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As a child, I usually found it quite fun being a girl. Growing up with two brothers had its perks: I got to do all the girly things that girls do (dressing up, playing with dolls, etc), but I also got to get dirty and do all the things that the boys did too. It was the best of both worlds. Usually.

I was raised to be a good little Haitian girl, and as such I was required to greet (“saluer“) all adults properly. “Properly” greeting a grown-up by Haitian standards means that the younger person should greet each adult in a room (or a group) individually. Boys had the pleasure of shaking hands with the men and kissing the women on the cheek. Girls had to kiss every single adult present, male and female. Oh, how I longed to be a boy in those moments!

Usually with my mom’s friends, the ritual involved said kissing followed by a sort of “Show and Tell”. I would stand there, my mom would share “important” highlights of my current life using my Haitian nickname (which by the way 90% of Haitian-Americans have): “Gigi had 2nd honors this quarter, if it wasn’t for Conduct, she would have had 1st honors; AND she’s almost the same shoe size as me!”. Her friends would respond: “It’s good to be smart, Gigi!…but you shouldn’t talk so much in class”, “Ah, li grandie!“, etc. This was usually followed by a brief “Question and Answer” session directed at me: “So…tell me…do you have a boyfriend at school?” or “Would you like if I bring over some of my old shoes?”. The whole episode was quite embarrassing.

My dad would have his friends over periodically for a good old fashion game of Dominoes. The event was somewhat akin to “Poker Night” in American culture. The players were all men. Whenever we kids had to greet them, I was so jealous of my brothers. They would saunter through the room shaking everyone’s hands and then run off to play. I, however, had to go cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek… *sigh*

I dreaded the whole scene. It took forever (compared to my brothers) to greet in this way; I wanted to run off and play too! And it wasn’t just that; I had an issue with the whole “closeness-to-people-I-don’t-know” thing. There were times I had to kiss beard stubble! (Ugh!) Sometimes the men smelled like, uh, they had a long day; other times i found that grown-ups smelled too “good” – like they took a bath in a tub of cologne or something. It didn’t take much to gross me out.

my sentiments exactly!

how i felt

I didn’t yet know about the cheek to cheek kiss, which would have helped me out a lot back then, but I did sometimes do my version of an “air kiss.” I would approach the adult whom I had deemed gross for whatever reason, and ACT like I planted a kiss on their cheek, but never actually made contact at all. I’m not sure if they noticed it or not, but I thought I was pretty slick since it never came back to haunt me.

Today, I believe the rules are still the same in the Haitian culture. I still greet older Haitians with an actual kiss on the cheek (I’ve outgrown the air kiss). My tolerance level has improved, I suppose, because I don’t find it to be such a chore anymore. Occasionally, I’ll implement the cheek to cheek kiss, but kissing to greet my Haitian elders has become natural for me.

My (half-Haitian, half-American) kids greet people according to the cultural norms that the person being greeted is used to. My children are required to “saluer” all Haitian adults Haitian-style ( I don’t really require them to do this for first generation Haitian adults, though, as it is not really the American way). This requirement, however, does not hold true for American adults (although, they are required to kiss American family). When kissing is required of them, my boys have been taught to shake the hands of men (look them in the eye, and give a firm shake), and kiss the cheeks of women; and my daughter has been taught to kiss the cheeks of both women and men. When they don’t have to kiss, they are expected to speak – there is still some form of greeting that goes on. And I admit: I have, at times, been guilty of using my kids for “Show and Tell”. Sue me.

If you asked me as a child, I would have told you that my kids would never have to kiss anyone ever; and that I would never ever use them as the subject for “Show and Tell”, but maturity changes things. I hope that my daughter doesn’t dread this ritual as I did. But, hey, at least she has far fewer people to kiss…and like me, she will survive it.

we all survive it in the end

Did you have to “saluer” like I did growing up? Were you often a “Show and Tell” item? Did you mind any of it? What do you require of your children when greeting your family and friends?

