Friday, July 26, 2013

Interview: Gerard Emanuel, retired history teacher, former resident of Free Gut

I have known Gerard Emanuel for over twenty years when I first met him in 1990 when I worked with him on the US Census. I was 16 and worked as an enumerator. It was my first job ever! I had to beg my parents to do it as they thought that having a job and earning money would have made me think I was "grown". It was an amazing experience to have at that age, to walk into people's homes and ask them such personal questions about family, work and ethnicity. I remember that experience fondly and as I write this, I realize that I am doing that same job again, just in a different way, on a different scale, using a different medium.

Gerard Emanuel on Market and East St. Christiansted, reminiscing about his boyhood in town.

Gerard is a retired history teacher and a social sciences professor who has long ties to St. Croix, but especially Christiansted. Like many of the people I interviewed he talks about walking the town and in his case carrying messages for his mother. Reminding us once again of a time without cell phones, without landlines, a time where face-to-face interactions were the basis of communication. A time where like today, when you passed someone on the street you greeted them, "Good morning" or "Good Afternoon", and stopped briefly to exchange pleasantries and inquire about the well-being of mothers, grandmothers or children.
Gerard's family member's house on East St.
We also talked about the "untidiness" of slavery and its legacy, how race dynamics were not as neat and clear-cut as some might want to envision. Freed Blacks might have owned slaves. Whites masters might have fallen in love with their slaves. Freed Colored women might have used their sexuality to advance their position in society. And White Danes might have also exploited them. There were so many unanswered questions: What was the relationship between the Free Black community and the still enslaved community? Did the Free community see themselves as advocates for the enslaved or did they only seek out to create a way for themselves to have more rights and be more equal to Whites. Who is this figure of the "Housekeeper"? Was this simply a legal term to try to legitimize a romantic relationship with Black and Colored women? Were these women exploited or did they actively seek out these relationships with Danish men?  How did the enslaved see the Freed Blacks? Did they aspire to be like them? Or did they see marroonage as a more desirable option considering the restrictions that Freed Blacks were also placed under? Many parts of this interview were less "interview" and more conversation, wonderings, as even my cameraman Tristan Jones jumped in with his own ideas.

Gerard also relayed some fascinating interpretations of how he felt culture operated as a form of social control. He commented on how jumbie stories worked as ways to keep children off of the streets, how discipline was often accompanied with proverbs that were not explained, but that you had to figure out the meaning to and how even the architecture of the buildings, like the jalousie windows, allowed one to observe the street and its "goingon" without the person on the street knowing they were being watched.
Jalousie window on home on East St, Christiansted

We also talked about the tension between celebrating and preserving a historic town, but still allowing for each generation to make its mark. He questioned the validity in wanting our town to only look the way it did in the 1800's especially considering that it represents a time where so many of the people were living under duress. He yearns for this generation to be also given the opportunity to use their imagination in fashioning our town. I hope that this work can open or inspire a path to making this happen, even if what this generation imagines is preservation.

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