Alexis R. Collins
Caribbean Heritage Month: Creating a Dynamic Imprint in American Society
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
As June comes to a close, we want to commemorate the Black pride, magic, unity, and excellence that’s been displayed throughout this month. From celebrating Juneteenth, to witnessing the numerous accolades accomplished by Black people in different fields (a special shoutout to Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, and Sha’Carri Richardson), we wanted to take a moment to celebrate Caribbean Heritage Month! Caribbean Americans are part of the fabric of this country, bringing their vibrant values, stories, languages, foods, and cultural traditions. The diverse talents and contributions of the Caribbean community shouldn’t go unrecognized, which is why we wanted to enrich your multicultural knowledge by discussing how the month became official, some notable trailblazers of Caribbean descent, and various ways you can celebrate and honor your Caribbean-American neighbors!
Paths of Triumph - The Backstory
Caribbean Heritage Month is relatively young, with the Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS) leading activities in June, 2000 that taught the importance of Caribbean culture. This month-long ceremony took place in Washington, DC, fostering initiatives presented by the now defunct ad-hoc group of local residents who wanted Caribbean Heritage Month designated in DC in 1999. Staunch campaign efforts for a National Caribbean Heritage Month officially commenced in 2004 after a congressional legislative bill was tabled by Congresswoman Barbara Lee. ICS Founder and President Dr. Claire Nelson provided new language to the document and the bill was reintroduced and passed in the House in June 2005. In 2006, the proposal made its way to the Senate floor where it was also approved. President George W. Bush signed the bill on June 5, 2006, solidifying the resolution.
The earliest wave of Caribbean immigrants entered the U.S. in the 19th century. Their migration was easier due to many major Caribbean nations being under direct U.S. political control at different points. Hoping for new opportunities and work, the U.S. experienced an influx of Caribbean scholars, teachers, craftsmen, doctors, preachers, investors, comedians, poets, songwriters, politicians, activists, inventors, preachers, and other professionals who excelled in their respective fields. The country was soaring with newfound talent, as Caribbean people established their national footprint in American politics, arts, entertainment, medicine, and other sectors.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 90 percent of the Caribbean immigrant population came from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad, and Tobago, with many cultivating prominent communities in New York, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, and California. Many were guest workers from the British West Indies program, working in agriculture, while others were political exiles from Cuba. Caribbean people were encouraged by the U.S. model of success and its promises of being a safe haven, escaping political instability and seeking refuge along its borders. U.S-based companies were also seeking English-speaking workers from former English colonies like Jamaica, further incentivizing people to migrate.
Moving the Culture - Innovation and Creation
Along with the people came an amazing, eclectic blend of intellectual pursuits and a colorful cacophony of cultures. This includes renowned names such as Alexander Hamilton - the first Secretary of Treasury and one of the Founding Fathers, John B. Russwurm, the first Caribbean-American editor of a U.S. newspaper’ Vice President Kamala Harris, and Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice. On top of policy leaders and public servants, there are dynamic Caribbean-American artists and visionaries who are also sources of immense pride and inspiration in their community. Fun fact, James Weldon Johnson, the poet who was the creative behind the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is of Hatian descent. Highly-praised neo-expressionist painter Jean Michel Basquiat, famous baseball player Robert Clemente, and celebrated musician Celia Cruz (who was the pioneer behind wildly popular salsa music), have also made a lasting impact in the flavor and soul of this country. We also can’t forget Caribbean-American jurist Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed to the Federal bench, and the renowned Sonia Sotomayor, the country’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice. The list goes on, exemplifying how an outstanding group of brilliant and exceptional individuals extended (and continue to extend) their gifts to aid in the progression of this nation.
Let’s also not forget the delicious Caribbean cuisine, music, and majestic parades we participate in annually! Their multicultural footprint is a perfect fusion of African, Latin American, Creole, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences, with many forms of song and dance reflecting the cultures that have impacted the region. If you walk into your local Caribbean restaurant, common staples you can find on the menu are rice, beans, coconut, cassava, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and a foodie favorite - plantains (pronounced plan-TINS in many Caribbean communities). Featured dishes include curry, oxtail, and jerk chicken, normally served with a hearty side of rice and peas. Other beloved foods are Callaloo - a super-popular side dish of green leafy veggies seasoned with salt and intoxicating spices - this fulfilling meal has West African origins. Mannish water is famous among Jamaicans. This delicious soup is stuffed with goat and combined with green banana, dumplings, yam, coconut, and hot peppers; rum is sometimes added to enhance flavor. Conch ceviche is also a meal that’s cooked in many Caribbean kitchens, conch meat is the main ingredient, along with tomatoes, red onion, scotch bonnet peppers to amplify the heat, and diced mango to provide a sweet counterbalance.
Speaking of sweetness, you can try a slice of savory rum cake, which is traditionally derived from dried fruit that’s soaked in rum for months, and then added to dough prepared with caramelized sugar. This delightful treat is a dessert favorite around the holiday season and is descended from holiday puddings. If you’re parched and want to spice up the festivities, planter’s punch should be your go-to drink. This famous cocktail is brimming with dark Caribbean rum, sugar syrup, grenadine, and fresh orange, pineapple, and lemon juice. After the ingredients are chilled and shaken with ice, they’re poured into a large glass for family and friends to enjoy! Angostura bitters normally sit atop the cocktail with a pineapple wedge and cocktail cherry providing a nice garnish.
Meanwhile, as you’re enjoying your delectable drinks and meals, jam out to some energetic Caribbean beats! Caribbean music gives you hits and tunes that make you want to turn up your speakers and dance! Multicultural influences inspired and brought over a diverse catalog of music, including - kompa, bachata, dancehall, Latin trap, reggae, zouk, calypso, chutney, merengue, rampa, cadence, and so much more! We must highlight that the early beginnings of hip hop came to life on August 11, 1973, and stemmed from a Caribbean immigrant during a birthday party in a West Bronx neighborhood. Clive Campell - better known as DJ Kool Herc and the founding father of hip hop - presided over that historic party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Born and raised in Kingston Jamaica until the age of 10, the iconic record spinner often emulated the style of selectors (DJs) from his home country, fundamentally contributing to the core hip hop sound by playing signature records on two turntables and using rhythmic beats with break undertones.
Last but not least, we have Carnival, an event in February and March where thousands of people swarm the streets. Festivities are worldwide, taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain; and El Callo, Venezuela just to name a few. The brilliantly-colored floats, massive parades, and costumes, compounded with giant feasts, music, and parties - are meant to be an expression of freedom. Carnival season aligns with the Christian observation of Lent, with this magnificent display of Caribbean culture happening just prior to Ash Wednesday. Packed with drink and dance, the parades are a huge tourist attraction, swelling with people who want to indulge in the dazzling costumes, enormous floats, merrymaking, flamboyant parades, upbeat music, and overall fun!
Caribbean Heritage Month is meant to push Caribbean contributions, traditions, and culture to the forefront, so people can appreciate the wonders of the Caribbean community. It’s also an awesome opportunity for Caribbean Americans to continue taking pride in their heritage and life-changing talents. Discover all the ways you can celebrate this year by clicking here.