 

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I am a Creole, but not the kind that you are most likely thinking of. I am not from Louisiana, nor do I resemble Beyonce. I speak Kreyòl, but I was not born in Haiti, and neither were my parents, or my grandparents. So why do I claim a Creole identity? And what does Haiti mean to me? My answer might surprise you. I believe that our world is comprised of both visible and invisible forces working together to create our experiences. In the visible world, my skin color, hair texture and body shape are the phenotypical identifiers of a Black woman, yet Blackness is not a homogenous, fixed social category. My ancestors are European, Native American, Asian and African. At my core, I am and continually strive to be a vessel of Light, sprouting forth and filled daily with the love of God. Because I am multicultural, multilingual, and multireligious, I am a Creole.
From birth to my early twenties, my experience was that of an African American girl from Savannah, Georgia who was raised in the West Indian neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn. My step-father, God-bless-the-dead, was Jamaican, and my best friends were Haitian, St. Lucian and Trinidadian. On holidays, we ate jerk pork, griot, candied yams and macaroni and cheese. We also sipped on rum punch, carrot juice and cremas that sent us straight to sleep while the adults socialized through the night. We listened to R&B, Rap, Reggae, Soca and Ska. Although culturally rich, my neighborhood was no utopia. In a city as diverse as New York, inter-ethnic prejudice is no secret, particularly among the international Black communities. Insults such as “Haitian or African Booty Scratcher” were common in my childhood, and the internalized racism was rarely addressed by adults, and sometimes encouraged. It is true that too many of my family members would whisper disparaging things about the habits of “foreigners” who were taking over New York. As a smart and well-mannered African American girl, I was an anomaly to many of my West Indian peers whose parents had cautioned them that Americans were lazy and were jealous of them.

The author in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

Khadeidra in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

The author in Lafayette Square, Savannah, GA

Kahdeidra in Lafayette Square in Savannah, GA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Black children developing our self-concept, we objectified ourselves and each other in manners that, as bell hooks writes, “were compatible with existing images and ways of knowing, constructed within the social frameworks that reinforce domination” (Ford and Dillard, 1996, p. 233). Painstakingly, I tried my best to use such prejudice as a motivation to work harder in school and in extra-curricular activities, as I not only had to counter stereotypes of my race, but of my class background and ethnicity, as well. In the space between high school and college, in a search for myself, I began to challenge my notions of work and pleasure, choice and obligation, assaulting myself with a barrage of doubts and hypotheticals. Gradually, everything that I thought that I was sure of had become a waste of time, and I questioned whether I truly had earned the privileges that I enjoyed—acceptance at elite institutions of learning, scholastic and public speaking awards—or whether standards had been lowered to accommodate me. I grew tired of having to prove my worthiness to others because the work came to easy, or too hard, or because I switched like I had diamonds between my legs when I had been expected to apologize for the sight of my voluptuous booty and thighs amidst the stellar student-athletes.
During my sophomore year in college, after a Spring Break Learning Expedition to Ghana, I decided that I was not going to comb my hair anymore, and after several days, it began to naturally sprout dreadlocks. They were different sizes and shapes and absolutely beautiful. They started in the back of my head and worked their way around the sides, but the very top and front of my hair refused to lock. These strands were too straight and were what Black people referred to as my “good hair.” In all of my efforts to be “pure” African with the distinctive strong, tightly coiled hair texture to match, my own truth was literally staring me in the mirror. I joked that the behavior of these strands could be traced to my maternal Irish great-great-grandmother saying to me, “You better respect me, too! You ain’t all African.” My elders tell me that she was very light-skinned with long red hair and freckles, so I assume that she shared the Scotch-Irish heritage of several White Americans in the South. Across my cheeks and nose are both freckles and moles, which my mother refers to as “Black people’s freckles.” If I was not all African, and clearly not all European, then who was I? Why do I often find similarities between myself and people from the Caribbean when others claim that we are “totally different”?
I turned to God. I called on my ancestors for guidance, and they served it in a huge way. The more I prayed, the more I dreamed, and listened, and witnessed, and loved. It was revealed to me that somewhere in my lineage, I had Haitian ancestors. Moreover, they had been priests and priestesses of the Vodou religion. It was my path—the African American girl from Savannah—to initiate into the religion, as well. This news entirely changed my life. It shocked me and at the same time anchored and fortified me. I believed wholeheartedly in my connection with God. I believed wholeheartedly in my connection with my ancestors, so I trusted my messages and began my training in the theology and liturgy of Haitian Vodou. I deepened my cursory knowledge of Haitian culture and began to learn prayers and songs that were in French, Kreyòl, Fon, Yoruba, Kikongo and other indigenous languages. This process affirmed my whole being, and I began to develop what Ford and Dillard (1996) referred to as the “critical social consciousness” that allowed me to deconstruct notions of race and religion.

