This academic year, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies began offering Haitian Creole language classes to students at New York University. Students at Lehman College and Columbia University can enroll in the classes as well thanks to the Indigenous and Diasporic Language Consortium. Kreyòl is one of Haiti’s two official languages and is spoken by around 10 million people worldwide, including the large Haitian community in New York.
A course is not a course without a teacher, and on fall of 2015 we were delighted to welcome Wynnie Lamour to the CLACS faculty. Wynnie is the founder of the Haitian Creole Language Institute of New York, where she offers Kreyól language classes and cultural events. CLACS MA student Brendan Fields talked with Wynnie about her experiences and expectations regarding Haitian Creole at NYU.
[This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
CLACS Blog: Thanks for sitting down to talk about Kreyòl at NYU! Could you start off telling us a bit about your background in education and Haitian Creole?
Wynnie: I was born in Haiti and raised in Brooklyn, so I’ve been comfortably Haitian-American for a while. I grew up with one foot in each country. And I’ve always had this love for languages; I like to call myself a language junkie – it’s what I do. So when I got to college and started to study linguistics, it was only natural that I combined my love for language with my mother tongue. From there, I sort of stumbled into education. I never intended to become an instructor or an educator. But you know how everyone has a magical power, like a super power? Well, my super power has always been that I’m good at laying things out for people in a way that’s understandable. So all these parts of me – my love of language, my huge emotional connection to Kreyòl, and this sort of natural disposition towards explaining things to people – led to me doing some work in schools in New York, dipping my feet into the pool of education. I ultimately got enough experience to feel comfortable starting my own institute, so I started the Haitian Creole Language Institute in the fall of 2013. I had been teaching Kreyòl before that on my own for several years, so I decided to finally formalize what I was doing in Kreyòl with the institute. So that’s the short version of how I got to where I am currently, where I focus entirely on educating people in Haitian Creole.
CB: So what kind of approach have you developed in your experience as a Kreyòl language teacher?
W: I like to teach Haitian Creole using a cultural lens approach, because language is the gateway to culture, and when you speak someone’s language it’s the fastest way to connect with them. So my activism is through language. Part of helping to shift people away from this really negative image and all these really debilitating stereotypes that are attached to the Haitian people and Haiti as a whole – including the language – is to allow people into the space of language so that they can then expand from there and create a stronger and more genuine connection with the culture. So, in class, we don’t just sit and do, “This is how you speak Haitian Creole.” We also learn what games children like to play, what music Haitian people like to listen to, and my all-time favorite, what food do we eat? That’s why in class, we’re always doing things like listening to bits of poetry or spoken word, and reading different types of literature. The culture lens for me is important because it really helps my students create a more genuine connection to Haiti.
CB: How did you arrive at that philosophy and develop your approach to teaching?
W: With time! I’ve earned some wisdom along the years. I’ve lived my life through this philosophy of mindfulness for a while, and it kind of sounds really straightforward, right? “Pay attention. Mindfulness means to be conscious, to be in the moment.” But I think I take it a little bit beyond being conscious, to questioning why I exist in certain spaces and how I can more genuinely navigate those spaces. That’s important because I occupy multiple spaces as a hyphenated person; I’m Haitian, I’m American, but I’m also neither because I’m not 100% engaged in either space. So, I’m always mindful of how I am occupying these spaces, and how I can more genuinely navigate them. As an educator, I help my students bring this aspect of genuineness to what they do. More than just, “I know how to say this in Kreyòl, and I’m going to go to Haiti and speak to people in Haitian Creole,” I really want to help people dig. Part of the digging is really exposing them to different aspects of the culture, and using a more mindful lens to question why they’re there and how I can help them get to a more genuine space. I just don’t want to be shallow. I’ve met some people who want to learn Haitian Creole to maybe capitalize on it or some way, or to monopolize a certain niche in Haiti, and I’m always thinking to myself, “This isn’t the kind of shallow work I want to do.” I’m always thinking about how I can dig deeper, how to rip out these really misguided notions that have been ingrained after so many years of “postcolonial disastrous living,” as I call it. So that’s why I do things purposely and mindfully through a cultural lens.
CB: This past fall was the first semester of Haitian Creole at NYU. How did it go?
W: It was great! We had a great time. We had a really good mix of students. We had students who we call heritage learners, who have some Haitian ancestry or heritage, and we had students who had almost little to no exposure to Haitian Creole in any capacity. There was also a varying range of interest in Haiti. We also had lots of food! People were just bringing in food, and I was always bringing in something. We had a tea workshop as well.
For me the challenge was trying to find a way to make sure everyone was engaged, because we had students with different levels of comprehension. I also tried to help them do more digging and really identify for themselves how they can use this skill that they’re learning in class towards engaging more genuinely with Haiti. We had different events last semester. For example, we had people come in and speak to them. One of the most fun parts was being part of the wiki.edu project. The class had a Wikipedia workshop at the beginning of the semester, and then continued throughout the semester contributing to articles on Wikipedia. They ended up contributing, something like 37,000 words to Wikipedia! And, it’s part of the larger movement called AfroCROWD, which aims to get more people in the African diaspora involved in generating information on Wikipedia. I was really excited to be part of the wiki.edu portion of that movement, and we’re going to do it again this semester, in both levels. Overall, I think the semester went well. We connected with each other. We had really hard conversations, conversations where people were frustrated, they were angry, they were really shaken, and I think that was my goal. My goal was to get people to be uncomfortable, and get them to question a little bit of who they are, so that they can get to an answer that is, again, more genuine. I think we did that.
