Thursday, March 27, 2014

American Culture Program studies in the Caribbean, delivers digitized historical documents

Students in Randolph College’s American Culture Program are spending the next several days in the U.S. Virgin Islands learning more about life in the Caribbean and how it relates to American immigration and identity.

While they are there, the students will deliver copies of historical archives that are currently unavailable on the islands.

Each year, the American Culture Program focuses on an aspect of American life and history. Lori Lee, the Ainsworth Visiting Professor of American Culture, proposed a look at the Caribbean, and particularly the U.S. Virgin Islands, as a way to explore issues of American identity. “I thought it would be great to look at that by learning about a place that has become American,” she said.

By studying American involvement in the Caribbean, the students are learning about migration, imperialism, environmental impacts, tourism, economic development, and the way that cultural identity is formed.

In February, the group traveled to the Washington, D.C., area to work on a project that seeks to give residents of the Virgin Islands access to historical documents that are currently only available in federal archives. They copied passport applications that island residents completed in the early years after the islands became U.S. territory.

For several years, Lee has participated in this project that delivers copies of passport applications to the Virgin Islands on Transfer Day—marking March 31, the day that the U.S. purchased the islands.

Randolph students work with passport documents in the National Archives.
Although “migration has been central to Caribbean life for centuries,” the requirement to have a passport to move to the mainland U.S. created a valuable historic archive, Lee said. “These are two-page documents that record who people are, where they’re going, what their jobs are. For a lot of people, this was their first time being photographed.”

Alex Fella ’15 enjoyed working with the passport applications, but he is especially looking forward to delivering them for Transfer Day because he knows how significant the documents will be for people who live there. “They will be able to see these family ties—they can see pictures from their ancestors who have emigrated from the islands,” he said.

The group also met with representatives from the Organization of American States and the Council for Puerto Rico Statehood. Then, they had lunch at a Caribbean restaurant and met its owner, a Jamaican immigrant. “We wanted to get a more personal understanding of what it is like to live in the Caribbean, leave, and become a pretty successful business owner,” Fella said.

In 2011, another group of Randolph students went to
the U.S. Virgin Islands to study water quality there.
Abigail Smith ’15, who is from Jamaica, was intrigued by the way the restaurant adapted recipes, and even omitted some Caribbean favorites. The restaurant owner explained the importance of being flexible as cultures integrate.

Smith signed up for the American Culture Program because she wanted to get an American perspective of the Caribbean to compare with the perspective she developed while growing up in a British territory. By learning more about the history and cultures of the Caribbean, she has developed ideas that she hopes to apply as an ambassador between Caribbean islands someday.

“We’ve had a history of dependency on first world countries. There have not been as great efforts to reach inside and partner with different islands. We see more differences than similarities,” she said. “But we really are so similar. If we regionalize the area, that’s one of the ways we can become more developed.”