The Department of State joins in the celebration of Caribbean Americans’ rich contributions to U.S. history, culture, and society as our nation commemorates Caribbean-American Heritage Month this June.
This year marks the fifteenth celebration of Caribbean-American Heritage Month in the United States. The first Proclamation was issued by President George W. Bush on June 6, 2006. Since then, the White House has issued an recognizing June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month.
Past Presidential Proclamations have recognized Caribbean Americans, such as Alexander Hamilton, who came from poverty in Nevis. Hamilton was a key contributor to our Constitution and the first Secretary of the Treasury, helping to establish our modern financial system and to create the United States Coast Guard. Other Caribbean Americans who have enriched the fabric of American society include Joseph Sandiford Atwell. Atwell was born in Barbados in 1831, moved to the United States in 1863 and attended the Philadelphia Divinity School. Following the Civil War, he became the first black Episcopal deacon ordained in the Diocese of Kentucky and went on to become the first black Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Virginia preaching a message of hope and love to the emancipated slaves in the South. Another example is Dr. William Thornton, a native of the British Virgin Islands, who designed the United States Capitol and is generally considered the first “Architect of the Capitol.”
Today, Caribbean Americans continue to make a tremendous impact not only within the United States, but also on the conduct of U.S. diplomacy abroad. Through their strong linkages to their countries of heritage, which often translate into philanthropic, business, and investment ties, the Caribbean diaspora is contributing to U.S. efforts to expand prosperity and security throughout the Caribbean region.
This month, we recognize the accomplishments and contributions of Caribbean American employees within the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development by highlighting biographies of outstanding Caribbean American employees who support diplomatic efforts around the world.
One such employee is Kenya Jordana James, a second-tour Public Diplomacy Officer currently serving as the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, Guinea, and a proud Jamaican American. Kenya joined the Foreign Service in 2015. Before joining the Department, Kenya worked as a press assistant with the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy and Communication Center, an office under the leadership of former Senator Harry Reid and Senator Charles Schumer. As a part of her Rangel Fellowship, Kenya completed an internship in the Public Affairs Section of Embassy Antananarivo. Kenya served her first tour at Consulate Ho Chi Minh City as a Consular Officer, working as both a non-immigrant and immigrant visa officer. In her current position as the Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, Guinea, Kenya specializes in cultural outreach and promoting cultural exchanges between the United States and Guinea through U.S. Embassy programming and initiatives. Kenya holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science from Howard University and a Masters in International Affairs from the New School.
In celebration of Caribbean-American Heritage Month, Kenya shares her perspectives on her Jamaican heritage in the following Q&A:
Tell us about yourself and your Jamaican heritage. My Jamaican heritage is reflective of the multi-cultural experience of the United States. Beginning with my parents; my father was a Jamaican immigrant and my mother is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Growing up, I traveled almost every winter break to spend time with relatives on the island. Whether it was sharing family recipes of preparing “ackee & saltfish,” dancing to music by Dennis Brown or to passing along stories from her childhood in Jamaica, my mom was very keen on ensuring that I valued and appreciated my Jamaican heritage.
What are some of the Jamaican traditions that you recall as a child? For me, the traditions I recall most fondly from my childhood center around food. I cherished when my mom shared recipes with me, even though I would only learn a new recipe when she felt that I had earned the right to prepare a certain dish. I remember when my mom taught me how to prepare “ackee and saltfish”, the national breakfast food of Jamaica. Ackee, although a fruit, is a component of this savory dish and salt fish is commonly known as codfish. While in college, my mom shared with me her curry chicken recipe; this not only brought me closer to my mom but offered me an opportunity to share my culture with my friends. This sharing of recipes continues to be a constant in our relationship. Even now, I often call my mom to make sure I get the recipe just right.
How have your Jamaican roots affected your career and outlook on life? My Jamaican roots definitely informed my perspectives on my life. A strong work ethic and education are two important values shared deeply within the Jamaican community. My mom set high standards for me as I grew up and this idea of pursuing high standards continues to this day. Jamaicans are also go-getters, I channel this attitude in all facets of my life. Jamaican culture, whether it’s food, music, dance and fashion, has been a tool of cultural exchange. Having such roots underscores for me the importance of cultural exchange to promote mutual understanding.
Why is a diversity of cultures important to the U.S. government and the workforce in general? Many people have a perception of America that doesn’t reflect the real diversity that exists in the United States. For me as an African American of Jamaican ethnicity, it is very important for me to serve as a diplomat and contribute to the perception of an America that is diverse and multi-cultural. Diversity of cultures also helps to provide different perspectives needed as diplomats seek to implement policy.
About the author: Caitlin Fogarty is a Public Affairs Outreach Coordinator in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.