Second Generation Nation: Mill Polyné PhD on Growing up Haitian in America

Dr. Millery Polyné, 31, is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. He holds a PhD from the University of Michigan and is writing a book on the history of relations between Haitian and African-American leadership.

Born and Raised in Boston

Alice says -- So you are of Haitian parents born and raised in the United States. You are what many call a second generation Haitian-American. You're obviously bright and you could have become a doctor or lawyer or a rapper or whatever else. Why History and Haitian History specifically?

Millery says --Why Haitian history? Well, I grew up basically during a time when to be Haitian in Boston was to be ostracized to the margins.

Millery says -- I went to Morehouse College and I had a Liberian professor who spoke to me about the Haitian Revolution which blew my mind. It wasn't until my junior year of college that I actually took some real pride in my Haitianness. It's sort of a typical story of a child of immigrants discovering their identity late in the game.

Alice says -- What do you mean by "to be Haitian in Boston was to be ostracized to the margins"?

Millery says -- Boston has a significant Haitian population. In the 1970s and 80s, many Haitians were seen as refugees, low wage earners, vodou practicing people. The black and white American communities, as is typical in most places, tend to marginalize new ethnic groups on the block. Kids are picked on. Mothers and fathers are insulted. Employers relegate them to certain jobs.

Alice says -- I hear that.

Millery says -- Similar to many Haitian mothers, my mother entered into the economic niche of a nurse’s aid in a convalescent home -- when she had other aspirations.

Alice says -- Right. So how did you relate to Haiti before that magic junior year in college?

Millery says -- Well, it's a mixed bag. I loved to hear my family or other Haitians discuss politics. And I was always interested in the current political situation. But, it was clear to me from an early age that non-Haitians treated us differently. I despised being the Other.

Alice says – Did you feel more the Other than the average African-American? Or the average non-Haitian West Indian?

Millery says -- Possibly. I was the Other in terms of being darker skinned; the Other because of not speaking Kreyol well; the Other because of different traditions in the household.

Alice says – Just to play devil’s advocate, each of those things may or may not have to do with being Haitian... no? I mean, one could be Bajan or Jamaican or Trini and similarly complexioned to you and other immigrant groups might have had different traditions in the home too, no?

Millery says -- Well, because of the popularity of reggae to be Jamaican was, in my opinion, cool. Most other Caribbean peoples were typically thrown into the British Caribbean crowd. People from the British/American Caribbean had an easier time transitioning because of language and in terms of youth culture it was easier to digest without a longer legacy and memory of "voodoo" and all the ignorance.

Alice says – Right.

Teen-Aged and Haitian in the 80s and 90s
Alice says -- Wyclef Jean does a very good job I think of bringing home what it was like to be Haitian and a teen in those years (and even today I’m sure).

Millery says -- I wish Wyclef was popular in the 1980s. For some reason you need these popular figures to validate your existence in some ways.

Alice says -- In his song Lavi New York (Life in New York) he talks in Creole about being attacked and beaten up in public school. He says "Male lekol/ Ameriken te atakem, panikem, maltretem/ Fe saw vle, ou pakab dechoukem/...Respekte Ayisyen natif natal" ("I went to school/ Only to be beaten up/ However much you tried you couldn't uproot us/... Better learn to respect us Haitians.") I get goose bumps when I hear that song. And you get a sense that what he is saying is : "How ya like me now?"

Millery says -- YES! And I think a part of that attitude informed my path to academia and educational achievement. And people all over the world are becoming more and more interested in Kreyol and Caribbean identity. I presume Wyclef and I are around the same age. And it is important for the Wyclefs and Danticats to keep telling our stories.

On the Path to History
Alice says -- So walk us through the process of you going from this state of not liking that Otherness that others projected on you presumably because of Haitianity to running into the Liberian professor to deciding : “I'm going to become a Historian of Haiti.”

Millery says -- Well, the process, in many ways, is quite simple. It's a mixture of being confused about what role identity should play in one's life--African Americanness/Haitianness. I went from a confused state of not letting ethnic identity define me to a hip hop culture where Public Enemy, black consciousness and African medallions became quite influential in my life.

