Recognizing Caribbean American Achievements

4 min read

| By Carol Brennan |

June is Caribbean American Heritage Month, an opportunity to reflect upon this remarkable community that is ethnically diverse, politically engaged, and culturally dynamic. Gale In Context: Biography is regularly updated with new entries that highlight how significant an impact the Caribbean diaspora has had and continues to have on American life

Helming the podium at the daily White House press briefings since 2022 is Karine Jean-Pierre (born 1974), born in Martinique to Haitian parents and the first Black professional appointed to this senior role representing the Oval Office. Also in Washington is Jamaican-born federal judge Tanya Chutkan (born 1962), who has lifetime tenure on the bench of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Her courtroom will hear arguments in the 2024 criminal trial of former President Donald Trump on charges of attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

Another daughter of Kingston, the Jamaican capital, is Winsome Sears (born 1964), the Republican lieutenant governor of Virginia since 2022. Raised in the Bronx, the Marine Corps veteran is the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office in Virginia as well as the first Jamaican-born American elected to statewide office in any U.S. state. On the other end of the political spectrum is Florida’s Maxwell Frost (born 1997), a Gen Z political activist and Democratic Party organizer who became the youngest member of the 118th Congress when he took office in 2023. His father was of Haitian heritage and Frost was adopted at birth by a Cuban American family. Also linked to Haiti was the Roman Catholic priest and human rights activist Gérard Jean-Juste (1946–2009), who fled the island’s ruthless Duvalier dictatorship, established a refugee center in Miami, and returned to serve in Haiti in the early 1990s.

In 2015, Jamaican American novelist Marlon James (born 1970) won one of the English-speaking world’s top literary honors, the Man Booker Prize, for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. The prominent author and critic Roxane Gay (born 1974) spent her formative years in Nebraska but regularly made extended stays in Haiti with her parents. Gay is best known for her 2014 collection of essays, Bad Feminist, but also published the same year was her debut novel, An Untamed State, about a young American wife and mother who is kidnapped while visiting her family in Haiti. Gay follows an esteemed literary path blazed by the feminist poet, critic, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde (1934–1992), who was born in New York City to parents from Barbados and Grenada. Lorde lived the last seven years of her life on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands with her partner Gloria Joseph who wrote about contemporary U.S. colonialism in the 1990 collection of essays Hell Under God’s Orders: Hurricane Hugo in St. Croix. Jazz great Sonny Rollins (born 1930) is also a New Yorker but was raised by parents from the Virgin Islands; one of his best-known compositions is the 1956 instrumental “St. Thomas,” named in homage to the Virgin Islands city but crafted around a Bahamian folk melody his mother sang to him as a child.

The Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries of Cuba and the Dominican Republic have produced a long list of notable Americans. They include the singer Camila Cabello (born 1997), who was born in Cuba, and the rapper Cardi B (born 1992), who is a New Yorker with strong ties to her parents’ Trinidadian and Dominican heritage. 

Gale In Context: Biography has in recent years published obituary tributes on a pair of remarkably long-lived and gifted actors from the Caribbean diaspora. First to depart was 96-year-old Cicely Tyson (1924–2021), who was born in New York City to parents from the island of Nevis. A year later, the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier (1927–2022), died at the age of 94. Poitier was born in Florida to Bahamian parents but spent the first 15 years of his life on the island. 

There are so many more names we could have included! We hope that these highlights from the astonishingly comprehensive Gale In Context: Biography will inspire you to explore it further this June in honor of Caribbean American Heritage Month.

About the Author

Carol Brennan has been writing biographical entries for Cengage/Gale since 1993. If she’s not writing, she is either at yoga or walking her dachshund. Carol consumes an alarming volume of podcasts and audiobooks weekly.

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