Valérie Déus: Missing New York, Building an Artist’s Life in South Minneapolis

 

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How did I get to Minneapolis? My husband.

I was born in the County of Kings, Brooklyn, Flatbush, New York City.
My world was big but felt small. Everyone I had contact with was Haitian. Until third grade I thought all Black people were from Haiti.

Young Haitians I meet now tell me  “you sound like my grandma.” I don’t know the young slang because my neighborhood was made up of people who left Haiti in the 1970s — a middle class diaspora. There was one older woman of Irish descent who lived in my building. She had polio braces. She told me, “there used to be lots of us here, now there’s just me.”  I used to run up and ask her questions.

I started writing when I was 5 years old. I still have my kindergarten diary. So much of it is funeral plans. I was obsessed with preparing for my own funeral — the sweater I would need — the scarf. I also made a list of things I would need in the event of a hurricane. None of the Noreasters that hit New York when I was little were bad, but I knew about hurricanes in Haiti. I packed a bag with a flashlight, underwear, shirts. My mom found it and asked, Where are you going?

I first visited Haiti when I was three. My mom tells me at the airport the ticket person called my name, testing to see if I was who she said I was, making sure I wasn’t being kidnapped.

When I was six I went again. It was intense. Hot. Big, scary looking trees with shadows that looked like creatures that might eat me.  There was a hurricane when I was there — water everywhere, houses shaking.  There were these giant holes in the streets where all the sewage and water would run. Even at six I wondered, why don’t they fix this? Won’t people fall in? We went to a movie on that trip. I was upset they didn’t sell popcorn. People chewed gum. I don’t remember the movie much. Something with French aristocrats — lots of velvet.

At that young age I was already going to movies with my uncle. One of the earliest I remember is King Kong with Jessica Lange.

My parents let me watch TV sometimes so I could, “learn about my country,”  something they couldn’t teach me, but they worried about me watching too much.  They wanted me to read books.  When I was left alone in the summer they would disconnect the TV wires. I would spend the day trying to figure out how to rewire them. My mother would check the TV to see if it was hot.

I watched everything: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, fantasy, horror and countless Woody Allen movies —Anne Hall, Sleeper, movies without Black people.  They were always on TV for some reason.IMG_2965 2

Reading Highlights Magazine, the Goofus and Gallent comic was a favorite. 

I had to wait a long time before I had a friend. My sister is 10 years younger. Once she came along it was awesome. Together we were unstoppable.  She didn’t tattle. She knew how to keep a secret. (My mother said the same about her siblings. Sisters and brothers kept each other company.) I brought her with me to all of my high school events and beach parties. She kept me out of trouble. I could always say I had to bring my little sister home. A good excuse.IMG_2968 2

 

School 

From kindergarten to 3rd grade I went to Holy Innocents,a Catholic school in the neighborhood.  The church was across the street from the school. One of priests had a pet snake. We would go visit the snake. He passed a long time ago. He was awesome. It was a good school. I used to want to get married in that church. But then when I got married I decided not to do church at all.

From 3rd to 7th grade I went to a French school in Manhattan with UN kids. There was a big class difference there. I met students from Haiti and the African continent. I am still friends with many of them.

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My family moved to Queens and I went to high school on Long Island. That was terrible. I just waited for college so I could get back to the city. Watching the Scaramucci scandal play out this summer triggered me, bringing up memories of horrible sexual harassment and bullying in high school. I had buried those memories.  I forgot, but my body remembered. I told my husband about it. Now he knows why I flinch when when he comes up to me without announcing himself — a defense mechanism from high school.

I was desperate to get back to the City. I went to PACE University in downtown Manhattan. It was everything I was waiting for.  I was smart enough to make friends with the international students. Now I have people to stay with all over the world. My mom was really against me moving into the dorms, but I needed that. I was worried I would not be able to live alone.

My mother worked for this child psychologist so I thought that’s what I’d do. I registered for a psych class where we were required to watch the film Altered States, about a guy losing it after time in an isolation tank.  It was disturbing. And reading Carl Jung was so boring. I quit psychology.  Today I often take the role of counselor for my students and friends. Without Jung.

Becoming a Writer and Teacher

I liked hearing and telling stories. I became an English major.

