the Atlantic Ocean some 70 to 50 million years ago, the fruit of volcanic eruptions, I wondered how indigenous people felt as they arrived on these strips of land surrounded by the turquoise jewels of the Caribbean Sea. Through some bioluminescent kayak tours, you can explore the sea and its creatures as well as the history of early indigenous people on the island.
I stayed at The Buccaneer Beach & Golf Resort, a family-owned and -operated hotel in Christiansted, where the Caribbean Sea and the golf course were visible from my hotel window and where a couple of large blue land crabs scuttled across my path in the early morning hours. A large green iguana lingered just behind some trees near the pool area, minding his business as I minded mine.
The quest for freedom is ongoing
As I made my way around St. Croix, from the arid, desert-like geography of the east end, where the town of Christiansted sits, to the lush and rain forest-like west end, where the town of Frederiksted is nestled, reminders of islanders’ resilience and fight abound — in art galleries, murals, museums, busts of freedom fighters and even a Pan-African-colored road sign — Emancipation Drive — that made me smile with delight.
Other signs are reminders of the atrocities that made the fight for emancipation necessary. For example, one hundred sugar mill ruins — great, cylindrical limestone reminders of a bygone era — still dot the island. Many of the Africans the Danes brought to the islands toiled to plant, harvest and extract a substance that was as backbreaking for them as it was lucrative for their enslavers: sugar. I climbed up a small hill to enter the hollowed-out remains of one mill. My guide, Rob DeRocker, a writer and businessman who splits his time between New York and St. Croix, pointed to an opening that looked out over the sea. “It looks like the profile of a woman’s face,” he said, and from the right angle, it does. A reminder: They were here.
Carol Burke, who can trace her ancestry on the island back seven generations, served as this year’s emancipation commemoration committee chairperson. Its theme, “Remembering Our Past, Celebrating Our Future,” she said, is a reminder that islanders “have a responsibility to build on the foundation our forebears laid.”
With this missive, on July 1 Plaskett led a townhall meeting at the University of the Virgin Islands. Comprised of panels and dramatic performances, the event drew a standing-room-only crowd, with people hungry for next steps toward deeper empowerment. Panelists talked about how, even though their ancestors won their freedom, the fight for fair treatment was long, eventually leading to another uprising, the Fireburn of 1878, followed by a labor union strike in 1916, just before the U.S. government purchased the area. Those ghosts of economic and political inequality (unincorporated territories cannot vote in presidential elections, for instance) still haunt the island today, speakers said. An echoing sentiment rang out like the call of their ancestors’ conch shells: “Freedom is a daily act” and “The revolution is incomplete.”
On that day of so much reckoning, DeRocker drove us along East End Road until we could go no farther. We got out of the car to gaze up at another collection of structures made of stone, the Millennium Monument at Point Udall. This sundial monument marks St. Croix as the easternmost point in the United States (by travel, not longitude) and the peace and panoramic sea views this location offers are a gift, an invitation to rise with the sun and start anew, no matter what happened the day — or the years — before.
Emancipation Week culminated in a burst of celebrations that began with an early freedom march in Frederiksted that followed the footsteps of those marching for their freedom 175 years ago. I didn’t make the freedom walk, but I did get to trail the parade after DeRocker dropped me off just behind two towering moko jumbies, who stopped to pose for photos and dance a minute with me.
We paraded into Buddhoe Park, named after the famous leader and situated next to Fort Frederik. Before the dignitaries took the stage, I slipped inside the brick-red masonry fort that features the year of its completion – 1760 – in big numbers as well as a broken iron chain and old canons overlooking the sea. Today, the fort houses a museum and art gallery, and as I gazed at slave artifacts, read histories and took in the bold, liberating colors of contemporary art, I attempted to hold both eras and contrasting emotions in my mind.
As the ceremony got underway, the sun rose and tempers tipped 88 degrees, but we were saved by the grace of a gentle wind and intermittent clouds. I sat right in front of the stage as dancers from the Hiplet Ballerinas and the Caribbean Dance Company performed the island’s brutal history and legendary achievements, sweat anointing their lithe bodies, strength pulsing from their muscles, power emanating from their fierce, then joyous expressions.
At the luncheon that followed, students played steel drums and the rest of us waited in a long line as chefs prepared us plates of Crucian food — rice and beans, sweet potato dressing, conch, Johnnie cakes, crab rice, seafood kallaloo, a guava gel with cream. I washed it all down with tamarind juice just as a soft rain began to fall.
“Let freedom ring”
On the night of July 4th, my plane descended on Los Angeles as fireworks set the entire Southland ablaze. I watched first from my plane window, then from my husband’s passenger seat, a new calm in my belly. The Virgin Islanders, despite their demands for more equality, had weaved anthems, flags and even clothing representing the U.S. mainland, Africa, Denmark, Black America and the Virgin Islands, and this ability to seamlessly entwine these different aspects of their history while proudly showcasing their unique identity is inspiring.
“I know that throughout chattel slavery, one of the ways to break people was to break their history,” Plaskett told me after the Emancipation Day ceremony. “And throughout the United States in particular, we saw the fracturing of families, children being separated from their parents, and so they were unable to keep their history. But I’m hopeful that all of us will know what our past stories are. There’s healing with that.
“You know, when people come to the Virgin Islands, I always say that there are some people that the ancestors don’t like to leave alone.”
Cassandra Lane is a mom, Editor-in-Chief of L.A. Parent and author of “We Are Bridges: A Memoir.”