The Medford Haitian Oral History Project

Kennedy gathers volunteers from Medford, nearby communities

By Nell Escobar Coakley
June 25, 2012

After more than a year of stops and starts, Sharon Kennedy is finally beginning to see the light. The Grammy Award-winning storyteller has been working steadily to bring Haitian culture to the forefront of the community. The Haitian Culture and Stories project, also known as the Haitian Oral History project, kicked off last November in City Hall. But not before Kennedy took the long way to finding area residents willing to talk about their lives. “It’s been tough,” Kennedy said. “I’ve encountered a lot of issues, from the very beginning.”

Thanks to a grant from Medford Health Matters, Kennedy’s original project featured children of all ethnicities meeting with local seniors once a week to gather stories. But with seniors ready, Kennedy found it difficult to find kids to participate. The second incarnation featured Haitian children gathering stories from Haitian adults.
“Again, it wasn’t hard to get the adults,” Kennedy said. “But it was impossible to find the kids because they had other activities.”

Kennedy then found someone who ran a soup kitchen, where English learner classes for Haitians were also held. That person, she said, lost the space due to a rent hike and the opportunity to put kids and adults together disappeared. “That’s when I got together with the Medford Transcript and we started collecting Haitian culture tales, music and art,” Kennedy said. “That’s been hard, too, because even though we got the word out and many people were trying to help, there were obstacles.” The language barrier and the fact that many people in the Haitian community Kennedy was put in touch with were working two jobs were just two barriers. “It was hard for them to find time for me,” she said. “Sometimes I might have someone lined up and they got sick or there was a birth in the family and they were needed.”

But thanks to Haitian activist Josiane Bistoury and Medford Housing Authority employee Elysee Castor, Kennedy has slowly made inroads. Kennedy said Penny Bruce in Medford Health Department and Diane McLeod in the Office of Diversity and Human Compliance were also a big help. “It’s been frustrating,” she said. “To think I had one person and then they’d cancel and then I wasn’t able to set something else up or there would be a work or schedule change…sometimes, it was the best I could do.”

Changing directions
After months of disappointment, Kennedy said the project has found new life. “Every time I’ve lost three potential people, I’ve had to find a way to get a new batch of people,” she said. “But then the people I’ve interviewed, like Josiane or Marie Andre from Everett or Nathalie Fan Fan…they pointed me in other directions.”
Kennedy also turned to long-time friend and Haitian storyteller Charlot Lucien, who has in turn sent her to Melrose lawyer and Haitian activist Nunotte Zama, who has pointed her back to Medford residents Henry and Evelyne Milorin.

“Charlot contributed his paintings of Haiti and Nunotte and her daughter, Rebecca, offered me poetry and connections back to Nunotte’s village of L’asile,” Kennedy said. “And then there’s the Milorins, who have long advocated for people with disabilities…and they live in West Medford!”

Kennedy said she’s suddenly found herself with a string of people who have brought so much to the table when she most needed it. “It’s been amazing!” she said of the content and support she’s received. “It’s great, the things I’m finding out and the wealth of culture that people are sharing. So many Haitian people bring their traditions with them and they make sure their children know how to sing songs in Creole, they keep in touch with their home villages and they want to bring something back to those villages.”

And they’ve been incredibly generous with themselves, she added. “I have been welcomed to so many Haitian homes at this point — and with such hospitality,” she said. “Many times the person I am interviewing has put out a whole spread of delicious foods and drinks. At several homes, especially the home of Evelyne and Henry Milorin, I have been fed sandwiches and offered a huge variety of fruit such as pineapples, grapes, oranges and mangoes.

“Once, in Everett, Marie Andre made cinnamon tea from scratch for me and for my translator, Kettly Tucker,” she continued. “Believe me, there is no store-bought cinnamon tea that comes close. At Nunotte Zama’s house I tried ‘griot’ for the first time: it was the most delicious pork in the world. There I was also given a great variety of fruits as well as cassava bread and...lasagne! I refused the offer of rum just for the sake of the interview.”

Next steps
On a recent afternoon, Kennedy found herself at the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden with trusted interpreter and Medford resident Kettly Tucker to interview Malden residents Mark Julien, Marie Joseph Sanon, Anne Aurelien and Jean Reginald Coupet and Everett resident Lucien Thermidor about their home country and their reasons for coming to the U.S.

While she plans another session, Kennedy found herself speaking with Aurelien via Tucker. Soon, an animated Aurelien was singing and dancing and sharing her traditions, music and folklore with an excited Kennedy. That, she said, is exactly what she’s searching for.

“It’s turned into such a pleasure to be collecting these people’s histories, what their life was like in Haiti and what they like about being here,” Kennedy said. “There’s never enough time to get everyone to sing a song or show a dance or a piece of visual art. The Haitian culture has so much to offer and that’s why it’s always so exciting to talk with someone new!”

Kennedy said she’s likely to go on collecting stories for a while. She’s particularly interested in having people send her recipes, perform songs or dances on video and capture the spoken word or even artwork. “The website has lots of material on there from what we’ve done so far,” Kennedy said. “I’d love to have people send me more things so that I can share it in English or Creole. When I say this can go on, I’m always willing to go to someone’s house to get a song or a poem or a piece of art…or just to talk.”