It’s the time of the year, the early days of summer, when the spotlight is thrown on Caribbean-Americans and for good reason.
“Caribbean-Americans have shaped every aspect of our society – enhancing our arts and humanities as titans of music and literature, spurring our economy as intrepid entrepreneurs, making new discoveries as scientists and engineers, serving as staunch advocates for social and political change, and defending our ideals at home and abroad as leaders in our military,” was the way President Barack Obama put in a proclamation hailing National Caribbean –American Heritage Month in 2012.
Ever since the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution guided through the chamber in 2005 by U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat of California, to recognize the immense contribution of immigrants from the archipelago of islands and coastal states that are next door to the United States, the country has turned June into a period when it celebrates that heritage.
And the observances in different parts of the country take the form of dance, music, drama, literature, forums on economic and social development, special tributes to outstanding sons and daughters of the Caribbean, not to mention reflections on the life and times of many of the icons who in different ways have made the United States the most powerful country on earth. But the lavish praise heaped on West Indians of all shapes, colors and ethnic background tells us something about the adopted land.
For by openings its doors to immigrants the U.S. gave the foreigners a chance to pursue their dreams, utilize their intellectual gifts and hone their skills in a way that as Congresswoman Lee said recently have made a substantial and positive difference to the nation and to themselves and their children.
Lee put it eloquently when she reminded everyone that “throughout our history, Caribbean-Americans have served our country and contributed to the heritage of the United States through the arts, science, education, business, sports, military and government.”
Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries when early pioneers were fashioning new societies in the Carolinas, for instance, people of color with an array of skills, talents and interests joined English men and women in developing large areas of the South that have retained that special characteristic today. Charleston and its parishes, street names, architecture and overall layout are the legacy of that substantial link with the Caribbean. Virginia’s constitution borrowed heavily more than 200 years ago from the ideals expressed in similar constitutional arrangements in the Caribbean.
Crispus Attucks, the first person to give his life for the cause of America’s independence came from the Caribbean and in the centuries that followed millions of others from the region made sacrifices that helped to ensure that their children, grandchildren, and future generations, indeed people everywhere enjoyed freedom and prosperity. Prince Hall, the founder of the Masonic Lodge and a tireless advocate of the education of enslaved Blacks; Robert Elliott, one of the most articulate lawmakers ever to sit in the House of Representatives used his eloquence and clarity of thought to make the 19th case for the enfranchisement of oppressed people across the land and around the world; and John Russwurm, a co-publisher of the first Black newspaper in the country more than 120 years ago are but three of the people on a long list of icons, we frequently call major contributors.
Then, there are the teachers in our schools, the doctors, nurses and other professionals in our health care delivery system and the scientists in our research centers, universities and colleges who have trained or are preparing the next generation of innovators.
On and on we can go. Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Sherry Lee Ralph and other stars of stage, screen and television whose commanding presence entertained millions, not simply in the United States but globally come quickly to mind.
General Colin Powell, the first Black to be made Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later U.S. Secretary of State, Eric Holder, the current U.S. Attorney-General, the late Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress who made a historic run for the presidency of the United States in the 1970s, the first to seek the presidential nomination of a major political party have in their different ways illuminated the path for others to travel on and achieve greatness. Today, Caribbean-Americans can be found in federal, state and local government legislatures, as key executives on Wall Street and other areas of private industry as leaders of tertiary level educational institutions, diplomatic outposts, judges in our court systems and leaders of trade union.
They are but a handful of outstanding examples of history makers who underscore President Obama’s assertion that Caribbean-Americans have “shaped every aspect of our society.”