A presentation on cultural perspectives in history turned into a lively discussion about the importance of teaching local youths the history of the Virgin Islands, at a Tuesday evening, November 14, St. John Historical Society meeting featuring by Basil Ottley Jr.
Ottley, who one week earlier had been elected a St. Thomas-St. John District senator, was joined at the meeting by his mother, who recalled a three-year-old Ottley complaining, “ma, the government doesn’t do anything for the people.”
Ottley spoke to the group at its first meeting of the season at the Bethany Moravian Church about the importance of preserving history.
“If we think of ourselves as a society, what do we want at the end of our time for future generations to record?” said Ottley.
History is relative to a community’s strength, Ottley explained.
Creating History Today
“Nothing empowers a community to move forward if they don’t have history to remind them, ‘you are better than this; you can achieve because you’ve done it before,’” he said.
It is important for people to remember that they are creating history, according to Ottley.
“It is our responsibility to create a story that provides inspiration; that breath of poetry that future generations may need,” he said. “Our society must find our purpose based on what we want future generations to learn from us.”
Architecture is a testament to history and how people lived during different eras, according to Ottley.
“Our story is told in the new buildings we erect,” he said. “This church tells the story of great craftsmanship. You can feel the spirit in it.”
Ottley shared his three-stage process to commemorating history with the group.
The first stage is recognition, or identification, he explained.
“What is worth preserving?” said Ottley. “What is worth raising up and saying, ‘this represents me?’”
The next stage is the act of preservation, or restoration.
“How do we preserve this so it can be found by future generations?” said Ottley. “Most importantly, who will tell the story? Don’t we want unbiased, objective academic perspectives?”
The final step is actualization or implementation.
“How do we bring these things into our everyday life?” said Ottley.
What some people may see today as traditions are sometimes traditions that have evolved from their original purpose — including the barrage of information voters receive on political candidates as they enter the polls.
“As a little boy, I had to go to the polls with my father,” said Ottley. “He would have a list of everyone registered in the district, and would check off their names as they walked in. People were sent to get those who didn’t show up from their jobs, homes, wherever.”
As this tradition evolved into what exists today, it lost its meaning, according to Ottley.
“The value of that process, the essence of why it was done, has been lost in this current history,” he said. “The process of electioneering is now a joke. You can have the most money, or the best strategy, but if your supporters don’t come out to vote, you have lost.”
The most powerful way to keep history alive, and to teach the roots of certain traditions is through the curriculum taught in schools, Ottley explained.
“Poetry” of History
“Perhaps the most powerful thing is the design of the curriculum presented to our children — not memorizing dates and places, but touching that poetry that lifts people up,” he said. “It forces us beyond the petty things that separate us. It is the thing we look to to get us beyond our prejudices, our fears and our biases.”
This aspect of history teaches people how to react in certain situations, Ottley explained.
“The Liberty Bell, ‘give me liberty or give me death’ — that’s the poetry,” he said. “It comes into play during wars and natural disasters. People rise up because that is what history says that we do.”
Students in the territory would be better off with a history curriculum that is more catered to them, according to Ottley.
“Curriculum must meet people where they are, and reflect what they are going through,” Ottley said.