CB: What are your expectations for this semester? What are you excited about?
W: I’m excited about the theme of the class, #RehumanizingHaiti. Part of that, for me, is about redefining for myself what I do as it relates to Haiti, and redefining who I am as a Haitian American woman, and then within that sub-category, as a black woman, and within that as a woman who operates in this world of academia. There are multiple sublevels there. So for me, rehumanizing Haiti is about answering the question, “How can I help shift this image of Haiti so that people start to see Haitians, Haitian Creole, and all things Haiti-related as something more human?” I don’t know what the answer to that is yet. In fact, my question is still evolving too. But I know it’s going to involve having conversations about vodou, and having conversations about how in the 1980s Haitians were seen as boat people, and how that has affected how people see Haitians now. It means talking about what’s happening with Haitians in the diaspora now, in education. Again, we’ll have really difficult conversations. I don’t shy away from difficult conversations. I want to have them because it helps bring more clarity for me, and I’m hoping to gain more clarity about the work that I do as it relates to Haitian Creole. I feel like I’m on this journey and I’m redefining for myself where I want to go with it. So the students are going to go on that journey with me.
CB: What are your plans for activities outside the course?
W: My institute does a few events a year, and a lot of that work involves collaborating with other organizations that focus on Haiti. In the next month or two, I’m going to collaborate with an organization called Port Academy, which is an online digital library that focuses on Haitian scholarly work. It’s completely digital, and it’s 100% focused on the work of Haitian scholars and anything Haiti related. It’s super cool, and run by this super fly Haitian-American woman. She and I have collaborated in the past, so I’m really looking forward to this project with her. We’re also going to put together a sort of roundtable where we generate some community discussion around spirituality. I always stay really closely tied to Haitian organizations here in New York and elsewhere. But because my base is New York I’m really close to the Haitian community here, and I support their work by attending at events, paying for events, co-sponsoring events, and so I’m looking forward to those collaborations this spring.
CB: What about here in CLACS?
W: Yes! Here we’re going to be doing some good stuff too. I want to bring in a musician who focuses on electro-vodou. I want to do some more cultural events, and again my theme for this semester is #RehumanizingHaiti, so I’m envisioning a series of events that are linked with each other in some way, with that overarching theme driving what the events are. So maybe, a look at the musician who is really doing great syncretic work with vodou rhythms and Chicago footstep, maybe bringing in someone who can talk about traditional vodou songs, and teach a song or something. The students are also going to ride this poetry train with me, because I’m obsessed with poetry, so I’m hoping to do something poetry-related. The driving theme for me this spring is rehumanizing Haiti. That’s going to evolve as we talk more in class and as I sit and think some more, and also as I interact with more Haitians here in the diaspora, just trying to continuously redefine who I am, where I fit, and how my work affects others.
CB: You’ve used social media in your education work. Where can we follow you and your projects?
W: We’re everywhere! You can find me online as @kreyòlnyc on all social media platforms. We’re on Instagram, we’re on Twitter, we’re on Facebook, we’re on Tumblr, we’re on lots of things. And there are other things that I didn’t know about, like Snapchat and Periscope, so I’m trying to figure out how to navigate those spaces. For me, social media is very important because it helps to archive the work that we do, and it provides larger access to more people, not to mention that social media is really big in Haiti. Right now, you can follow what’s going on with the elections with certain Twitter users who are on the ground tweeting every hour, letting people know what’s happening. And we like to contribute to that mix by adding another viewpoint, another voice, and just letting people know that this is the work that we do, and you should know about it. It’s one thing to do the work. It’s another thing to do the work and make sure people know it’s happening. Because when people know it’s happening is when a shift will happen. So, we’re very, very vocal on social media.
CB: Do you want to wrap up with a proverb an kreyòl that you especially like?
W: I really like the one we discussed recently in class. “Kreyon pèp la pa gen gonm.” “The people’s pencil has no eraser.” That one really resonates with me because I feel like the work I’m doing focuses on the language spoken by the vast majority of people in Haiti. I’m always thinking about the people, and that’s super nuanced because I’m not in Haiti. As much as I’m Haitian, I’m also physically an outsider. So for me to say I’m always thinking about the Haitian people, I would not be sincere if I wasn’t telling you that I’m thinking from my particular lens as a dyaspora. I’m always thinking of my particular category of Haitian people, which is Haitians in the diaspora and the power that we can yield together as a group. I think that now is the time that we’re starting to write a new history for ourselves, given how much we’re reclaiming the power of Haitian Creole, not only as a way to remain connected to Haiti, but also as a way to remain connected figuratively. When I talk about diaspora I mean New York, all of the United States, Canada, all parts of the Caribbean, parts of Europe, parts of Africa. So, the Haitian diaspora is not all concentrated into one place. If we have one unifying language, maybe 10-15 years down the line there might be one central place, maybe online, that everyone can use to access information about what’s happening in Haiti. Or maybe as things change, maybe as they start to think about allowing dyaspora to vote in Haitian elections, maybe Haitian Creole might be the tool that we use to remain unified down the line. So I’m always thinking about the people, and largely, my category of people – people in the diaspora.
CB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!