While in college I interned at Soho Press and met Edwidge Danticat.  Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, had just come out. She called the office one day and I answered. We’ve kept in touch ever since. She recommended I go to Long Island University, the Brooklyn campus, for graduate school. I took her advice as gospel, never thought to apply any where else.

I loved being in school. I didn’t want to be a teacher. My only teaching experience at that time was CCD communion class — sixth graders on a Saturday morning, there because their parents made them, a curriculum I couldn’t change, no room for questioning the content. It was terrible.

Teaching as a graduate student was totally different. Everyone was grown and wanted to be there.  They did the reading and they wrote papers I wanted to read. I discovered I enjoyed teaching.  Student were reactive. There work was clear.

Teaching in Minneapolis is different. There is something self-effacing about the culture. Students feel like what they have to say is not important. Once they are pushed to talk it’s great. In New York they needed no pushing. I would tell people to write a paper about why they missed class. Even those papers were interesting.

I’d rather not teach on-line. It feels make believe. You’ve gotta be in the room and feel that heat when you say something wrong — sit in that embarrassment. Those moments push you into places you didn’t even think of going.

Escaping New York after 9/11. 

I have trauma from 9/11. I was dating someone who died that day — not at the Twin Towers.

All the phone lines were down.

That morning I picked up my sister at school and we went to the hotel where my mom worked. Micheal Jackson’s limo was in front of the hotel. His fans were gathered twenty feet in front me. I didn’t see him, but I saw his hands.  I looked down the street and saw dust rising. It was the most surreal American moment.

That night my boyfriend’s father told me his son — who had sickle cell anemia — had died.

I had just started grad school. I didn’t go to class for two weeks. Everyone was miserable — out in the streets — people crying.  I was working in D.U.M.B.O. The World Trade Center was right out the window — a smoky pit.

I thought — I can’t live in this cemetery.  I decided to take a trip to Poland to see a friend. The day I bought the plane ticket, flight 587 to the Dominican Republic crashed.

It was good to be in Poland, where I didn’t understand anybody. Just what I needed. I thought I might move there. I did research about the Poles who came with Napoleon  to fight against the Haitian Revolution in 1802, got to the island, decided they liked it and stayed. I was looking for a Polish/Haitian connection to justify my moving plans.

I had a neo-Nazi experience in Poland. I saw these skin heads moving in formation, went into a store and asked the saleswoman if she thought I should stay there. She said yes. I believed her and stayed over an hour, bought some amber jewelry,  until they left.

It made me realize anything could happen anywhere.

I met my husband-to-be in New York. He couldn’t get a job he wanted so he came back to Minneapolis, where he grew up. I thought, well I guess I like him enough to follow. I figured if I don’t like it I can always come back — that is what my parents always told me. I landed in Minneapolis on July 5, 2005 and went immediately to Dunn Brothers to look for a job. I always thought of living here as temporary.

A lot of my moving to Minneapolis was about escaping 9/11.  I needed to get out of that space. New York City sometimes feels like a small town. Sometimes that is stifling. I thought I could come here and start over where no one knows me. Nobody still knows me. Even my husband doesn’t know me, ha.

 

Minnesota Nice 

Nice can be nice.
I’m not against nice.
Maybe I am.

I want people to tell me what is happening. At work there is always someone trying to make everyone feel OK. A lot of time is taken up, but nothing is produced. I think, Its not OK. Let’s deal with what is.

I never had a problem meeting people before I moved here. In New York I was always meeting new people. People are much more open to that newness. Here people like the old reliable. If I stuck with old-reliable in New York I’d never talk to anybody. As an adult I was one of the few native New Yorkers I knew!

I don’t know how to approach people here. I don’t understand the body language. I never thought it would wear me down. I spend a lot of time at home. I feel like I have only a limited amount of patience and I want to spend it on things that are clear.

I never get to have a full map of a person here, because nobody tells you anything about themselves.

Sometimes I think about moving home to New York. It was busy and awesome. Then I realize I’m thinking about how New York was, when I was in my 20s. It’s frustrating when I go back. I’m 43 now.

An Artist’s Life in Minneapolis 

There are many things that keep me here, opportunities I would not have in New York. In NYC I had no time for anything except teaching and commuting.