Alice says – Right.

Millery says -- From there Boyz N the Hood came out and at the end Trey went to Morehouse and one of my high school mentors was a graduate of the college.

Alice says – LOL.

Millery says -- Professor Augustine Konneh was the influential Liberian teacher in my life and he connected many of the African diasporic dots that became critical to my intellectual and personal development.

Alice says -- Having grown up in Haiti where most of my profs were Haitian, it's hard to fathom a non-Haitian offering Haitian history to you. What did you think about that? Was it strange to you or did you not even think about it?

Millery says -- I didn't even think about it. Most of my education, outside of my parents, was fed to me by non-Haitians.

Alice says -- What were you getting by way of history from your parents?

Millery says -- My parents didn't talk much about Haitian history. I was brought up to be an American. My parents never said I was Haitian. They always made it quite clear that I was born in the US and that I was American.

Alice says –- Your parents’ way seems to be one side of the coin. It is a different take from that of other Haitian parents I know who raised kids here but tried to counter their identification to African-American youth culture by imposing a haitianness that the kids just couldn't handle because they wanted to fit in at school.

Millery says -- Yes.
Alice says -- But by contrast your parents seemed to have wanted a blank slate for you.

Millery says -- Yes, in some ways. They sent me to French school early on because some friends of theirs recommended it. But that didn't last long. My parents never had a desire to send us back to Haiti because they felt that all our opportunities for success were here in the U.S.

Alice says -- So you left the French school? I know a Haitian family who sent their kids to a French school in Boston too. It’s gotta be the same one.

Millery says -- Yeah! But I still remember the French national anthem. Colonization of the mind in the U.S.

Alice says – La Marseillaise? LOL. That is hilarious. Now, I totally get that Konneh could have opened up a whole world for you in terms of Haitian History, but why make it your profession?

Millery says -- Well, the funny thing is that when I left high school I realized how many of my friends were Haitian but never admitted it. As a college student I witnessed my little cousins not knowing a single word in Kreyol. I fell in love with the power of education and history on a person’s life. It sounds hokey, but that was my driving force.

Millery says -- I became a history major and when I graduated I knew I didn't want to become a high school teacher right away so I decided to apply to grad school since all my other nerdy history major friends were doing the same. It seemed like becoming a professor on the college level was the kind of life I wanted to have. So, in many ways it was quite practical.

Alice says – Right.

Alice says -- I'm still intrigued by the concept of you finding out that some of your high school friends had been Haitian and not admitted it. Were they not admitting it to you even?

Millery says -- Yes. It was weird. I look back on it now and many of them had Haitian last names. And maybe we never admitted it to each other.

Alice says –- LOL. That was going to be my next question. Couldn’t you tell they were Haitian from their names? Was haitianness a covert thing in high school?

Millery says-- In many ways I was clueless about what was considered a “Haitian” last name.

Alice says -- Were none of these kids getting together and speaking some Creole and joking about their parents the way I see my American born Haitian-American cousins do…

Millery says -- If you can believe it blackness was covert in the school I went to. No one spoke Kreyol. No vèvès on the school hallways

Alice says –- LOL. No vèvès on most school hallways in Haiti either believe it or not. LOL. In fact no vèvès in any school probably. But I know what you mean.

Alice says -- So your school was majority white?

Millery says – Yes, but you bring up a good question about performing identity. In some cases you get people doing that to distinguish themselves and other times people are reluctant and try to blend into the "white universal."

Alice says -- Do you think a similarly situated Haitian-American in a Boston school today that was like yours is having the same experience you had?

Millery says -- I know they are. I started a project about Haitians writing letters to Haiti and I received a number of letters from high school students who revealed some of that angst.

Alice says -- In the song Bay Micro'm Volume on Welcome to Haiti, Wyclef says "now we're on the map." (By we he means Haitians.) Is he a little too optimistic? Is the message in the music not trickling down just yet or is it that the culture among the kids has not quite caught up to where he's “at” in his own personal journey?

Millery says -- Well, I can take that several ways. There's a pop culture map where Edwidge and Garcelle Beauvais and Wyclef are spreading the word about who we are as a people. At the same time the message is trickling down but similar to Reaganomics, it's a slow trickle.

