Caribbean Spirit

Explore some of the notable contributions and influence of Caribbean people on Black history and culture in America.

Three women from Guadeloupe (circa 1900) by Augustus Frederick ShermanCaribBeing

Since the Very Beginning

The tenacity, diversity and rich history of Caribbean people in America, has strengthened our country and enriched our traditions. Historically, Caribbean people have had a presence in the United States for centuries, beginning in the mid 1600’s. Some came to America’s shores through the bondage of slavery. Others willfully left their homelands behind in search of a better life in this country, known as the ‘land of opportunity’.

Puerto Rican Immigrants (1947-08) by Albert FennLIFE Photo Collection

Regardless of the circumstances that brought them here, Caribbean-Americans have played vital roles in the growth and development of the United States.

Santiago Airport (2016) by Christian RodríguezCaribBeing

Today, the U.S. is home to over four million Caribbean people, who have thrived in every segment of our society.

In fact, many notable figures that have broken barriers and helped transform U.S. history and culture and more specifically, Black history and culture in America, are directly connected to the Caribbean.

Basquiat in the apartment (Putty) (circa. 1981) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing

People like Marcus Garvey, Harry Belafonte, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Malcolm X, Cicely Tyson, Kwame Ture and Shirley Chisholm are among some of the most influential figures of U.S. history. They were either immigrants from, or children of immigrants from the Caribbean region. Yet, all too often this important aspect of their heritage is merely a footnote.

Harry Belafonte, Robert W Kelley, 1958, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Jamaican-American singer, songwriter, activist and actor, Harry Belafonte.

Marcus Garvey, 1924-08-05, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Proclaimed Jamaica's first national hero. "...the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody." -Martin Luther King Jr.

Black Muslim Leader Malcolm X -- Towne House, 1963-10-10, From the collection of: The Bancroft Library
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Born in Nebraska in 1925, Malcolm X was the fourth of seven of seven children of Grenada-born mother, Louise Helen Little and Georgia-born father, Earl Little.

Shirley Chisholm Campaign Poster / Library of Congress (1972)Original Source: Library of Congress

Chisolm, the daughter of a Barbadian mother and a Guyanese father, was the first black US Congresswoman. She also made history as the first woman in the United States to seek the presidential nomination of a major political party. Her iconic career in politics has inspired a generation of women to seek public office.

By Lynn PelhamLIFE Photo Collection

Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) was from Trinidad and Tobago and played a major role as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and global Pan African movement. It was Ture, who originated the rallying slogan “black power” in the 1960’s.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Unknown, 1910, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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The critical research of Puerto Rican historian and activist, Arturo Schomburg raised awareness about the great contributions that Afro-Latinos and African- Americans have made to society. It was his collection of literature, art and other materials of African history that became the basis of the collection for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, NY.

Colin Powell (1995-09) by Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

Colin Powell, now a retired four-star Army general, made history as the first black person to serve as Secretary of State. He is a first-generation Jamaican-American.

By Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

The achievements of acclaimed Caribbean-American actors like Cicely Tyson, who is of Nevisian descent, Bahamian-American Sidney Poitier, who became the first black actor to win an Academy Award cannot be overstated. The groundbreaking work of Caribbean people in entertainment continued and greatly influenced this industry.

1983-07, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Cicely Tyson is an actress and former fashion model whose acting career has spanned more than six decades. Her acclaimed work had won three Primetime Emmys, a Tony Award and an honorary Academy Award among other accolades. Tyson, now 94, remains active as an actress in major films and television series.

Freedom March (1963-08-28) by Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

Between Activism & the Arts

Singer, activist and actor, Harry Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean music genre with an international audience in the 1950’s.  He became one of the most successful Jamaican-American stars in history. Belafonte, was also a key figure in The Civil Rights Movement and continues to be active in politics and humanitarian causes today. From the arts to the armed forces, politics to entertainment and everything in between, there is no doubt that Caribbean people have contributed greatly the success of this nation.

Biggie Smalls Mural (2012-07-14) by Kelly TitusCaribBeing

It was the Caribbean style of ‘toasting’, or talking/chanting over a rhythm that lead to the creation of Hip-Hop as we know it today. Many of genre’s pioneers including DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash are Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica and Barbados, respectively.

The Notorious B.I.G., Barron Claiborne, 1997, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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One of the greatest rappers of all time, the late Biggie Smalls was the son of Jamaican immigrants.

Dj Kool Herc, Mika Väisänen, 1999, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Clive Campbell, influential Jamaican-American DJ known as the "Father of Hip-Hop"

Grandmaster Flash, Krists Luhaers, 2017-07-16, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Pioneer of hip-hop DJing, cutting, scratching and mixing, Joseph Saddler is child of an immigrant Barbadian family.

Edwidge Danticat (2014-02-07) by Travis HarrisCaribBeing

But, the Caribbean influence on The United States is not just of historical significance. On the shoulders of these pioneers, stand a modern generation of leaders that are making notable contributions to America across industries and continuing a remarkable legacy. They include gamechangers like Haitian-American writers Edwidge Dandicat and Roxanne Gay, Chief Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, who is Puerto-Rican American, Grenadian-American comedian and actress, Amanda Seales and Puerto-Rican playwright and actor, Lin Manuel Miranda. 

Maryse Condé, Brice Toul, 2015-09-18, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Guadeloupean author, Guggenheim Fellow, and Nobel Prize recipient for alternative literature prize. Condé is Professor Emerita of French at Columbia University and her achievements have given visibility to the French Caribbean international presence in the arts.

Roxane Gay, Eva Blue, 2015-10-22, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Author of The New York Times best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist (2014), Roxane Gay was born in Nebraska from a Haitian family.

Sonia Sotomayor, Steve Petteway, 2009-08-21, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, appointed by President Barack Obama in May 2009, Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, NYC, to Puerto Rican-born parents.

Amanda Seales, Elton C. Anderson, Jr., 2017-09-26, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Comedian and actress, Amanda Seales was born to a Grenadian mother and an American father. She is a proud ambassador of her Caribbean heritage, often weaving Grenadian characters into her performances and referencing Caribbean culture throughout her work across media platforms.

Kamala Harris, Office of Senator Kamala Harris, 2017-04-21, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Senator Kamala Harris is the proud daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother.

She has made U.S. history twice, once when she became California’s first black Attorney General and again when elected the state’s first black senator in 2016.

She is also the first Caribbean American and Indian American to ever serve in the body. Senator Harris is now vying to make history again, this time as President of the United States in the 2020 elections.

Secretary Jacob J. Lew meets with Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2016-03-15, From the collection of: CaribBeing
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Counting with prestigious awards like the MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards to name a few, Miranda was raised in the neighborhood of Inwood, NYC, to Puerto Rican parents.

Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable (2011-01-07) by John FlanneryCaribBeing


The Caribbean-American contribution to both black history and overall American history is a story of bold determination and commitment to contributing to this country and making progressive changes. These contributions have literally paved the way for countless politicians, artists, musicians, scientists, athletes, authors and many more, to this very day. It’s a record of excellence that generations to come can be proud of.

Credits: Story

This virtual exhibition was brought together by CaribBEING.

Founded in 2012, CaribBeing has grown into an award-winning organization with partnerships that span the globe with one ideal: a unified experience that celebrates the entire Caribbean region and its diaspora. Today, CaribBeing’s commitment remains: to deliver thought-provoking, culturally relevant content and experiences to individuals who crave Caribbean inspiration through arts, culture and curated events.

Curator: Shelley V. Worrell
Essay: Melissa Noel
Exhibition design: Pablo Serrano-Otero

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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The past, present, and future of the Black experience in the United States
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