 

Veve are sacred drawings representing the Lwa

Veve are sacred drawings representing the Lwa

 

An offering that will be shared with visitors after the ceremony

An offering that will be shared with visitors after the ceremony

Historically, ‘Creole’ has been used to refer to people with mixed African-European parentage, but not always. ‘Creole’ also has referred to people with a mixed cultural experience, who were often multilingual. I contemplated what it meant to be a mixture of different skin tones and cultures. Supremacist narratives of any kind would undo me. Did my African and Native American ancestors truly worship the Devil in their indigenous religions? If so, then their historical enslavement and decimation at the hands of Whites makes sense. Yet, if the Devil seeks enslavement for his followers, then God must seek liberation. I must credit God for all triumphs against enslavement and institutions of oppression. I must credit God with the success of the Haitian Revolution on January 1, 1804, which formed the first independent Black nation in the Americas and provided a beacon of hope for all others who remained enslaved.
Haitian Vodou is a religion of Creoles, of people from Senegal, Nigeria, Benin, Dahomey, the Kongo who called on every name of God that they knew of to escape death and persecution. Powerful ancestors and forces of nature known as orisha, vodun and bisimbi in Africa (Ginen) became zanj and lwa in Haiti. Male and female, husband and wife, mother and child, they united to lead the Creoles in their fight for liberation. In reconciling the religious customs that he was taught with his emerging critical social consciousness, B. Kanpol (1997) writes, “I must challenge traditional Jewish ways, or even social efficient systems, as I did as a boy, and read for myself the New Testament or/and create possibility out of a simple and mechanistic mindset” (p. 30). What Kanpol describes in challenging religious norms and seeking truth for himself is precisely the kind of “leap of faith” that strengthens my belief in religious plurality and my commitment to practicing the beautiful religion of my ancestors.

 

Mambo and houngan marching at a ceremony

Mambo and Houngan marching at a ceremony

Ten years since I first received my call, I have become a Mambo, an initiated priestess of Haitian Vodou, and my husband Hermann is a Houngan, a priest. He initiated at 19 years old and has been active in supporting and preserving Vodou sacred traditions throughout Haiti and the dysapora. I am a Southern girl at heart, and he is as country as they come, so our movements are often synchronized in some way. We meet over stewed turkey wings and white rice, mayi moulen and grits, lima beans and sos pwa. We meet over Kongo square and Neg Mawon. We meet over loud talking and bay blag, all day, toujou. Through the practice of Vodou, I have learned that only God has wisdom, and it is precisely our arrogance, or frekan-ness, that keeps us from moving forward. My spirituality is my defense against oppressive social practices. It is the critical lens through which I see the world and make sense of its infinite multiplicities. I am a Creole, a Savannah Creole, and I could never be more proud.

 

 

 

The author and her husband in ceremonial dress

Kahdeidra and her husband in ceremonial dress

 

 

 

The author and her husband on their wedding day

Kahdeidra and husband on wedding day

 

 

The author and her husband at a ceremony in Archaiae, Haiti

Kahdeidra and husband at a ceremony in Archaiae, Haiti

 

An offering that will be shared with visitors after the ceremony

An offering that will be shared with visitors after the ceremony

 
References
Ford, T., & Dillard, C. (1996). Becoming multicultural: A recursive process of self-and
     social construction. Theory into Practice, 35(4), 232-238.
Kanpol, B. (1997). Establishing a criticality and Critical pedagogy and the multicultural
     project. In Barry Kanpol & Fred Yeo (Eds.), Issues and trends in critical
    pedagogy (pp. 21-32, 49-63). NJ: Hampton Press.

