Let’s Rediscover Our History
An Essay By Michael Derek Roberts
There is no doubt about it. Caribbean Heritage Month, now celebrated June of every year, is a good thing. President Donald Trump has followed his predecessor, at least in this instance, by issuing the usual presidential proclamation that officially designates the month of June as Caribbean Heritage Month across the United States. CARIBBEAN TIMES NEWS (CTN) supports and recognizes this very important historical event as part of the continuum of the forward march towards a greater unity among all of the people of the Caribbean – both here and back in the region.
Indeed, it is important, no crucial, that the Caribbean Diaspora in the United States, especially second and third Caribbean-Americans born here, reconnect, re-embrace and revitalize a cultural heritage brought to these shores by waves of immigrants from the Caribbean who now call America home. Moreover, while we will celebrate those historical luminaries that have “made it” and made us proud in the process by their many and varied contributions to the fabric of American society, it is equally important to celebrate and recognize the unheralded and unsung heroes of “everyday America” who labor and work to put food on the table for struggling families in Brooklyn, Houston, Detroit, Harlem and Georgia and elsewhere in America.
We’re accustomed to celebrate our rich cultural history and contributions to television, film, business, politics and music as if these were the only things that make the Caribbean American contribution to America relevant, special and important. Forgotten in the mix are the heroic single mothers that work in rich and affluent households taking care of children, cooking, cleaning and being necessary caretakers and companions to the sick, infirm and shut in. Lost in the glorification and celebration of the successful are the men and women from the Caribbean who work at less attractive but necessary jobs as school guards, teachers, policemen, soldiers and veterans of the many United States wars, and those construction workers, plumbers, and building superintendents who quietly make our lives better each and every day. CARIBBEAN TIMES NEWS applauds and recognizes these “everyday heroes and sheroes” for their sterling contributions to the Caribbean-American way of life in America.
Nor should Caribbean Heritage Month be only about showcasing our musical culture – important though that culture is. It should also, as a starting point, recognize those women-owned businesses, small and medium-sized businesses of all hues and stripes that are the first access point for first-time workers in local communities in Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Newark, New Jersey. These businesses define the very character of the Caribbean immigrant community. And too, our Caribbean Heritage is not only that of the English-speaking Caribbean; it should also embrace and include those non-English speaking Caribbean nations washed and bathed by the Caribbean Sea. In fact, the United States Census Bureau does not distinguish or break up the Caribbean as a category into linguistic considerations.
For example, in 2014, approximately 4 million immigrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants. More than 90 percent of Caribbean immigrants came from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago. Immigrants from the Caribbean vary in their skill levels, racial composition, language background, as well as migration pathways to the United States, depending on origin country and period of arrival.[ https://www.migrationpolicy.org ].
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau 2014 American Community Survey (ACS).
The 1960s marked the beginning of the acceleration of Caribbean immigration. Starting with fewer than 200,000 in 1960, the Caribbean immigrant population grew significantly over the next couple of decades. The population increased 248 percent in the 1960s (to 675,000), 86 percent in the 1970s (to 1.3 million), 54 percent in the 1980s (1.9 million), 52 percent in 1990s (3 million), and another 35 percent between 2000 and 2014.
And yes, as an immigrant community in America, Caribbean immigrants can trace their involvement with and in every aspect of American history, especially seminal and history-changing events like the Harlem Renaissance and Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s revolutionary Black liberation movement. Still, I believe that one of the shortcomings of the annual CARIBBEAN HERITAGE MONTH is that it seems to celebrate only the here and now, and not enough attention is paid to those who paved the way, on whose shoulders we stand, and the incredible contributions and sacrifices that they made so that waves of new immigrants from the Caribbean can have a better life today. This celebration should set aside time to pay homage to and honor those actions and events that still define us as a people in our adopted homeland.
Today, as we celebrate CARIBBEAN HERITAGE MONTH let us not forgot those who paved the way for us. CARIBBEAN TIMES NEWS recognizes:
- Hulan Edwin Jack(December 29, 1906 – December 19, 1986) was a prominent Saint Lucian-born New York politician who in 1954 became the highest ranking African American municipal official up until that time, when he was elected Borough President of Manhattan.
- Mervyn Malcolm Dymally(May 12, 1926 – October 7, 2012) was a Democratic politician from California. He served in the California State Assembly (1963–66) and the California State Senate (1967–75), as the 41st Lieutenant Governor of California (1975–79), and in the S. House of Representatives (1981–93). Dymally returned to politics a decade later to serve in the California State Assembly (2003–08). Dymally, of Dougla (mixed Indo-Trinidadian and Afro-Trinidadian) heritage, was the first Trinidadian to serve California as State Senator and Lieutenant Governor. He was one of the first persons of African and Indian origin to serve in the U.S. Congress. In 1974 he and George L. Brown became the first two blacks elected to statewide office since Oscar Dunn did so during Reconstruction.
- Carlos Lezama founded the West Indian Carnival Parade in Brooklyn back in the 1960s. Lezama was born in Trinidad and had participated in the West Indian Carnival in Harlem when he immigrated to the United States. Then Lezama, along with friend Rufus Goring, brought the parade to Brooklyn. The parade has evolved from a five-block affair to being New York City’s largest parade of 4.5 million people (2017).
- Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American congresswoman and the first black woman to run for president. Her parents from Barbados (where she grew up before moving back to America) and British Guiana.
- Constance Baker Motley, first black woman appointed to the federal bench, parents from Nevis.
- Claudia Jones (not know by many Caribbean people) was a prominent Caribbean radical organizer and thinker to communities in the U.S. and U.K. Jones combined Marxism-Leninism, decolonization, anti-imperialist and anti-sexist politics to make sense of the social and political situation of her day. Even though we now consider Claudia Jones a “female political and intellectual equivalent of C.L.R James,” her omission from historical narratives, including left scholarship and analysis, has served to undermine the urgent theorizing of questions concerning women in general and Black women in the First and Third Worlds.
- Elma Francois, was a domestic worker and labor organizer, charged with sedition who defended herself. Francois was born in St. Vincent and migrated to Trinidad and Tobago as a worker in 1919. She began as a domestic worker. She joined the Trinidad Workingman’s Association. Her militancy grounded in Garveyite consciousness and working class politics put her at odds with the leadership of Captain A. A. Cipriani who led the TWA. Later she founded the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA), a Marxist-oriented labor organization that sought the empowerment of primarily ‘Negro people’ but recruited non-Afro members as well.
Happy Caribbean Heritage Month!