Haitian Cultural Heritage
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Haitian Heritage Museum

People of Haitian ancestry live in many parts of the world, including the United States. Haitians on the home island call them "dysapora," the popular name for those who have moved away from Haiti. These dysapora often feel the pull of two cultures—the culture of the country where they now live and the culture of Haiti. Many dysapora refer to Haiti as the "motherland," the place that gave birth to their unique Haitian heritage—a heritage that they have carried to other nations.

Haitian-American Eveline Pierre has come up with a plan. You build a 60,000 square-foot museum at the doorstep of South Miami's Little Haiti. Pierre, the daughter of Haiti parents, calls it the Haitian Heritage Museum, the first museum of its kind in the United States. Pierre is the president, chief executive officer, and co-founder of the project. Pierre shares responsibility with other Haitian-Americans, including the museum's vice president, and co-founder, Serge Rodrique. Together they hope to "build a bridge" to the Haitian motherland.

To learn more about this museum, the Social Studies department of Glencoe/McGraw-Hill contacted Eveline Pierre in her Miami office. The following feature is portions of the interview.

Q: What got you interested in founding the Haitian Heritage Museum?

A: Well, I left south Florida about 10 years ago. When I returned three years later, people had started talking about the upcoming bicentennial of Haitian independence. I believed we needed to do something exciting to show the world what the first free black republic had to offer, not just for Haitians but also for people everywhere.

Q: Where is Little Haiti located in Miami?

A: Little Haiti in Miami basically starts from NE 36th Street in the south and reaches past NE 84th street in the north. But the center lies at NE 54th Street, between Biscayne Boulevard and North Miami Avenue. Basically Little Haiti is the place where Haitian culture took root in Florida. At first, nobody lived outside of the community. Haitians who arrived by plane or boat always knew where to look for their loved ones, where to find a welcome. Little Haiti was—and still is—the meeting point for Haitians.

Q: Would you call Little Haiti "the heart" of Haitian culture in America?

A. Yes and no. There are certainly big, bustling Haitian communities in other parts of the country, such as New York. But South Florida is often the first stop for people coming from Haiti and the last stop for people returning there. For that reason, many Haitians and Haitian-Americans see South Florida as kind of a bridge to the motherland.

Q: What did you do before coming to the museum?

A: I got my degree in political science from Howard University, with a minor in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. That interest came from growing up in South Florida, which is heavily populated with people from both regions. I also used to work for our current mayor, Manny Diaz. He started the Special Events Department, which handled arts, culture, and entertainment. Three directors, including myself, and another young lady got the new department up and running. It's brought many great programs to South Florida, like the Latin American Grammy Awards, Caribbean movie festivals, and much more.

Q: You once said that when you started to work for the museum you had
"found your calling." Can you explain what you meant?

A: I'd love to explain that comment. Looking back in time, I realized that everything that I've done since I was a little child prepared me for this job. I feel that I've got a lifetime of experience to offer. I grew up the daughter of Haitians. Yet, while in public school, I began to see things in broader perspective. I realized that I wasn't African American per se, even though most Haitians trace their roots to Africa. I wasn't a Haitian either, even though my parents spoke Creole and French. I was a Haitian American.

The picture grew even bigger for me when I formed childhood friendships. For example, in high school, I made a lot of Jewish friends and went to a lot of Jewish ceremonies and events. I learned all about this culture, too. So the period was very interesting to me, because it made me sensitive to the incredible diversity of South Florida.

I left Miami to attend college, but all my history papers focused on the Haitian War for Independence. I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to explore how different historians viewed this important event in world history. So I never really moved far from my Haitian culture. Instead, I wanted to know more and more about my heritage, especially the role my ancestors played in spreading the ideals of freedom.

Being the museum's director and co-founder at this time gives me the chance to share our culture. As Haitians and Haitian Americans, we don't just want to keep it for ourselves. We want others to know about it. We want people to say, "Hey, I didn't know that Haitians or Haitian Americans did that!"

