Visitors, residents and students from across St. Thomas and St. John soaked up local culture and learned about the life of Virgin Islands native Edward Wilmot Blyden during the 17th Annual Folk Life Festival on Thursday and Friday afternoons, February 21 and 22, and Saturday evening, February 23, at the Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins.
Organized by V.I. National Park ranger Denise Georges, the festival’s theme this year was “Celebrating Our Ancestors.”
Perfectly in keeping with that focus, one of Philadelphia’s longest running dance troupes, Kulu Mele, enthralled students and residents alike with traditional African dancing and drumming.
But before the dancing started, students heard from several academics regarding the regional and global importance of the father of Pan Africanism, Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Professor Robert Nichols discussed the ritual of libation and the similarities between West Africa and the Virgin Islands.
“We make libation to recognize our ancestors and to ask them to join us in celebration,” said Nichols. “I spent seven years in Nigeria and 10 years here and I am amazed by all the similarities in culture.”
University of the Virgin Islands professor Tregenza Roach discussed Blyden’s contributions to people of African decent around the world and the influence he had on Pan Africanism at large.
“Some names you might be more familiar with are Bob Marley or Marcus Garvey,” said Roach. “They came after Blyden. It was Blyden who was talking about a Pan African identity, about a common history among African descendants wherever we are.”
Roach also reminded participants of the true meaning of the festival.
“Never miss an opportunity to understand the greater lessons that go towards our identity as a people,” said Roach.
“We all have the ability within us to to maintain our own identity and culture.”
Morgan State University History and Philosophy Professor Homer Fleetwood put Blyden’s accomplishments in an even larger context.
“Blyden represents the story of African people everywhere, not merely here in the Virgin Islands, but around the world,” said Fleetwood. “Edward Wilmot Blyden educated Marcus Garvey and convinced him to return to Africa and build schools and promote education. Blyden actually went and started schools in Liberia and Sierra Leone himself.”
“It was Blyden, a native son of St. Thomas, who first came up with the idea we now know as Pan Africanism,” Fleetwood continued. “Blyden inspired many people in the entire African world and he came from right here.”
Smalls and the Music Makers kept the crowd entertained throughout the afternoon with their scratch band tunes and emcee extraordinaire Irvin “Brownie” Brown made sure the program ran smoothly.
A number of traditional crafts people and cooks displayed their wares and offered local delicacies like saltfish pate and johnny cake cooked in coal pots.
Gwendolyn Harley showed off her mango seed dolls as well as her popular traditional Queble dancer dolls. Net maker Mario Benjamin led a younger generation of Virgin Islanders in the traditional fishing craft of seine weaving.
Justin Todman led demonstrations of traditional broom making from feathers, cane and yarn. Elmo Rabsatt displayed beekeeping equipment and Yolanda Morten offered a wide selection of traditional arts and crafts.
With students milling around the ruins, a steady breeze blowing in off the Sir Francis Drake Passage and the Annaberg windmill towering over the grounds, the 17th Annual Folk Life Festival was enjoyed by all.