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While on the phone with my mom on New Year’s Eve and I casually mention that I’ll come over the following day to have some soup joumou as I’ve done every Haitian Independence Day for as long as I remember.  She casually responds “I’m not making soup this year.” *record scratch*

In all my life, I had never heard of such a thing from my mother.  I tried to reason with her (i.e. guilt trip her).  “How can you NOT make soup this year?”  “What about your GRANDCHILDREN?!”  Still nothing.  I told her I would pray that she changes her mind, pray for a miracle — and pray I did.  I got off the phone with her and she seemed grounded in her decision not to make soup this year.

Naturally, I called one of my besties (also a Haitian-American) to complain, and she tells me that her mother is away visiting her cousin for the New Year and her soup joumou prospects are looking a lot like mine.  Stunned and appalled, we went on and on complaining about these mothers of ours “What kind of Nouveau Haitians are they becoming?! What kind of grandparents do this sort of thing to their grandkids’ parents??” Then my girlfriend says “I mean, we’re grown…but still…”  and without missing a beat, I counter with “We aren’t that grown”…but her comment gave me pause.

We are pretty grown.  We have three kids each and our youngests are 5 and 6 — so our babies are not even babies.  It hit me in that instant that maybe I should be making my own soup joumou.  I was not being independent at all (on Haitian Independence Day of all days!) In fact, I’ve been pretty dependent on my parents keeping my Haitian culture alive for me and my children.  It’s so easy to fall into that pattern when you live so close to your parents, and your world (and that of your children) is so Americanized.  I realized then that I must do better.  I actually have the recipe for soup joumou (in fact, I’ve posted it on this very blog in the past), but hadn’t even considered making it myself.  I realized again the responsibility that I, as a Haitian-American, have to pass down the culture of my parents to my children as best I can.

Luckily for me, before I was able to run to the supermarket and get all the ingredients for my very first January 1st Soup Joumou, I got a call from my mother.  A friend of my father’s gave him a huge pot of soup joumou to bring home. (One thing you should know about Haitians is when they do make soup joumou they make a whole lot of it!)  My prayers had been answered…Amen!

Soup-Joumou

I was very happy to be able to enjoy soup joumou, pates and kremas with my parents this year (again).  Next year, though, I do plan to hook my own household up with my own soup joumou…I’ll invite my parents over if my mom doesn’t feel like making it herself.  After all, I am grown.

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This essay by Wynnie Lamour was first published in Haitian Times magazine. ht-haitiantimes_logotype-tm-02-01

Haitian Creole bridges the divide between generations of women in the diaspora

 

The night before my grandmother died, she came to visit me. It had already been a long journey. For my mother, the only child my grandmother had, to watch as her poto mitanbecame a frail and weak version of her previous self. For my brothers, full of emotion but unable to adequately express themselves. For me, her first grandchild, on the verge of womanhood and about to lose one of the most powerful women in her life. For everyone, it was essentially a journey of pain.

I could sense her presence but I wasn’t afraid. This was the woman who had sacrificed so deeply for my mother. This was the woman who had served as mother not just to my own but to countless others. This was the woman who, just the day before, had defied doctors’ orders, dressed herself in her Sunday best and walked on her own two feet to church. This was the woman who knew exactly which teas and herbs were best for every malady known — at least to me.

In the words of Mirlande Jean-Gilles, she was “…a magical woman…” — the epitome of a Haitian woman. Her silence spoke volumes as she watched me. Her love and gratitude for all that we had done for her poured over me. I wept knowing that her physical self was on its way beyond our reality. I weep now, knowing that I’ll never again hear her sing as she cooks mayi djon djon (cornmeal with mushroom root) and asks me if I want some zaboka(avocado) with it.

But my grandmother, like her ancestors before her, is very much a part of my present.

The magical women of our past blazed trails, and not just in the figurative way in which so many change-makers are engaged today. Instead, they laid down their lives, set aside their dreams, and got on their knees to implore the spirits for the courage to continue doing what they must for their families and their communities.