Alice says -- LOL

Millery says -- The overwhelming images we have are on television and the news and inform people's ingrained misconceptions.

Alice says – Right.

Millery says -- And I'm an academic and I know that few students will read my book or my articles. But I am dedicating it to Afri-Haitian Americans who ever had to struggle with who they are.

Alice says -- Why will only a few students read your books?

Millery says -- Well, unfortunately, the venues for academics early in their career to publish their work is limited to journals and presses that do not market to young people or their teachers.

Alice says -- What's an Afri-Haitian-American?

Millery says -- Afri-Haitian American is a moniker for people who are native Haitians or Americans born of Haitian parents who also can solidly identify as African American and with black issues in the U.S.

Alice says – Right. Do academics have the time or means to think of spreading their work beyond academia to others who also need it? I mean here you are on your way to tenure (you've already taught for three years) and you need to publish within those presses that you mentioned. Does that leave you time to even think of spreading some of your knowledge to some of these high school students who might be going around ignoring or even hiding their Haitianness?

Millery says -- I believe it's virtually nonexistent. We may give a talk here or there in a high school. I gave a talk at a Haitian unity dinner at St. John's University last year. And I hopefully will give a talk at a high school in Boston and elsewhere in the future.

Millery says -- In this age of publish or perish, academics teach their classes and go home and write. One could do outreach but that never happened when I was growing up. It is essential for that bridge between the university and high school to be built. Haitian professors need to know the teachers and principals in their communities. But admittedly it's tough.

On Black Public Intellectuals
Alice says -- What do you make of the many black public intellectuals who manage to build that bridge but mostly through the media? Cornel West who did a rap CD and appeared on the Matrix, Michael Eric Dyson etc. Even Manning Marable has a website and an agent.

Millery says -- Quite honestly, I was hatin' on public intellectuals for a while because I felt like the level of analysis was being watered down. But now I see their purpose and I understand that they come from a legacy of intellectuals who used the public forum to communicate their ideas to everyone.

Millery says -- What are your thoughts, Alice?

Alice says -- If I have any anxieties about academia it's precisely the idea of working so hard to be heard by so few who themselves are often so privileged. So I don't really mind the public intellectuals.

Millery says -- It's really the complexity of life and of individuals who desire the best for themselves and their people at the same time.

Alice says -- I see them as professionals like any professionals who want to do a good job while making a living…

Millery says –- Right. But many of our organizations/black colleges don't have the funds to pay for our own intellectuals.

Alice says –- True.

Millery says -– These academics are making six figures and it’s nearly impossible to hear their lectures because of the expensive honoraria or their busy schedules. I hope I never make that mistake.

Teaching Caribbean Immigrants at CUNY
Alice says – So did you choose to be at CUNY?

Millery says -- I did.

Alice says -- Did you even consider an Ivy or other private institutions?

Millery says -- Right now in my life I wanted to be at a public university, somewhere where students had a similar experience to mine. Although I went to a private college most students at CUNY are from working class families.

Alice says -– Right. So do you teach Haiti in your classes?

Millery says -– Definitely. I teach the Haitian revolution specifically and I also talk about race and color in Haiti in my History of the Caribbean course.

Alice says -- How many classes do you teach?

Millery says -- I basically teach History of the Caribbean, Modern Latin America and a course called Americas Encounter Europe. Three courses. I plan to offer a course on "the dictator" in the developing world.

Alice says -- What do you like most about being a history prof?

Millery says -- What I enjoy most is making history relevant to student's current dilemmas. When I can get a student to make connections with their current reality I'm a happy brotha.

Alice says -- Does that happen often?

Millery says -- Often, in the sense that every semester I have students who tell me they appreciate my class and what they learned. Evaluations are a good indicator. But I’m happy when a colleague will tell me that a student enjoyed my class.

Alice says -- What do you like least about being a history prof?