I have a radio show, Project 35, on KRSM  98.9 FM.  It airs at 9am on Thursday and 10am on Saturdays. Part of the Southside media project.  I like that nobody listens to it. I’m weird, I know. I can say anything. I think of it as an eclectic magazine for your ears.

I curate Cinema Lounge — screening short films at Bryant Lake Bowl that are locally made, third Wednesdays of the month. (Send me your short films!)

I produce an Art Zine: We Here.

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Valérie’s first issue of We Here — just out — is filled with exquisite work by South Minneapolis artists. The free Zine is a hard love gift to the city. Look for it in your closest Little Free Library 

My goal is to publish one a year— essays, poems, rants, Instagram posts, photography, things people write on Facebook that should be in books. Somebody did a project where they mapped them all out the Little Free Libraries. I’m using that map to distribute them.

Radio, print, film, my own work. I have chosen an artist’s life. Minneapolis allows me to do it.

We live in the Central neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  Its been good. My mother came here and she liked it. She knew I was OK.

I have a tendency to want to flee things, but I will probably stay here. Starting over at this point would be too hard. I can’t imagine doing it again. I wish more of my people were here. I wish we had soft-serve ice cream trucks here. I can’t believe how sad it makes me. Those unsanitary New York ice cream trucks are something I miss.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Drew Edwards, 30. Pushing and Turning the Stone in North Minneapolis

20160604_122317 2 (1)I come from a talented, capable and impactful family. They inspire me and keep me honest. I believe in them. I think the most of my younger siblings. My mom and my grandma set the tone for excellence. My mom is not a bigger teller — she showed me her love with everything she has done. My dad is my best friend these days . I can tell him anything. Anything. That is why I move the way I move. To make my family proud. Worthy of their investment.

My Grandmother and my great Aunt Loraine came up here in the early 70s from Louisiana. One was a Nurse, the other worked in a linen manufacturing company. They came for the work. My grandma remarried here, extending our family to include a side with St. Paul roots. My Aunt also got married here, giving me a gallow of cousins.

My mom was born in Hammond, Louisiana 90 miles from New Orleans — a town so small that my family has their own street. My great uncles have barber shops and other businesses, on property the family h owned since my great grandpa moved there and worked that land.  Mom left Louisiana for Minneapolis when she was 9-10 years old.

My Dad’s family are originally from Mississippi by way of Chicago. My Dad came up here while still in the military. He was a Marine. He was also a minister and had connections here through the church.

My mother, brother, and sister brought me into the world. Mom went into labor in the house. She called grandma, who navigated her through it on the phone. My sister and brother — two and three years old — helped out.

I lived in the house in Cedar Riverside until I was 9-10 years old.  It was a pocketed part of the neighborhood. You have to come in through 28th street. No businesses, just a park, a hospital and a river. We would go down to the river all the time. I knew all my neighbors. I would go next door until my mom came home. It was traditionally White and Black. Native Americans shared the enjoining neighborhoods — Cedar and Franklin, and I was aware of their presence.

Minneapolis has that distinction of being six blocks from any park — one of the things I love about it. When I moved to 34th and Bloomington I was a block from Powderhorn Park. The neighborhood was more competitive. It was on a major street. Near Lake and Chicago. We didn’t know our neighbors. There was a gang. It was not like the tight-knit community I was raised in when I was little.

My parents got divorced when I was four. My dad had a new family by the time I was six. I didn’t even know that was problematic until I was of a teen age and I realized — boys DO need their father.

I started school at Trinity Lutheran. From there I went to Hall, then Four Winds and then Wilder( Benjamin Banneker). I kept getting kicked out. Expelled. Why? I think its layered.

1. I had personal stuff I needed to address. God has blessed me with discernment; knowing right from wrong. I would say what I thought, regardless of whether a person was my  elder. I got adults upset with me.

2. I was the victim of un-engaging curriculum styles. Even as a young kid I always felt like “This is not for me — it is not entertaining, fulfilling, or rewarding.” I think that led to my outbursts. Acting out.

