Obama Victory Strikes Home in the Caribbean
St. Thomas, USVI–The woman’s wail cut through the walls of my room. It was after midnight on election day and I’d returned to my hotel room after leaving an election party at a bar down by the beach. Tired of waiting for the moment of triumph amidst an increasingly boisterous crowd, I’d opted to savour the impending Obama victory announcement alone.
The hum of the air conditioner and the drone of the talking heads on CNN lulled me to sleep in a matter of seconds. The next thing I knew, my cell phone was ringing, and I was hearing the news from friends who couldn’t believe that I’d slept through it. Obama had been declared victor; Virginia had come over to the blue side of the equation; the talking heads were obviously agitated as the trickle of results turned into a torrent.
That’s when I heard the wail, coming from the parking lot outside. I hurried to the door and opened it cautiously, not knowing what to expect. I could see a crumpled figure below on the steps, rocking back and forth. She rose as she heard my door close and faced me, tears staining her weathered West Indian face. “Are you…okay?” , I asked.
“Oh, honey”, she said, “I’ve never been better.”
A smile broke out across her face as she said. “You don’t understand! I’ve never been on the winning side of anything in my life, and tonight it all just…changed“.
A car pulled into the lot and she ran to greet it, breaking down again as she opened the door. “Yes we can …Yes we did” she called out, closing the door behind her.
I walked back up the stairs slowly and choked up as I reflected upon the moment. Thousands of Africans passed through what we now call “America’s Paradise” on their way to slavery on the mainland. Those slaves who stayed on in what was then called the Danish West Indies were simply abandoned and left to starve as the sugarcane economy collapsed in the mid-nineteenth century. The acquisition of the islands by the U.S. during the first world war lead to the Virgin Island’s current territorial status. Nearly a hundred years of colonial status are reflected in the crumbling infrastructure and helter skelter development. Residents, unable to vote in mainland elections, voted overwhelmingly to support Barack Obama at the Democratic convention.
Earlier this year, candidate Obama visited St. Thomas, stopping by once to connect with local leaders and quietly returning later on for a few days of vacation. My island friends tempered their excitement about these visits, warning that a black man as President probably wasn’t in the cards. They’d been let down too many times to get excited about the candidacy of a brash young lawyer from Chicago. And besides, they often cautioned, if he went too far it was likely he’d be assassinated for trying.
In the months since the primary, I’d returned to the mainland after nearly a decade on St. Thomas. The prospect of voting in a presidential election was alluring; the prospect of voting for Barack Obama was undeniable. Now, I’d returned to the islands (I voted early!) on a business trip and happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness hope triumphing over despair.
Today, I heard many more voices, all reflecting upon the same theme. Things aren’t likely to change anytime soon for Virgin Islanders. The downturn in the economy has already had a devastating impact on the local economy, which is largely tourism based. But, somehow, life is better today than it was yesterday.