A report by Stephanie Castillo for Oprah Magazine.
- National Caribbean-American Heritage Month is held each June to recognize and celebrate the many contributions Caribbean people have made to the United States.
- For many, this includes reading and sharing books by Caribbean authors.
- Below, learn more about Caribbean literature and the books to add to your TBR.
When Cindy Allman, 33, started the #ReadCaribbean hashtag on her Instagramtwo years ago, she wondered if there was a national awareness month she could organize around as a way to encourage more people to read Caribbean authors. If she had looked a decade or so earlier, she might not have found much.
But in 2006, former President George W. Bush issued an annual proclamation to recognize June as National Caribbean-American Heritage Month—the culmination of a years-long effort led by Dr. Claire Nelson, founder and president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies. As the ICS explains on their website, “Caribbean immigrants have been contributing to the well-being of American society since its founding,” from Alexander Hamilton (who was from the island of Nevis) to W.E.B Dubois and actors like Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier. Since then, June has become a dedicated time to celebrate these contributions.
For Allman, this celebration happens through books. In addition to the hashtag—which has grown from 400 to nearly 5,000 posts since 2018—she has started Read Caribbean Month, where she works with other bookstagrammers to coordinate book recommendations, giveaways, and live interviews with Caribbean authors throughout the month of June, including Nicole Dennis-Benn, Cadwell Turnbull, and Caroline McKenzie. And, yes, this effort occasionally includes having to definethe Caribbean.
“I am hosting a Caribbean-only giveaway, and someone asked me if Bermuda was included,” Allman told OprahMag.com. “The Caribbean is so wide and vast, so this is a time to make that clear.”
It seems like it would be obvious: The Caribbean includes countries and U.S. territories bordered by the Caribbean sea, such as Barbados, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. But for some, the definition extends to the coasts of Central and South America. And others make a distinction between the Caribbean and the West Indies, the islands that surround the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles, as well as the North and South American continental shelves: the Bahamas, Bermuda, Grenada, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and more.
Like Allman, YouTubers Karen Wright-Brown, 43, and Peta-Gay Allen, 39, are passionate about Caribbean literature, especially when it connects them to their own Jamaican heritage. When they were planning their first #CaribAThon, a 10-day reading challenge held this past June 11-20, they decided to focus on the 13 independent countries in the Caribbean. Not to box readers in, Brown told OprahMag.com, but as a simple place to start showing the wealth of stories readers can find from these islands.
“It’s been heartwarming to see the response that #CaribAThon has received, with readers developing not just new respect for the stories and storytellers, but also finding new favorite books and authors,” Brown said.
Allman, Brown, and Allen don’t just want readers to take notice of the Caribbean, but the publishing industry, too: In 2019, Lee & Low Books’ Diversity Baseline Survey found that 76% of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents—including those from all Big Five publishers—identified as white. Only 6% percent identified as Latinx, Latino, or Mexican, while 5% identified as Black, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean. While Lee & Low has found some change at the executive level and within certain departments since their first survey in 2015, the industry remains nearly all white.
Reviews are one area the Caribbean book community on Instagram and YouTube is also fighting to get access, as Allman, Brown, and Allen have seen more non-Carribean readers get ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies). As a result, they often see notes like “I didn’t understand it,” “The dialect is too much,” or “I couldn’t get into it.”
“You don’t need the first review of a Caribbean book being from a reviewer based in Minnesota,” Allman said. “There are experiences they won’t understand or have the right context for.”
For now, Allman, Brown, and Allen want to continue raising awareness for Caribbean literature. Not just as a standalone, but as an equally rich part of other genres.
“We’re able to write beautiful stories that are rooted in our history,” Allen said. “More people should know about that.”
Here are some of the best classic and contemporary books about the Caribbean to read for Caribbean-American Heritage month—and beyond.