Millery says -- What I dislike is obviously the grading but that has nothing to do with history. I guess what I dislike and love the most is that there are no definite answers to life's most pressing questions.
(Photo Courtesy Brian A. Gaffney.)


wayne&wax said...

great interview, alice! thanks for bringing mill's work and perspectives to my attention. let's hope his ideas will get "out there" more than they currently are.

having grown up in the boston area myself, i can definitely attest to the marginalization of haitians by both blacks and whites. in fact, at our high school (CRLS), there was a school-within-a-school that catered to ESL students; because of the high proportion of haitians in that program, it was dubbed, pejoratively, "the haitian station" by other students. and at a certain point, a number of young haitian cantabridgians formed a "gang" of sorts called h-pac (symbolized with houston astros hats), which i always saw as a direct response to their marginalization. even when we'd all be casually playing basketball around the neighborhood, there was frequently pressure for a "haitian team" to form--pressure imposed on haitian kids by the rest of us.

it was pretty awful, and i can only hope that the situation has changed somewhat as haitians become more "naturalized" as our neighbors. a return to my high school a couple of years ago confirmed that these lines are still being drawn, but i'm getting the sense that the increasingly visible (and audible) haitian population around here is slowly changing some of this stigmatization.

boston's caribbean community has been slowly accommodating these changes, and there is now a sense among local reggae selectors that the majority of folks coming out to reggae/calypso events are haitian. but, then, you have to wonder: where's the konpa? soon come?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alice. Thanks, Dr. Polyne. You've cultivated an important space for fulfilling the needs of young Haitians identified in this interview. Onwards with the good work and dedicated spirit! -cv

Alice B. said...

Hey all,
Thanks for the feedback. Alita, hello again. I remember you from HSA. CV, thanks for the well wishes.

Wayne, at first glance, I lean towards explaining 1) the strong haitian showing at the reggae and calypso events --is this just in boston, BTW?--and 2) the increasingly overpowering haitian presence at the West Indian Day Parade by the disproportion of the Haitian population in the English and French speaking Caribbean itself. Haiti is just a larger country than most of the other non-hispanic islands and a commentator recently estimated that 40% of Caricom is Haitian.

I don't know whether Haitians outnumber discrete groups like Jamaicans in New York or Boston. (These are the types of stats that need exploration, IMHO.) We'd have to look at census data but it sure felt that way at the Labor Day Parade both in the sheer number of bands that showed up and in raw visibility or better yet "nationality performance."

Can you think of any other reasons why Haitians constitute the majority of folks coming out to reggae/calypso events? Is this just in Boston BTW? I'm very curious.

Alice B. said...


Re: "where's the konpa"? It's definitely in my headphones as well as most Haitians'. LOL. It's also in Martiniquan and Guadeloupean headphones as it has been for years and long before zouk was born.

Here in NY, it's danced by a broad cross-section of people at SOB's on Friday nites. Haven't been in a while but I surmise that crowd to be broad but majority haitian. My non-Haitian friends of all hues and colors love to dance it the parties I go to, admittedly usually populated by relatively educated folks.

There may be a language barrier issue, although there is not as much for salsa, probably because its own market carries it and because it's been accessible to Americans for longer. So the question to ask is can and will the haitian-american market carry it to the mainstream --or at least its fringes like soca? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Labor Day parade is definitely giving it exposure beyond its usual audience. Community will must be a factor too. I don't know about the other musicians but I know Wyclef Jean is definitely trying. (Cf the Welcome to Haiti Creole 101 album.) Time will tell... I'd love to hear what the musicians and ethnomusicologists think... Markus Schwartz from Mozayik (a haitian jazz band) was here the other day. Hopefully he'll come back and weigh in...

wayne&wax said...

hey alice,

i can't say that i have any kind of corroborating data about the hatian presence at (anglo-)caribbean music events in boston. that hasn't been my own sense of demographics when i go to, say, an event at the caribbean cultural center in dorchester, where folks have always seemed largely to represent jamaica, t&t, barbados, etc. but when i interviewed a longtime local selector, he professed that the majority of folks attending reggae concerts and soundsystem events in boston are haitian--an observation seemingly drawn largely from the show of flags/noise when performers encourage haitians to "represent" themselves after the usual litany of caribbean countries.

