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On Island Profile: Myron Jackson

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Feb. 24, 2008 — In his characteristic crisp white guayabera shirt, glasses perched on forehead, Myron Jackson is perfectly at home in what used to be the dining room of the old Alton Adams home in the upstreet neighborhood.
The building houses the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute, the agency Jackson now heads, continuing a more than 28-year career touching almost every aspect of cultural history in the Virgin Islands.
"It's full circle," he smiles. "This is where I was raised."
Jackson probably has more Virgin Islands history in his little finger than most folks acquire in a lifetime. It's his passion.
He gets up to talk about the large and unusually beautiful egg — shaped table where we sit. "It has a story," he says. Jackson's eyes instinctively isolate the stories in the territory's culture, be it furniture, music, architecture, art, a sidewalk, a neglected building, nothing seems to escape his notice. It all sings to him, stories to explore.
"This is Crucian mahogany," he says, gently running his hand over the woodwork. "Avelino Samuel made this," Jackson says, referring to the St. John master craftsman. "The wood was brought from St. Croix to St. Thomas, then it was shipped to St. John, then back to St. Thomas," he says.
Charting when his active interest in the island's history began, he says, "I'd always had an interest in preservation, but my advocacy started at Charlotte Amalie High School.
"A group of us decided to protest the cementing over of the old sidewalk in front of the Moravian Church. We actually picketed, and our art teacher, Edith Woods, helped us," he says. "It actually got mentioned in Congress by Delegate Ron de Lugo."
Jackson glances out the window. "We lived right nearby," he says. "I was always in and out of the Adams home; our families were connected. Everyone knew everyone in those days," he says.
"My father had Jackson's Gas Station down the hill," he says. The station holds tragic memories. Jackson's father was killed in February 1982 outside the station as he was closing one night. "It's still unsolved," he says.
This happened after Jackson had returned to the island from New York where he graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts.
"Most of my life I've been curious," Jackson says, "I'd always wondered who I was – how did we get here? What did we bring? Who are we? – since I was a child. I read Alex Haley's Roots when I was in high school, and that got me started in thinking about my genealogy."
"At my father's viewing," Jackson recalls, "I asked him, in a spiritual sense, if I could go to Africa."
And Jackson did get to Africa later that year. His journey unwound as though it were preordained. First, he heard a lecture here by Dr. Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan, a noted African historian and Egyptologist. "Dr. Ben, as he's called," Jackson says, "is one of the foremost authorities on Egypt, and he was conducting study tours."
Jackson left with a V.I. group and St. Croix friend Gerard Emanuel, who accompanied him on to Ghana. He says he began changing from almost the moment he arrived on African soil.
"I was constantly learning," he says, "It led me to rediscover myself. When I look back, I see that everything there was a reminder of the transitions in life, the temples, the museums.
"We saw a Nubian funeral procession in Thebes," he says. "Their concept of the transition in life is so different than in ours. Birthdays aren't important; what is important is the transition to death. It's a very big production — people are in mourning for weeks, months, even years after the passing."
This concept stuck with Jackson. After Egypt, he set out for Ghana with no idea of what lay ahead: a funeral for a queen, sleeping outside by a bonfire, a revolution, and malaria, as it turned out.
Jackson says when they met with the village people, "I really began to learn about the Virgin Islands connections. They speak English. No one knew where the V.I .was, and they wondered why we hadn't carried our names with us," he says. "And we share names in common. Canton, for instance, sometimes spelled Kantun in Ghana."
Jackson says, "I returned home a changed person. I had experienced the strong connections between the Virgin Islands and Africa, and I had learned where I came from."
He became a priest in the spiritual tradition of the Yoruba people in 2003. He was initiated in New York. "It's bound in my psyche," Jackson says, "my conscience and my beliefs."
The Yoruba stress an ancient African tradition of working with natural forces and the ancestral realm to better one's life. Its system of divination has led some scholars to remark on its similarity to Eastern philosophical beliefs.
He returned to Ghana in 2006, representing the V.I. Emancipation Program honoring the people of the V.I., hosted by the Ghanian president and Minister of Tourism John Agyekum Kufuor.
Jackson has served as the head of V.I. State Historic Preservation Office for the past seven years. During his 28-year tenure in the office, he served in various other positions, including senior planning and cultural advisor to the late Gov. Alexander A. Farrelly. Under Farrelly's administration, Jackson was instrumental in drafting the 1992 legislation which created the Cultural Heritage Institute.
Jackson is passionate about passing on V.I. culture from one generation to the next. In fact, he had just returned from a lecture and slide show of his first African trip to an Ivanna Eudora Kean High School class.
"It's terrible when you realize that some youngsters who go to school on the other side of the island don't know anything about Charlotte Amalie. They have never explored their own town. It's like Red Hook is a separate town." He stresses what he knows to be true: "A child who doesn't know his own background, is a child who will fail."
Each year the local culture is celebrated with the Folklife Festival, which Jackson was instrumental in starting in 199 with a performance at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
His accomplishments are seemingly without end. He is the person you turn to for West Indian history, Danish history, French history, archeological review, music, or perhaps to join the Traditional Indians Carnival Troupe. He is chairman of the programs committee of the Caribbean Genealogy Library.
An arresting statue of Sankofa, the Ghana coco bird stands in the entrance to Jackson's office. It may say more about him than all his litany of accomplishment. "I was struck by it when I went to Ghana," he says. The bird looks backward over its shoulder. "Its meaning, its reference is very much a part of the symbolism that I carry, what I, as an individual, embrace. It became a part of me and I a part of it.
"The Sankofa refers to the wise bird which picks for the present what is best in ancient eyes to meet demands of the future, undeterred." It is also known as "gobackandfetchit."
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