As the number of Haitian Americans grow in the years ahead, the museum will help them to keep in touch with the heritage of their ancestors. The museum is about creating a legacy. If you don't know where you come from, you're not going to know where you're going. The museum is about self-awareness and culture—a kind of educational revolution. I stay this because a center like ours is new to the United States. It ties Haitians—especially our children—to our past and to our future. The museum says, "Here's where we once were, and here's where we are today. Look at all the great strides that we've made. Aren't you proud?"

Q: Some people might be tempted to say, "Oh, Miami has another great art museum." But the Haitian Heritage Museum is about more than art, isn't it?

A: The museum's name says it all. We're about a people's heritage. The major parts, or components, of this museum will focus on the visual arts. Yet, we want to put Haitian art into the big picture of world art. We hope to start an artist exchange program, in which Haitian artists and artists from other countries learn about each other's styles and techniques.

We'll also have a theatric component. Right now, Haitian film is huge. The bicentennial of Haitian independence in 2004 prompted people to make new films and to watch older ones. We plan to hold a film festival that will shine a spotlight on young Haitian filmmakers. This may inspire other Haitian students to pursue careers in film. Our museum will give them a place to show their works and to compare them to Haitian films of the past.

We will a literary component, too. We'll house important works written by talented Haitian writers of the past and present. Just think of authors like Edwidge Dantikat. She's young, but is already a creative force. She's really captured the Haitian experience in her books. By reading books like hers, the new generation of Haitian Americans can travel back to Haiti without leaving the United States.

Finally, we're also going to have a family component at the museum. For example, we plan to set aside time on Sunday when family members can create an art piece together. Such activities will help cement the generations.

Q: Will the museum include music?

A: Oh yes, there will be lots of music and dance. I was fortunate enough to have someone send me a whole bunch of artifacts related to Haitian music and the different styles of dance. These artifacts will form the first of many exhibits related to the performing arts.

Like the visual arts, we'll want to place Haitian music and dance into a broader world perspective. As you may know, Katherine Dunham, the great American dancer and choreographer, spent a lot of time in Haiti. She had an important dance school there. In the 1930s, Dunham brought some of what she learned to New York City, where she had been invited to perform the "Yanvalou," a very old Haitian dance ritual.

Basically, whether we're focusing on art, music, dance, or film, we'll have one goal in mind—increasing the self-esteem of young people. If they have high self-esteem, they'll be more likely to stay away from drugs and other kinds of trouble. Young people know about the problems facing Haiti. But they may not know about all the good things that Haitians and Haitian American have done. We want to tell them. We're about healthy pride, the feeling that says "we can do something important with our lives."

Q: Did Haiti ever have a "golden age" of the arts?

A: Most definitely. From what I understand, it took place in the 1930s and 1940s. Langston Hughes, an African American writer in the Harlem Renaissance, used to travel back and forth to Haiti at that time. Other writers came to Haiti, too. They wanted to absorb the island's spirit, to sense the feelings in the first black nation to win its independence.

Haiti was different than the United States at that time. Large numbers of African Americans lived under Jim Crow laws and experienced discrimination because of their African heritage. When African Americans went to Haiti, they escaped that prejudice. They came in touch with another aspect of their African culture. As Haitians, we might speak Creole or French, but we've always known that most of us descended from people carried to the Americas on slave ships. Nearly 95 percent of all Haitians have a piece of Africa in their past. I think African Americans like Langston Hughes, who also carried a piece of Africa in his soul, may have found that comforting.

Q: What has been the response of African Americans to construction of the museum?

A: The response has been overwhelming, but not just from African Americans. Remember we're in diverse Miami. We've gotten support from people from many ethnic and national backgrounds. When we had our first advisory council meeting, people more or less said, "Well, it's about time! It's about time for this kind of museum."

We actually have two council members from the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. They're building the first African American museum geared to this beach. During the period of segregation, it was the only beach in South Florida where people of color could go swimming. So we have a partnership with them. We also have a partnership with the Black Archives, History, and Research Foundation, which works to preserve Miami's African American sites.

But the partnerships don't stop with African Americans. Like I said, so many other groups want to become involved with our project. And we welcome their involvement.

Q: How did you start such a huge project—a museum costing millions of dollars? And how do you keep it alive?

