Thirty years ago, Phede Eugene, an honor-roll teenager at Miami Edison High School, parked his car at a neighborhood church and shot himself in the chest. He died instantly. By accounts from family and officials, Phede probably killed himself because he was ashamed of his Haitian heritage.
But more troubling was the thought that being identified as Haitian was so stinging an indictment that Phede no longer wanted to live. It was better to hide — and die — in the shadow of a lie than to live openly Haitian.
As the Miami Herald reported, he preferred to speak English rather than Haitian Creole. He told few people about his Haitian background and reportedly told his family that he refused to identify as Haitian. Phede’s tangled hidden world, however, soon began to unravel. It began about a week before his suicide, when his sister came to Burger King, where he worked, and spoke to him in Haitian Creole.
Phede, who went by Fred, and aspired to pass as African American, was accidentally outed in this exchange, in front of his girlfriend, who reportedly did not know he was Haitian. Mortified, Phede scolded his sister. Shortly after, he borrowed money to buy a gun and ended his life.
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Most likely he lived a tormented life, torn by a thorn of a double consciousness, never sure of where he fit in. He probably agonized over what his girlfriend knew and feared the taunts of would-be aggressors at school who might discover his secret and bully him for being what many Haitians in South Florida were perceived to be — smelly newcomers right off the refugee boat.
I feel his pain. For Haitians like myself, who were so-called “undercover Haitians,” Phede’s story — his extreme disdain, anxiety and, perhaps, guilt for hiding his identity — goes deeper than any one can imagine. Short of suicide, Phede’s story is my story and the story of thousands of others in the Haitian diaspora.
Phede’s death is important because it marked the awakening of immigrant Haitians reaffirming their identity, a long process that drew more attention right after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, almost three decades later. This struggle with identity and acceptance hits close to home as there are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as many as 830,000 Haitian immigrants in the United States, almost a third of that number reside in Florida.
I was 4 years old when Phede died, a resident of South Florida and the son of immigrant Haitians. I did not know Phede. However, by 11, I knew what it was probably like to be him: I felt there was something eerily damaging about letting people know that I was Haitian.
In the thick of the refugee crisis surging in 1991, in my 11-year-old mind, being Haitian represented being primitive, uncultured in sound and speech. To me Haiti equaled hate. Thus began my lying about my heritage. Lying was never easy, and I learned it is impossible to shed your culture, your uniqueness, the stuff God put in you.
I agonized daily over every decision to cover up my identity. I told people that I was half Bahamian, half Canadian or French.
Perhaps the worst of it came when I had to grieve alone. My mother died in a small plane crash in Haiti. To remove any connection of myself to Haiti, I told people my mother died in the crash of the ValuJet Airline DC 9 headed to Atlanta from Miami in 1996.
It was not until college in Atlanta, away from the cultural cauldron of Miami that placed people of Haitian descent at the bottom of society, that I began to embrace my heritage.
Phede never got the chance to embrace who he was. But his death, at least in my mind, marks a watershed moment in the Haitian immigrant experience and highlights a long history of severe bias and stigma that has plagued people of Haitian descent.
Phede‘s death reveals the tragic degree to which untold numbers of Haitians went “undercover” to escape the stigma. But knowing of Phede’s life can begin a new era, one in which I believe immigrant Haitians can reach for self-acceptance and pride.
Ervin Dyer contributed to this article. Yven Destin and Dyer are Ph.D. candidates in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.