as for konpa, i think you're right about the language issue being a big part of its slow emergence in these urban music contexts. obviously, there are a lot of factors at play here, but it still surprises me--given all the musical commonalities--that people don't juggle konpa alongside reggae, soca, merengue, salsa, reggaeton, etc., especially given a significant haitian audience. actually, i am sure that some people do, but generally these are haitian DJs/selectors playing to a largely haitian crowd. (the cable guy who last serviced my household was a haitian DJ who, upon hearing me mix through lots of caribbean styles, told me that he approaches his performances similarly, mixing haitian pop alongside hip-hop and dancehall, etc.)

for us folks not in the konpa loop, though, can you provide some recommendations of artists/albums/collections that would provide some orientation (and some listening pleasure)?

much appreciated. really enjoying the conversation you're cultivating here.


Alice B. said...

Hey Wayne,

Here is a primer.

1) Most ripe for cross over:

a- Sweet Micky-- who apparently was on MTV the other day. (Haven't verified this but that's what Papa Jube said in his weekly SOBs mailing.) This is by no means message music but it is haitian dance music that haitians love to dance to, judging from Sweet Micky's purported fortune. Sweet Micky is also a master marketer and self-promoter who is for that reason most likely to cross over first; a documentary “Prezidan Konpa” was made of him and a scholarly article even appeared in Transitions about him. He's also appeared on several of Wyclef's albums already. He is in age and in style at the cusp of traditional big band konpa (Tabou Combo, DP Express etc.) and modern new generation konpa. I think his website is www.sweetmicky.com. He usually rocks live.

b-Troubadour stylay

If you MUST purchase ONE Haitian music album, hands down some of the best Haitian music recorded in the past decade is on the Haiti Twoubadou double album. It is of a more acoustic vein than konpa (think Haitian Buena Vista Social Club) but it redoes all the new generation konpa classics of the past 15 years. There is a Putumayo compilation of it too that may be more easily found than the double album that was marketed to Haitians.

c- The young pups (New Generation Konpa)

All of the below bands have several albums that can be purchased online. For having seen the Carimi and the now defunct Konpa Kreyol live, I can attest that they rock and I even prefer their live music and recordings to their studio albums.

The latest Carimi album (which may or may not have come out yet) is very promising. See their website www.carimi.com for an mp3 of the hot hot single “Are you Ready?”.

One personal favorite has always been Konpa Kreyol (now dissolved) but I think they generally did a poor job marketing themselves outside of Haiti and the haitian diaspora. They have now splintered into two new groups, Krezi and KreyolLa. Whichever one of those has Joe Zenny in it (I think it's Kreyol la) has a kick ass single for which an mp3 can be found on a www.heritagekonpa.com .

Among the new generation there are also Djakout Mizik and T-Vice both of which I know less well because I have not seen them live. T-Vice has a song with Buju Banton and Wyclef on Wyclef’s “Welcome to Haiti.”

Over-all, all of the new generation sounds alike (and good) in the studio.

d- Wyclef Jean
“Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101” album is obviously an attempt at trying to mainstream haitian music as well as some songs on previous albums such as “Carnival.” There are collaborations with Sweet Micky, T-Vice, the Troubadour crew (Fabrice Rouzier and Keke Belizaire) etc.

e- Emeline Michel
Haitian female singer most likely to cross over. Very good albums that are jazzier than the above which are more dance oriented.

f- Mozayik
Haitian Jazz band most likely to cross over. See www.mozayik.com. Their percussionist Markus visits this site often.

2) Classic konpa

See my interview with Matt Smith for the roundup. Most well known of this pack is Tabou Combo, which is still around and is by all means an institution in Haitian music. They are very well known in the non-Haitian francophone world, especially Martinique, Guadeloupe and their diasporas. Another favorite of mine who have had as much longevity as Tabou are Tropicana. They are from the North of the country and have a distinctive sound.

3) Rasin (“Roots”) music
In a slump these days but the launcher of the genre, Boukman Eksperyans made albums in the 90s that are now classics. You can find an mp3 of their trademark song, “Kem Pa Sote,” by googling it. They have several albums. Another group to check out in this vein is RAM. Because of the obvious parallels between this music and reggae some thought that it would cross over before konpa but it did not and konpa is definitely better known. There is also a very good Rasin song, “Bay Micro’m Volume” on Wyclef’s “Welcome to Haiti.”

