Categorized | Brooklyn, Featured, Haitian, Issues, News

Creole, Haiti’s Mother Tongue, Brings People Back to Their Roots

Wynnie Lamour teaching her class for the Haitian Diaspora

Wynnie Lamour teaching her class for the Haitian diaspora. Photo by Joyann Jeffrey/GlobalCityNYC

Many Haitian-Americans are embracing their culture by learning the mother tongue of Haiti, Creole.

The official language of Haiti, Creole was stigmatized as the language of the poor and not embraced in schools, although all Haitians spoke the language. Students were allowed only to speak French, the language of the colonizers.

“Since French is the language of those who are in power and have put down our people, it has more influence,” said Wynnie Lamour, founder and professor of the Haitian Creole Language Institute of New York. Growing up as a bicultural Haitian and American, she stressed how important it was that Haitians learn to speak: “It’s like asking Americans how important is it to teach English to our children,” she said. She decided to empower Haitians of the diaspora by creating her own Creole Language Institute, where she teaches Creole to Haitians and Americans in Brooklyn.

For Christelle Hyppolite, learning to speak Creole reconnects her with a heritage she never quite understood. The phrase “Where are you from?” has always had a crippling effect on her. “It might affect how they view me,” said Hyppolite.

Now, 23, she said she was constantly teased for being Haitian-American. “I didn’t really understand it,” said Hyppolite, remembering her adolescence. Though she was black, she felt unaccepted by African-Americans, who assumed that, because she was Haitian, she was poor. “It makes me so angry because they’re black people,” she said. Her life at home was no less isolating. Because she never learned to speak Creole, she felt disconnected from her relatives who did.

So Hyppolite enrolled in Lamour’s third class, called “Heritage Learners of the Haitian Diaspora.” The class, which began in mid-August, is taught in the small Two Moon Art and House Café in downtown Brooklyn. Past the oversized coffee bar at the entrance, a quiet room full of colorful paintings is transformed every Wednesday night, when English is abandoned and Creole becomes the primary language

To get ready for the lecture, the students shove together two wobbly wooden tables in the middle of the café. The coffee waitress cannot understand what the students are about to say as Lamour utters the first Creole words to begin the class.

“For me, language learning should be an intimate experience,” said Lamour, so class size varies from four to six people. This way, the students can feel more comfortable speaking Creole. In class, she occasionally references her family when she tries to get the students to understand the material. “It’s literally that I am interacting with my students,” said the Creole professor.

Raffaela Belizaire, a 31-year-old Haitian-Italian-American, is one of the five students in the class with Hyppolite. She takes advantage of Lamour’s offer to message her outside of class.

“I have a direct hotline,” said Belizaire.

Like Hyppolite, one of Belizaire’s parents spoke Creole at home, but she never seemed to pick it up. Belizaire grew up in Texas and when she visited Haiti at the age of 8, the language barriers were too difficult. She could not effectively communicate with her new friends. “With the teenage girls who I really felt a connection with, it was really hard,” she said. “You just have to look and smile.” It was nearly impossible to communicate if a translator was not in the room, she said.

Since then, Belizaire made it her goal to learn Creole. “It’s the highlight of my week,” she said while smiling. Belizaire loves how the class makes her feel empowered. “One of the hard things to do is tell someone that you’re Haitian and then the first thing they do is ‘do you speak Creole?’ and you have to say no, but now I can answer in Creole and say that I am learning.”

The Creole language institute also embraces Haitian Culture. The class goes on frequent field trips to events held by Haitian organizations such as the Haiti Cultural Exchange Program, which showcases Haitian music, art and folktales. Regine Roumaine, executive director of the exchange program, said, that in addition to instilling pride in Haitians culture, the events can help counteract negative Haitian stereotypes.

“It is important to present a more nuanced and realistic image of Haitian culture,” she said.


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