3. I was in Special Ed from 3rd to 11th grade. My mother didn’t know how to help me. She had no idea how to advocate for my needs. She did what she thought was necessary. Signed on the dotted line.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience.  I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage.  Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom.  I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

Moving to so many schools, I didn’t make friends. My cousins were my friends. And kids at Church. When I was eleven, my mom changed churches. Three years later the pastor decided to move the church to California and Mom decided to follow him.  I was given a choice: stay with my dad or go with her. I chose to go with her to Salinas, California.  It changed my life.

I just thank god I was able to have the vision at that time, to know that I needed to get away. There were a series of events that happened during my 8th grade year. I got introduced to crack and how you could make money off of it. I got introduced to guns. The gang life had really turned up in south Minneapolis. Some high-ranking gang showed up. Hispanics brothers and sisters. It was serious. I didn’t think it was something I wanted to partake in, so when my mom gave me the option of leaving I said yes.

Mom didn’t know any of this.  She worked fifty hours a week. Still does. She gave me everything I needed.  She did what she was required to do. I needed a community to raise me, as any kid does. But some in my community were not the American Dream.

In Salinas I didn’t have any cousins or friends except for the other people from the church who migrated too– about 20 people.  My friend Ashley, a white girl from the Church became a close friend. To this day I miss her because we had this experience that others don’t understand.

In Salinas I was more outgoing.  I went to North Salinas High — the not-so-well High school  in town. I had failed two of my classes as a freshman at Roosevelt in Minneapolis, so I wasn’t  allowed to go out for football.  It crushed me. It was one of the only things I had.

In Salinas I got to play football.

My first day of school in Salinas I saw this guy getting his breakfast by himself. He was alone at lunch time as well. I walked up to him and said “You are not from here either.”

He said,”Naw I’m from Tulsa, Bro”

From that day we’ve been best friends. Tulsa Tony.  We had the whole California experience together and then he came up here to live in the Midwest for a couple of years.

I made some other friends on the football team.  I played with some future NFL players. My school was predominantly Hispanic — it was a different feel. Their were gangs but they were different. But I didn’t have to worry too much about it.

I became popular in California. I was from Minnesota. I was different. Interesting. It made me outgoing. It allowed me to be an individual — to formulate my own thought processes. On the other hand, as a kid in California there were NO jobs for me. For teenagers in Minneapolis at least there were some job programs.

I was in  California for two years. I came back half way through my junior year. I finished high school at Central in St. Paul.  Made some really good friends there.
At Central I learned  something about myself. Proof that I could do well. I was working and taking after-school classes and still managed to graduate on time.  I had friends who were in Gen. Ed. the whole time, who came from nuclear families, who did not finish. I was on the wrestling team and  I had good support system there.

In the end, I didn’t get what I wanted at Central, but I got what I needed.

But, I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. Nobody ever approached me about taking it.  No one talked to my mom about it.

After high school I went to MCTC, studying Business. I have alway  had an entrepreneurial  sense.  MCTC had all these buffer courses. I went for a year and a half, paying to be ready for college. Still, MCTC was cool because it was different from high school.  I had choices, freedom,  opinions. And I had a different sense of its importance because I was crossing to be there and paying for it. I took out a student loan. I met some really good friends. I got more of the experience of pushing through when things are difficult.

It was also  a maturing period because I had a stint of homelessness. The work I was able to get was doing security at the metro dome.  I was also hustling, selling weed. I faced unemployment, learned how to find the ‘no- excuse button.’ Learning how to support myself.  My mom and grandma had set the foundation— showing me how to work and support yourself. Now I had to do it. I graduated after four years with a two year degree. I got my first apartment when I was 20 — me and my homeboy.

After MCTC I worked. I retention specialist for Comcast basically door to door bill collection. I learned about why and how people move, selling techniques. I learned that if you help enough people help themselves, you will get what you need in the end. I did that for about three years, without a lot of financial success but with a lot of mental success.  I have been savvy. When I get started with my own business, it is going to take off.

In my early 20s I seriously considered moving out of the United States — Brazil, Toronto. Or moving to Tulsa, Boca Raton, Florida, California…just moving. I didn’t feel like Minnesota had anything to offer me.  But, I thought, first I should finish school.

I talked to people at Metro State, learned about their Urban Education program. I asked “What is your success rate? How many people of color actually pass through your program?”

They said “Well, we are working on getting our numbers up.”

