In celebration of Black History Month, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is recognizing the exemplary contributions of Black Americans to U.S. public diplomacy efforts. We continue to celebrate the lives and achievements of Black Americans whose individual and collective experiences have been an integral part of our society.
In this article, we explore Black Americans’ roles in several aspects of public diplomacy and how public diplomacy envoys have fueled change through their work. Throughout Black History Month, ECA will share how Black Americans have influenced public diplomacy across professions in the arts, sciences, health, academics, and much more. Follow @ECAatState to see many more public diplomacy profiles during Black History Month 2023.
Learn more about the role of Black Americans in public diplomacy on our website “Facing Diplomacy: Profiling Stories of Diverse Figures in American Diplomacy.”
The Rise of Cultural Diplomacy
Black Americans have a rich history in cultural diplomacy or the practice of using the arts and humanities to bring communities closer together – both at home and abroad – and increase awareness of important global issues. Cultural diplomacy rose to prominence in the early days of the Cold War.
One of the most notable examples of cultural diplomacy is the Jazz Ambassadors program in the 1950s and 1960s. While Jim Crow laws still dominated the American South and demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement struggled against institutionalized racism, Black artists, out of love of country, took on the role of representing the best of America to people around world. The State Department enlisted famous U.S. jazz musicians to travel abroad and serve as tangible symbols of American values.
In 1955, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. convinced U.S. leaders that jazz was the best way to intervene in the Cold War cultural conflict and could help counter Soviet Union stories about American racism. The following year, bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and his band embarked on the first U.S. State Department jazz tour to Southern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. In the same year, Gillespie traveled to South America. He had long been interested in Latin jazz and visited several regional samba schools. In Buenos Aires, Gillespie met the jazz pianist Lalo Schifrin who told him about the bossa nova movement in Brazil, and later met the creators of that musical style.
In 1960, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong performed in 27 cities around Africa, sharing his deep sense of connection to African peoples and their aspirations for freedom. Just three months before he arrived, a political uprising began in the Republic of the Congo, resulting in a series of wars that lasted for five years and claimed 100,000 lives. When he arrived in Leopoldville, the capital city of Congo, the war ceased and the opposing sides called a day-long truce, welcoming Satchmo as he traveled across the city.
Duke Ellington, the renowned composer, pianist, and band leader, toured for the State Department more than any other musician. He traveled through the Middle East and South Asia in 1963 and ended with performances in Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, and Zambia in 1973.
While coping with questions from international audiences about segregation, the dispute over the Berlin Wall, and Vietnam, U.S. jazz musicians were faced with the inequalities of race and the emergence of class conflict while promoting America in a global context. Jazz diplomacy was instrumental in redefining relations with emerging new nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The Jazz Ambassadors Program continued into the late 1970s. For more than 75 years, musicians, dancers, and artists have traveled in State-Department-sponsored exchange programs. Today, the State Department continues to send musicians overseas as cultural ambassadors and includes artists from other genres of American music. Building on the legacy of the Jazz Ambassadors, Next Level uses hip-hop music, dance, and art to promote conflict resolution and international cultural exchange. This initiative sends American artists overseas to lead workshops, community performances, and master classes.
Fueling Change through Culture and Sport
Another form of cultural diplomacy is sports diplomacy. The interrelationships between music and sports are not just about entertainment, but how they fuel political processes and socio-cultural change.
When leveraged strategically, sports serve as a platform to advance foreign policy priorities—inclusion, equality, and conflict resolution. Some of the most notable historic examples of sports diplomacy are Black athletes who used sports to challenge discriminatory behaviors and harmful societal constructs at home and abroad. In 1960, three-time Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph declined to attend a celebration in her honor because the event would be segregated. Muhammad Ali refused to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1967 in objection to the Vietnam War. John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood as medal winners on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico and raised their fists in a salute to Black Power as the U.S. national anthem played.
Sports provide a unique avenue for the State Department to open doors in hard-to-reach places and engage communities at the grassroots and people-to-people level, particularly through its Sports Envoy Program. Sports Envoys are American athletes and coaches who travel overseas to lead programs developed by U.S. embassies and consulates. Shaquille O’Neal and Phaidra Knight are notable examples of past Sports Envoys.
In 2016, Shaquille O’Neal served as the first-ever U.S. Department of State Sports Envoy, when he traveled to Cuba to lead basketball workshops and clinics promoting diversity, leadership, and teamwork. He also visited historic sites in Havana to open dialogue and encourage positive communication between the U.S. and Cuban people.
In 2022, World Rugby Hall of Famer and past president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Phaidra Knight, served as a Sports Envoy to New Zealand and Samoa where she engaged with female sports leaders on gender equity and the importance of inclusive management. Phaidra’s visit coincided with the first ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit and the 50th Anniversary of Title IX legislation, marking a renewed commitment from the U.S. to support women and girls in the Pacific and to encourage gender and racial equity in sport.
Cultural and Societal Advancement through the Sciences and Academics
Historically, Black Americans have made significant contributions in the science, health, and many diverse academic fields. Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston shaped her career around providing access to quality health care to underserved communities, becoming the first Black woman to lead the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the Department of Health and Human Services. Her 1986 sickle cell disease research and the use of penicillin as treatment for newborns has made remarkable advancements to public health in the United States and Africa. Dr. Charles Richard Drew is coined the “Father of the Blood Bank” for his trailblazing technology of blood preservation, which is critical for treating life-threatening illnesses. The Red Cross adopted Dr. Drew’s blood preservation practice globally. Due to Dr. Drew’s technological development, 70 percent of the global supply of plasma comes from the United States. Today, several Black Americans continue to contribute to the health, science, and academic fields.
Through public diplomacy exchanges, Black Americans across academic fields – the sciences, law, policy, etc. – have impacted foreign policy objectives and engaged those in the United States and abroad in creating meaningful change in these fields. One of many international exchange programs, the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program plays a pivotal role in developing the next generation of American leaders to advance economic prosperity. Black alumni are doing exceptional work in their communities and staying connected to advance complementary goals. Haleigh Hoskins, a Gilman alumna, studied in Argentina in 2016. She is a J.D. Candidate at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. In 2021, she served as a National Racial Equity Initiative’s John R. Lewis Social Justice Policy Fellow, where she worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and then with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on social justice policy research and analysis on issues such as criminal justice reform, education, community and economic development, healthy equality, and civil rights. Haleigh received her MPPA in Public Administration from Northwestern University, and BA in International and Global Studies from Spelman College. Cortney Sanders, a Gilman alumna, studied in Ghana in 2014. Since 2017, she has served as the State Policy Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where she focuses on fiscal policies impacting communities of color, juvenile justice reform and reinvestment, and K-12 education. Cortney received her MPP in Public Policy from the University of Michigan and BA in Political Science and Government from the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Pandora White is a Gilman alumna who studied in Ghana in 2012. She currently serves as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oxford College of Emory University. Pandora received her PhD in Biochemistry from The University of Alabama, MPH in Epidemiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, MS in Chemistry from The University of Alabama, and BS in Chemistry from Alcorn State University. Through their work, these alumni continue to empower others to join ECA’s exchange programs and work towards building a more peaceful and inclusive world.
The U.S. Department of State has dozens of programs focusing on music, sports, and culture. Check out the full list of our exchange programs and initiatives on our website.
About the Author: Brittany Alexander is the VSFS intern for the Office of Public Affairs and Strategic Communications in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.