It wasn’t until years after her passing did it occur to me that she was the catalyst for my “return” to Haiti through language. Her journey with death and beyond shook something loose inside me: a desire to reanimate that which already resided in me.

For those of us who grew up in the diaspora, the enormity of what our mothers did has not been completely lost on us. To leave behind everything and everyone that you know and move to a country that is less than welcoming to a people that the world over constantly views as hopeless, is the epitome of sacrifice. How then can we bridge the divide that often exists between us and our mothers? How can we cut through the veil of misunderstanding that can sometimes lie between a mother whose being lives in one culture while her daughter toes the line between two cultures?

There is no better way to accomplish this than through language. Language is the mirror through which we can truly see the world through the eyes of another. Language is the scaffolding that supports our relationships and provides a structure that we all crave in our interactions with each other.

For Haitians worldwide, Kreyòl serves this purpose and so much more. It is the language that lives in us all; and to speak Kreyòl is to communicate in a language that elicits a deep and emotional response in its people.

Many young hyphenated Haitian women of the diaspora come to the Haitian Creole Language Institute via this pathway: wanting to reconnect with their Haitian mothers in their native tongue; wanting to understand more fully the meaning behind their words; and wanting to engage with their mothers in a more intimate way.

HCLI affords them the opportunity to learn not just the various nuances of the language but also the history and the profundity of what it means to speak Kreyòl. It goes beyond speaking the language of revolutionaries. It is to speak the language of not just the magical women of our past but also the magical women of our present — who continue to strive to do the best they can with the tools that they have in the hopes that our futures can be just a little bit more magical.

It has been through Kreyòl that I pay continuous homage to my grandmother, and her mother before her, and all the mothers of my past. Their spirits embody me every time I open my mouth and fix my lips to speak the same sounds that propelled their lives. It is our hope here at HCLI that we can provide others that same opportunity — to become one with what is, as Haitians, the very fabric of our being.

Wynnie Lamour is the founder of the Haitian Creole Language Institute.

For more information on the Elementary Haitian Creole course that takes place on Tuesdays from 7:00 – 8:30 pm in Brooklyn, visit haitiancreoleinstitute.com.

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A huge part of my childhood memories involve witnessing my dad and his male friends discuss and debate Haitian politics.  To be clear, woman are sometimes involved in these discussions as well, but from what I can tell, it was primarily a male pastime.  In fact, I’d venture to guess that Haitian Politics probably made up about 90% of what Haitian men discuss among themselves (I’m guessing, of course — I’m a woman).  It doesn’t matter that they’ve been out of Haiti for decades — the topic of Haitian politics is always current and heated.

If you were upstairs during one of my dad’s domino games in the basement with his friends, and you didn’t know better, you’d think there was some huge argument going on downstairs or that a few of the guys were going to come to blows — but that was standard fair.  That’s just how politics was discussed at my house:  loudly and passionately.  But it wasn’t just discussed at home — politics was discussed everywhere: at first communion parties, baptisms, funerals, you name it — wherever they got together was fertile ground for a political discussion.

And if they weren’t discussing and debating Haitian politics, they were listening to a discussion about politics direct from Haiti (or sometimes from a studio in New York or Miami) on the very loud, and perpetually staticky shortwave radio.  (Oh, how I dreaded the noise that comes out of that thing.)  When they couldn’t take “just listening” any more, they’d have no choice but to call in to the radio show to give their two-cents, and the heated discussion will ensue.

As a child, I didn’t really get it.  What’s the big deal?  Why are these men getting all worked up about whatever is going on in Haiti when they live in the States now?  As I matured, I learned that although you can take the man out of Haiti — you cannot take Haiti out of the man.  Despite the fact that these men have emigrated decades ago — and swear that Haiti will never get better — they all hold on to a hope that maybe, just maybe, it will.  They dissect what they think needs to happen to make it so; what players should have done what, etc.  They try to make sense of what has happened and is happening to the homeland they left…the one that many of them had planned to leave only temporarily, oftentimes for political reasons, yet find themselves still away two decades later.  I realize now that a Haitian man’s obsession with Haitian politics is a byproduct of their love for Haiti…and how can you deny them that?

