Illustration by Treal Toonz

Overview:

Velouse Smith shares insights on her book, You Don’t Look Haitian, and its message of cultural pride and empowerment.

Meet the Haitian American author behind the children's book, You Don’t Look Haitian. Drawing from personal experiences and a deep love for her heritage, Velouse Smith aims to educate and inspire children through storytelling. In this Q&A, she shares her book's inspirations, upbringing, and hopes for young readers.

THT: What inspired you to write this book?

VS: Several things inspired me to write this book. Firstly, my love of books. This book is the realization of a childhood dream. In elementary school, I vividly remember a “What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up” day that showcased different careers, including an author/publisher. I've always wanted to write a book, and that day, we got to write, illustrate, and bind our own books. I promised myself I would become an author.

Secondly, my love for children. Although I’m not a teacher, I've worked with children of all ages. My favorite part of interacting with them is watching them learn and discover themselves through knowledge. I wanted to use this book to teach them about Haiti, a place with an amazing history and culture that isn't always shown in a great light. It's a way to show them that their heritage makes them unique, special, and worthy.

Lastly, my children inspired me. They are second-generation Haitian Americans exposed to the culture, especially through their grandparents and extended family. They always want to learn more and this was a fun way to capture their journey in a story that children from diverse backgrounds can relate to.

THT: Can you share a bit about your background and upbringing? Were you ever told that you don't look Haitian?

VS: I was raised in South Florida and am of Haitian descent. Both my parents are from Haiti (Cayemite and Jeremie), but I come from a blended family with strong Caribbean roots and African American heritage. My holiday traditions reflect both cultures. For example, on New Year’s Day, we eat Soup Joumou and also have collard greens and black-eyed peas for prosperity.

I grew up in predominately minority/mixed neighborhoods but attended predominately Caucasian schools. Consequently, I have been told I don't look Haitian. People often judged me based on stereotypes related to skin tone, eye color, or lack of accent, but my unique name would give away my heritage. I faced pushback from both sides but enjoyed my childhood in South Florida, a true melting pot of culture, food, music, and languages.

Illustration by Treal Toonz

THT: Who is this book for? What do you hope they take from it?

VS: The book is geared towards late elementary and early middle school children of all backgrounds, though all ages can enjoy it. Whether it's following Jordan as he navigates adversity, learning about Haiti's history and culture, or brushing up on Kreyol, there's something for everyone. The book features beautiful illustrations by JaFleu The Artist of Treal Toonz, who helped capture the essence of the story.

I hope that children who read this story feel empowered. I know how difficult it can be to understand your cultural background as a child. Through this educational and entertaining story, I hope to promote inner confidence and self-discovery.

THT: This book addresses bullying. What advice do you have for Haitian parents and their children who are being bullied because of their ethnicity?

VS: The most important advice is to listen and validate your child’s concerns. Open communication and emotional support are essential to helping a child overcome such a challenging time. Encourage your child to talk to a teacher, principal, or another trusted adult at school. Foster positive friendships and connections with peers who treat them kindly.

Teach your child not to react emotionally or give the bully the satisfaction they desire. Bullies often seek reactions, so responding unexpectedly can be effective. As I wrote the story, I struggled with how Jordan should react to the bullying. Hopefully, reading about his navigation will give children some ideas.

Lastly, the strongest tool against bullies targeting children because of their ethnicity is building pride in their unique identities. This pride makes them strong and unique.

THT: What does being Haitian mean to you?

VS: My Haitian identity is a vital part of who I am today. It's hard to explain how ingrained the culture is in my identity. My parents have a strong influence on my love for Haiti, and portions of the book reflect that. From my father, I learned pride in our ancestors and their fight for independence. This spirit helps me overcome barriers in life. He also taught me about the mysticism from Africa that shaped Haiti’s culture through music, dance, and spirituality.

My mother taught me about Haiti through food, music, and her love of the land. To me, Haiti represents “Home.” My parents brought all that love with them when they immigrated to the United States and passed it on to me. I continue to pass it on to my children. Being Haitian means strength, perseverance, pride, beauty, and love.

This interview has been edited for tone and clarity.

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting story shared by many, but she should have shown a real picture of what she looks like to support the evidence.
    Hoping to see it next time in her reply.
    Thanks

    Fred S Millan

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