By Joyann Jeffrey
For Christelle Hyppolite, learning to speak Creole connects her with a heritage she never quite understood.
At home I felt disconnected with my relatives, the 23-year-old says. Not being able to speak Creole had an isolating effect on me. So, in an effort to connect to her family and culture through language, Hyppolite enrolled in the Haitian Creole Language Institute of New York, an educational facility dedicated to teaching others Haitian Creole in the Two Moon Art and House Café in downtown Brooklyn.
“Since French is the language of those who are in power and have put down our people, it has more influence,” Wynnie Lamour, founder and professor of the institute, says. Growing up as a bicultural Haitian American, Lamour stressed the importance of Haitian Americans learning to speak the language.
“It’s like asking Americans how important it is to teach English to their children,” she says. Lamour decided to empower the Haitian Diaspora by creating the institute, where she teaches Creole through workshops, seminars and small-group activities.
Hyppolite enrolled in Lamour’s third class, “Heritage Learners of the Haitian Diaspora.” Every Wednesday night the back room of the Two Moon Art and House Café in downtown Brooklyn is transformed into a cultural haven where the primary language is Creole, not English. To get ready for the lecture, students shove together two wobbly wooden tables in the middle of the café.
Raffaela Belizaire, a 31-year-old Haitian-Italian American, is one of the five students in the class with Hyppolite. Like Hyppolite, Belizaire couldn’t quite pick up Creole at home. But, after one visit to Haiti, where she was unable to communicate with anyone, she decided it was time to make a more serious effort to learn.
The institute not only instills pride in Haitian culture, but also helps to counteract negative stereotypes, Regine Roumaine, executive director of Haiti Cultural Exchange (HCX). “It is important to present a more nuanced and realistic image of Haitian culture.” Part of Lamour’s workshops include exposing students to organizations like HCX that showcase Haitian music, art and folktales.
“It’s the highlight of my week,” Belizaire says, adding how the class makes her feel empowered. “One of the hardest things to do is tell someone you’re Haitian but can’t speak the language. At least now I can say that I’m learning.”
Since 2000, Creole speakers in the U.S. have increased by more than 70 percent, according to data from the census, ranking Creole as the 10th most spoken language in the U.S. other than English.