Photo by Carolyn Van Houten, The Washington Post via Getty
An alleged comment by President Trump about Haiti and AIDS revived a stigma that goes back several decades.
In the early nineteen-eighties, soon after cases of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (aids) were first discovered in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control named four groups at “high risk” for the disease: intravenous drug users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Haitians were the only ones solely identified by nationality, in part because of twenty or so Haitian patients who’d shown up at Jackson Memorial Hospital, in Miami. “We forwarded these cases to the C.D.C.,” Dr. Arthur Fournier, who treated some of those first Haitian patients, told me recently. “The media then took off with the sensationalistic headlines.” Suddenly, every Haitian was suspected of having aids. At the junior high school I attended, in Brooklyn, some of the non-Haitian students would regularly shove and hit me and the other Haitian kids, telling us that we had dirty blood. My English as a Second Language class was excluded from a school trip to the Statue of Liberty out of fear that our sharing a school bus with the other kids might prove dangerous to them.
Last week, as many Haitians and Haitian-Americans were preparing for the Christmas holidays—some burdened by the fear that they or their loved ones might be deported in a year’s time because of the Trump’s Administration decision to end Temporary Protected Status (T.P.S.)—a Times article about President Trump’s anti-immigrant efforts brought back these memories and more. The article described a meeting that took place at the White House in June, when Trump expressed outrage that, in spite of his contested January, 2017, executive order barring refugees, particularly those from seven predominantly Muslim countries, too many immigrants had been granted visas to enter the United States. According to the Times, Trump was angry that fifteen thousand Haitians were among them. They “all have aids,” he allegedly said.
We are used to Trump insulting people of color with callous or racist remarks. He has referred to Mexicans as criminals and rapists and, in the June meeting described in the Times, Trump reportedly also complained that forty thousand Nigerian visa recipients would never “go back to their huts,” while branding Afghanistan a terrorist haven. (The White House has denied that Trump denigrated immigrant groups during the meeting.) Still, Trump’s alleged remark about Haiti and aids cut deep, reopening a painful wound that goes back several decades.
“It was a dark period in our history as Black refugees from the first independent nation in the Western Hemisphere,” Marleine Bastien, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Haitian Women of Miami, recalled. “I was working as a medical social worker at the time, and every week I saw patients who lost jobs as a result of this. Being called ‘Haitian’ was the worst possible curse.”
Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the New York-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, was born in New York City to Haitian parents who’d emigrated to the U.S. in the nineteen-fifties. She recalled that, in the eighties, a friend of hers used a manager’s pen while filling out some financial documents at a bank. When her friend was done, the bank manager, who’d learned that her friend was Haitian, took the pen back with a tissue then threw it in the garbage. “You never know,” he said.
The linguist Michel DeGraff, who is currently the director of the M.I.T.-Haiti Initiative, came to New York, as a student, in the early eighties. “I still remember a particularly traumatic moment when I was being introduced to a female student that I had a crush on. She refused to shake my hands. Then I overheard her say to another fellow-student, ‘Better stay away from these Haitians so we don’t catch aids.’ ”
At the height of the aids crisis, the Food and Drug Administration banned Haitians from donating blood. Nicole Rosefort, a retired New York City public-school teacher, recalls her father being sick in the hospital and desperately needing a blood transfusion. “When my sister and I went to donate, we were turned away. We couldn’t give blood for our own father.”
Haitians mobilized against the ban, protesting in large numbers in Washington, Boston, and Miami. The activism culminated on April 20, 1990, when between fifty thousand and eighty thousand people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to denounce the ban and the stigmatization and discrimination connected to it. I was twenty-one years old and a recent college graduate at the time. My family and I took part in the march along with nearly everyone we knew. We felt the bridge shake that day, as if from the weight of our humiliation and rage.
The blood-donation ban was eventually lifted, but the stigma against Haitians lingered, and occasionally resurfaced in popular culture. In the film “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” from 1998, one of the main character’s sisters scolds her for having unprotected sex with a Jamaican man because “these people have a history of aids.” Another sister corrects her: “That’s Haiti, Miss Manners.” In December of 2010, decades after many initial misconceptions about the transmission and spread of H.I.V. and aids had been debunked, a popular New York radio disc jockey declared on air that the reason he was H.I.V.-negative was that he refrained from having sex with Haitian women.
President Trump’s alleged remarks have taken many of us back to a time when such attitudes were commonplace. They are also particularly disturbing in the context of his larger anti-immigrant program. As Haitian-community advocates are trying to rally support in Congress and elsewhere to find a permanent solution for T.P.S. recipients and their families, we are reminded of a time when all H.I.V.-positive immigrants were banned from entering the United States, and H.I.V.-positive Haitians were detained, in deplorable conditions, at Guantánamo Bay. Trump’s alleged statement re-stigmatizes both Haitians and people living with H.I.V./ aids by pegging them as undesirables. Will the next travel ban be a medical one?
If there is a positive side to these alleged remarks, it’s that they have the potential to galvanize. Patricia Lespinasse, an Assistant Professor of African-American and African Diaspora Literature at Binghamton University, is the co-director of a documentary film, “Proud Blood,” that focusses on Haitians’ mobilization around the blood-donation ban. Lespinasse was eleven years old when her father, an accountant at a Wall Street bank, left work to attend the march, and then told her stories about it. While gathering recollections from the march organizers, activists, and other demonstrators, Lespinasse came to see the march and the eventual lift of the ban as a triumph against prejudice. “Much like back in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, when this stereotype was first espoused, we should take this opportunity with what the President has allegedly said to educate a new generation,” she said.
Among the many signs I recall seeing at the march on the Brooklyn Bridge, back in April, 1990, was one that read, “We are all living with aids”—not because we belong to an arbitrarily assigned high-risk group, or came from a certain country, but because we are all human. As Lespinasse put it, “It was Haitians then, but tomorrow it could be any other group.”
Edwidge Danticat is the author of many books, including, most recently, “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story.”