Hope this helps. This is all kind of off topic to the interview so I may turn his into its own post soon.


wayne&wax said...

a wealth of information. thanks!

and, yes, you should definitely turn this into a post of its own. it's not so easy to find all of this stuff (made sense of) in one place.

mbayisyen said...

Alice, Kompa Kreyòl may be dissolved but Kreyòl La is alive and well ( KK w/o David Dupoux who started Krezi Mizik with his cousin Michael Benjamin who has a great album of his own).

Concerning your interview, it was great!
I can't believe there were people who would hide the fact that they were Haitian. Then again, I didn't live the same experiences and I cannot judge them.

Alice B. said...

Hmmm, I had no idea Dupoux and Benjamin were related.

About the identity concealment, a friend pointed out rightfully that the practice is more common among the second generation (i.e. those who were born here.) For obvious reasons it can be harder for them to stand for something they don't know. By contrast, those of us who grew up there--depending on our experiences there of course-- may not cave into the projected stereotypes as much. Ou konn jan Ayisyen frekan!!! LOL.

Nyashazasha said...

Thanks so much to both of you for the interview. As a non-Haitian Caribbean, I am so pleased to witness how a more fruitful dialogue about Haiti seems to be evolving, especially in non-academic (though intellectual)circles. It is only because of work like the Prof's and more honest analyses in the independent media about Haiti that we've gotten this far. It's an important lesson for the rest of us seeking to get our stories out there, since at the end of the day, there's no getting around the fact that for small/black/Caribbean countries, Haiti's history is on many levels our own, and will continue to be seen as such by those who know very little about the Caribbean.

Before I leave I've got to big up NYC Haitans and admit that the giant Haitan float on Labor Day was one of the most impressive on the Parkway. You couldn't help but feel the energy and appreciate the fact that the bandleaders gave proper respect to Sweet Mickey and other Konpa pioneers (according to Haitan friend who was with me on the Parkway, translating.) The Belize flag resembles the Haitian one, and I was proud to be confused for Haitian for a minute :-)


Nyashazasha said...

Thanks so much to both of you for sharing. As a non-Haitian Caribbean I am so pleased to see how a more productive and personal dialogue about Haiti is evolving, at least in the non-academic (though intellectual) spaces which I am familiar with. The fact that we've gotten this far has to be attributed to the hard work of folks like the prof and independent media makers. This may seem obvious, but I think it's an example for those of us from other parts of the Caribbean who need to get our stories heard in any medium and who sometimes forget that the stigmas surrounding Haiti are a barrier to true perceptions about the entire Caribbean.

Last thing, I've got to big up NYC Haitans for their participation in Labor Day. The Haitan float's energy was the most impressive that I witnessed all day on the Parkway, and I was inspired by how the bandleaders made a point of giving proper tributes to early Konpa pioneers like Sweet Mickey (according to a Haitian friend who translated to me that day). Again, a lesson we can learn from.

Nyashazasha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nyashazasha said...

Thanks so much to both of you for sharing. As a non-Haitian Caribbean I am so pleased to see how a more productive and personal dialogue about Haiti is evolving, at least in the non-academic (though intellectual) spaces which I am familiar with. The fact that we've gotten this far has to be attributed to the hard work of folks like the prof and independent media makers. This may seem obvious, but I think it's an example for those of us from other parts of the Caribbean who need to get our stories heard in any medium and who sometimes forget that the stigmas surrounding Haiti are a barrier to true perceptions about the entire Caribbean.

Last thing, I've got to big up NYC Haitans for their participation in Labor Day. The Haitan float's energy was the most impressive that I witnessed all day on the Parkway, and I was inspired by how the bandleaders made a point of giving proper tributes to early Konpa pioneers like Sweet Mickey (according to a Haitian friend who translated to me that day). Again, a lesson we can learn from.

Bryce Wesley Merkl said...

Interesting interview. You may find this to be a helpful resource to share with Haitians:

Kreyòl ayisyen wiki browser