I said, “Exactly!” [with sarcasm].

I was really suspect.  But I had learned from business that you have to put value in yourself for others to invest in you.  So I tried. I got the encouragement and support from professors. Ever since then I have been very successful in school — mostly A’s — a few Bs.

My philosophy for education is the same as for policing. It is not good enough to say there are some good cops if the overall system is racist. Likewise,— so what if there were a few good teachers, if the overall system is not good. Lets work for overall excellence — all the teachers in the community, going to bat for kids.

When kids try to out-slick me, I tell them I was the slickest. I hear kids in 8th grade talking about joining gangs. I say, “What the hell are you talking about. You are playing a dangerous game. You need to find a different kind of support. Take Mr. Drew’s advice and find a sports team or other venue for support. I know about that life and it is not for you. You think you have time but in 8th grade decisions are being made and compounded.”

Ive been a teaching sub. It is frustrating to me when people don’t care if I have the knowledge to teach something. They will say, “Would you like to do art today? Here is some material.” I say, “I don’t feel comfortable teaching something I just looked at ten minutes ago.” That is not excellence. The students deserve more.
I was involved in activism from a young age — May Day parades, church involvement, volunteering, coaching football at Powderhorn. That gave me a community advocate platform where I could speak. From doing business, my speaking voice has become more toned.

In 2012 I was watching the news. I heard a conversation about a young Black kid,Trayvon Martin who was killed that by that guy — George Zimmerman.

I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t understand it. It changed me. A grown man can kill a kid and get away with it?! Then people came out with that whole “hoody” shit. Even people in my family were saying — “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t wear a hoody.” I’m thinking to myself — “Oh hell. So now we can’t wear hoodies, walk at night, eat skittles, drink ice tea, travel alone… enter gated communities….”

It was a call to action. I’ve got to do something. So when Black Lives Matter first took 35W I said “Wow. They took the Highway?!  Hmmm… “ Then when came to shutting down Hiawatha I was like —”IT’S TIME!!.”We shut it down.

Today (July 25th) I took a plea bargain on my Mall of America charge.  If I get another trespassing charge it will become a misdemeanor.

I don’t claim a Black Lives Matter Banner.  At the end of the day, the banner’s going to fade away . The movement continues. The struggle is real.  A lot of different banners are going to be waved in the process. I’m with the movement. With the stone being pushed and turned.  At the Mall of America, the Black State Fair. Nonviolent rallies, Education. Conversations with people at work and in my community. Working broadly allows me to have many circles of friends — people who would not naturally speak to each other.  I try to unify people, to bring them together.

A lot of people don’t know how to be politically savvy in letting people know the truth. You have to be person who can shine light without people feeling burnt. I am trying to master that.

There are two faces to my life right now. One face I stay strong and show my best side. The other face –I just want what I want minus the sacrifice and the hard work.
I moved to North Minneapolis recently. I love it. One of the best decisions I made in my life. My dad was always a north-sider, so I was never a person who said — “I’m not going to North…”  but once I started working on the North side I thought, “These are my people!”  They are more loyal, more responsive to community concerns than other people.  Concerned about what is going on with their kids. They want to get it right.

If you don’t got over to North Minneapolis you really don’t know what we are dealing with — be it food deserts or economic mobility,  or this whole bad narrative about people getting shot. Every time people get shot in Northeast, or a Northern suburbs it is reported as North Minneapolis. It could be in Crystal, Robbinsdale but they say its North Minneapolis.

Part of the problem is that people want a token. They say “Go to Him.” There are  people who get a little recognition, who claim to still be part of the neighborhood. They get a nice little severance package, get used to an 80K diet and now they live in Robbinsdale. They still go to Zion or Shiloh, and their mom is still in North… but they still haven’t pushed a stone. It’s true nationwide. When was the last time Jesse Jackson actually did something impactful?

I have become involved with many groups:  Brotherhood Empowerment, Black Coal, Mad Dads, Black Lives Matter, and Social Justice Education Movement. I really believe it is about bringing the groups together.  That is my goal. The by-any-means-necessary folks, people of faith, teachers, business people. I work with them all.

I go to many meetings.  I want to be at the table as much as I can.

Minneapolis Project.