Raised by Strict Haitian Parents
Jeffrey Verna grew up in the Parkside neighborhood in Brooklyn, at the corner of Prospect Park, when it was populated by Haitians, Trinidadians and African-Americans.
It is now a piece of what is called Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, a gentrifying neighborhood, where 1 bedroom apartments go for $3,000 a month. He now lives in Bensonhurst, where he and his family, as Haitian-Americans, stand out among Italians, Russians, Jews and Asians.
Verna credits his Haitian immigrant parents with helping him navigate the crime and drugs in Parkside, the Brooklyn neighborhood where they raised him.
“The drugs and the crime were there in front of me but I never made my way towards that route. I had strict parents. The way they raised us, my brothers and sisters, they made sure we went the other way—going to school, getting our education and living a positive life,” said Verna.
He reminisced about growing up in Parkside. “It was fun and I enjoyed the vibes,” Verna said. Yet because his mother was so strict and watched over him when she could, he was only allowed to play in two areas: in front of his building or on the fire escape. He remembers basketball games on the fire escape with his friends, using the fire escape ladder as a hoop.
Verna described his growing up to his sister-in-law Montana Durieux, who interviewed him. “Our parents come here and hustled and bustled and found jobs. They made sure to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table,” he said. “I guess where they came from and how hard it was in Haiti [explains] that hustle they gave over here,” he said.
Durieux asked Verna, a photographer and videographer, 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. Their success story is here. It’s our job to take it to the next level.”
He, his wife and their two children currently live in Bensonhurst, a Jewish, Italian, Asian and Russian neighborhood, as opposed to his old Parkside neighborhood. His family is one of the only black families there and two years after they moved in, he says sometimes he still feels a bit uncomfortable.
“There are some people who came along who have embraced us and our kids. But there is a feeling of awkwardness of being around here,” he said. “Every time I’m walking down the street I feel like I’m prepping my brain for exactly for what I have done for the day. Just in case a cop stops me I know exactly what I did,” 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.”
While Verna proudly defines himself as Haitian-American, he feels it’s through his race that most people see him. “To put it straightforward: 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. I have 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.”
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.”