How have YOU viewed the relationship between Haitians and their politics?

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As a child, I usually found it quite fun being a girl. Growing up with two brothers had its perks: I got to do all the girly things that girls do (dressing up, playing with dolls, etc), but I also got to get dirty and do all the things that the boys did too. It was the best of both worlds. Usually.

I was raised to be a good little Haitian girl, and as such I was required to greet (“saluer“) all adults properly. “Properly” greeting a grown-up by Haitian standards means that the younger person should greet each adult in a room (or a group) individually. Boys had the pleasure of shaking hands with the men and kissing the women on the cheek. Girls had to kiss every single adult present, male and female. Oh, how I longed to be a boy in those moments!

Usually with my mom’s friends, the ritual involved said kissing followed by a sort of “Show and Tell”. I would stand there, my mom would share “important” highlights of my current life using my Haitian nickname (which by the way 90% of Haitian-Americans have): “Gigi had 2nd honors this quarter, if it wasn’t for Conduct, she would have had 1st honors; AND she’s almost the same shoe size as me!”. Her friends would respond: “It’s good to be smart, Gigi!…but you shouldn’t talk so much in class”, “Ah, li grandie!“, etc. This was usually followed by a brief “Question and Answer” session directed at me: “So…tell me…do you have a boyfriend at school?” or “Would you like if I bring over some of my old shoes?”. The whole episode was quite embarrassing.

My dad would have his friends over periodically for a good old fashion game of Dominoes. The event was somewhat akin to “Poker Night” in American culture. The players were all men. Whenever we kids had to greet them, I was so jealous of my brothers. They would saunter through the room shaking everyone’s hands and then run off to play. I, however, had to go cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek… *sigh*

I dreaded the whole scene. It took forever (compared to my brothers) to greet in this way; I wanted to run off and play too! And it wasn’t just that; I had an issue with the whole “closeness-to-people-I-don’t-know” thing. There were times I had to kiss beard stubble! (Ugh!) Sometimes the men smelled like, uh, they had a long day; other times i found that grown-ups smelled too “good” – like they took a bath in a tub of cologne or something. It didn’t take much to gross me out.

my sentiments exactly!

how i felt

I didn’t yet know about the cheek to cheek kiss, which would have helped me out a lot back then, but I did sometimes do my version of an “air kiss.” I would approach the adult whom I had deemed gross for whatever reason, and ACT like I planted a kiss on their cheek, but never actually made contact at all. I’m not sure if they noticed it or not, but I thought I was pretty slick since it never came back to haunt me.

Today, I believe the rules are still the same in the Haitian culture. I still greet older Haitians with an actual kiss on the cheek (I’ve outgrown the air kiss). My tolerance level has improved, I suppose, because I don’t find it to be such a chore anymore. Occasionally, I’ll implement the cheek to cheek kiss, but kissing to greet my Haitian elders has become natural for me.

My (half-Haitian, half-American) kids greet people according to the cultural norms that the person being greeted is used to. My children are required to “saluer” all Haitian adults Haitian-style ( I don’t really require them to do this for first generation Haitian adults, though, as it is not really the American way). This requirement, however, does not hold true for American adults (although, they are required to kiss American family). When kissing is required of them, my boys have been taught to shake the hands of men (look them in the eye, and give a firm shake), and kiss the cheeks of women; and my daughter has been taught to kiss the cheeks of both women and men. When they don’t have to kiss, they are expected to speak – there is still some form of greeting that goes on. And I admit: I have, at times, been guilty of using my kids for “Show and Tell”. Sue me.

If you asked me as a child, I would have told you that my kids would never have to kiss anyone ever; and that I would never ever use them as the subject for “Show and Tell”, but maturity changes things. I hope that my daughter doesn’t dread this ritual as I did. But, hey, at least she has far fewer people to kiss…and like me, she will survive it.

we all survive it in the end

Did you have to “saluer” like I did growing up? Were you often a “Show and Tell” item? Did you mind any of it? What do you require of your children when greeting your family and friends?

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Yven’s article first appeared in the Miami Herald on 11/29/14 and is shared here with permission.

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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.

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.

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