A: The most important thing in starting any type of project, big or small, is that you have to believe in it first. Once you believe in a project, then other people will believe in it too. If you don't believe in something that you're doing, how can you sell it to anybody else? You need the passion. With the passion, people start to come to you as word gets around. There's a lot of hard work, too. We have to hold fundraisers, go to corporate and private sponsors, apply for grants, and so much more. We've contacted Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and anybody else who might be interested in helping a program geared at Haitian youth. We have this whole, huge funding campaign for the 2005-2006 financial year.

We're simply not going to stop. The project has sparked a new interest in the dyaspora, Haitians who live outside the motherland. We're getting calls from cities all around the United States. We've been contacted by the media in Canada, and recently we did an interview for an African magazine. So the project can't ever wear us down. We see its global effects and feel like working even harder.

Q: How have you involved young people in the project?

A: We have college students helping us now. For example, at one of our fundraisers, we had this wonderful opera singer, Cassandra Guerrier, perform. She was still in college at the time, but her performance led Governor Jeb Bush to invite her to perform for him. She was later asked to audition for the lead role in the great play Prince of Haiti, King of Paris.

We also gave a young Haitian American saxophone player named Fred Thomas a chance to play before a huge public audience. It goes on and on. At our fundraisers, and later at the museum itself, young Haitian American performers can find a place on the stage.

In addition, we've developed a scholarship called the Haitian Heritage Museum Scholastic Award, which will go to a high school senior, either Haitian or Haitian America. This scholarship grows out of talks with schools in our area. Principals and teachers say Haitian and Haitian American students want to attend college, but quite often lack the money. Since many Haitian students are the first generation in their families to even dream of college, we feel it is very important that to give them something to aim for, in this case a scholarship.

We're reaching out to elementary and middle school students, too. We've got the wheels spinning for a Haitian Heritage Museum club. We're planning to go into schools with large concentrations of Haitians so that we can teach them about their culture at an early age. Can you imagine the effect of a well-established artist from Haiti or the Caribbean speaking directly to children? Or can you imagine an artist or performer showing them how to create something themselves?

So we have decided to do many great things with children and young people of all ages. The legacy starts with them. They're the ones who will pass it on to the next generation of children, who will understand their uniqueness.

Q: You're based in Florida. How have you extended the reach of your ideas outside the area?

A: We have one gentleman named Carl Fombrun who sits on our executive board. He also has an extensive Carl's Corner in the media, including the Internet, and he will be setting up a Carl's Corner at our museum. His family owns a museum in Haiti, so he's helping us strengthen the link to the motherland. He's loaning many pieces of art to our museum. Mr. Fombrun is also allowing us to use his e-mail list to reach thousands of people in Texas, California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.

We're also working with the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. As you may know, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable was the Haitian American fur trader who founded Chicago. We sent one of our advisory council members to this museum to explore ways that we might form a partnership.

In addition, we attend the National Haitian Student Conference, a yearly event that explores and celebrates Haitian culture and society. It started in 1997 primarily as a meeting for colleges in New York City, but now it draws students, scholars, professionals, and famous Haitians from around the world. We speak before this conference to spread news of our museum.

We basically try to hit all of the important events that draw peoples from the African Diaspora, including Haitians. They come not only from the United States, but from countries all over the world—wherever Africans were taken during the centuries of African slavery or wherever they settled on their own.

We do local and national radio. We accept interviews in newspapers, magazines, and educational websites like this one. More and more tourists who visit Little Haiti ask, "Do you know where we can find the Haitian Heritage Musuem?"

People are learning that we're more than diri kole ak pwa rou, "rice and red beans." We're more than konpa. Oh yes, we love our konpa! It makes us want to dance. Yet as important as Haitian foods and kompa are to our culture, we're still more. Oh, we're so much more!

Q: Where do you see the museum going in the future?

A: I dream that the museum will be a staple, something essential to our lives. It will not only educate Haitian Americans about their culture, it will educate others as well. It will bring more and more people into Miami and into Little Haiti. We want the museum to last forever and a day. We want it to be a part of Haitian culture around the world and around this beautiful city we call Miami. It's all about creating a legacy, not only for children of Haitian ancestry but all children—the diverse children who will inherit our United States.


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