Interviewed by Israel Salas-Rodriguez
Podcast by Leah Shaw
Jeffrey Verna witnessed both the positive and negative sides to growing up in Brooklyn, New York during the 1980’s and 90’s. “It was great, it was interesting as far as my childhood, it was fun. I didn’t notice anything negative around me, but as you get older you notice all the negative things that were going on that we were so blinded by as kids. The drug dealings, the shootings and stuff like that,” said the 28-year-old Brooklyn native who was interviewed by his sister-in-law Montana Durieux.
With the help of both his parents, he was able to steer away from the dangers that engulfed his Parkside neighborhood. “It was there in front of me but I never made my way towards that route. I had strict parents—my mom is Haitian and obviously my father is too. The way they raised us my brothers and sisters they made sure we went the other way, which is going to school getting our education and living a positive life,” said Verna. “Instead of getting involved in the drug dealing, the shootings and stuff like that that was surrounding us. So we took negativity and made it positive.”
Verna said he believed his childhood experiences as a Haitian American were better than some of his friends who went through far worse. “Our parents come here and hustled and bustled pretty much and found jobs. They made sure to keep a rrof over our heads and food on the table,” he said. “Not a lot of American families were probably able to do the same things as my parents. I guess their grind and where they came from and how hard it was in Haiti…I guess they came over and gave that hustle they gave over there over here and made the best of it,” he said.
Durieux asked Verna if coming to America worked out for his parents. “I think it was 100% successful for them, coming from where they were. My mother did housekeeping work at a hotel and my father is a doorman to this day—two grinding kinds of jobs. I feel like without those two jobs they wouldn’t be able to provide for us,” he told her. “Their dream was to come to America, make money and go back—at least my father. It was really intense for them at that time. I’m trying to picture us as a family in Haiti right now. What would I be doing? Would I be as creative as I am today? Without them coming here and having that American Dream. Their success story is here. It’s our job to take it to the next level.”
Verna is an independent photographer and a videographer. “Me personally, I don’t like working for anyone else. I do my own independent work. Even though business is not booming how I want to, I’m taking advantage of the talent I have in order to make income for myself and my family.”
He reminisced about growing up in Parkside. “Growing up in Parkside it was fun, I felt free and comfortable amongst my people and I enjoyed the vibes,” Verna said. Yet because his mother was so strict and who watched over him when she could, he was only allowed to play in two areas: either in front of his building or on the fire escape. He remembers his basketball games on the fire escape with his friends Marcus, Luis, Mario and Bernardo. “The fire escape ladder that comes down we used that as a hoop when I couldn’t go to the park, because my mom wouldn’t let me go to the park across the street, which is P.S. 92. I wasn’t able to go there as often as the other kids were able to because of sense of security and I’m young, and the shootings that usually happens in the park and stuff like that,” said Verna.
He, his wife and their two children currently live in Bensonhurst, a Jewish, Italian, Asian and Russian neighborhood, as opposed to his onetime Parkside neighborhood that was populated by Haitians, Trinidadians, and West Indians. His family is one of the only black families there and two years after they moved in, he says sometimes he still feels uncomfortable.
“There are some people who came along who have embraced us. . . . They have really embraced us and our kids. But feeling there is a awkwardness of being around here,” he said. “Every time I’m walking the street I feel like I’m prepping my brain for exactly for what I have done for the day pretty much. Just in case a cop stops me I know exactly what I did. I walked down this block, he can check this camera right here. I was here at such and such time. It’s weird walking the streets here,” he said. “Seeing the news and people getting pulled over for no reason and then you’re locked up. It’s scary in that sense.”
And then there is the way other people view him as a black man. “With women in this neighborhood, when it’s dark, it’s a whole different story. I’m walking the street and they look scared and they cross the street. Meanwhile, I’m the person who will probably save your life. It’s just weird how they judge you based on how you look, being that you’re black.”
While Verna proudly defines himself as Haitian-American, he feels it’s through his race that most people see him. “To put it straight forward I am a black man in America, so it’s difficult you’re already a target just being black,” he said. “So that alone is already hard. And, two, being a father now the fact that I am raising a young man that’s the challenging part to make sure that he understands what’s going on in this world, that his blackness is not really bad, it’s really golden to this world and they’re just afraid of us. Saying “they” is not a particular race—it’s people in general.”
Their conversation ranged over many topics. Durieux asked him about what his American Dream is.
“I don’t want to be famous. I just want people to enjoy my work…and my wife’s work,” he told her. “I want my son and daughter and my future kids to have that house, to raise my family…just to be happy. It’s possible, it can happen, but it’s all up to us, the next generation.”