In 1990, tens of thousands of Haitians marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, causing a massive traffic jam as they demanded that the U.S. government lift a ban on blood donations by Haitians after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said they were in a high-risk group for HIV infection.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously and unscientifically assigned Haitians to a group referred to as the “Four Hs” — homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs and heroin addicts — meaning they are at higher risk for the virus that causes AIDS. The policy stigmatized Haitians. The country’s image and tourism were damaged. Haitian children in the U.S. found themselves bullied and beaten at school as fights broke out.
Many Haitians had believed that that ugly period was history — until last week.
A story by The New York Times citing two unnamed sources said that President Donald Trump in a June tirade about immigration commented that 15,000 U.S.-bound Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders vehemently denied that Trump had made the comment.
Still, for Haitian Americans who are preparing to commemorate their homeland’s 214th anniversary as the world’s first black republic on Monday, the headline reopened a painful wound — while also igniting a determination to never go back to the days when being Haitian felt like a liability.
“No, we’re not one of the four Hs for AIDS. One, we’re not going back to that. And two, never again will we be pulled into the dark, feeling like you have to hide being Haitian because of the fear of name-calling, especially for our young kids,” said Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, chairwoman of the New York-based Haitian Roundtable, which called Trump’s alleged comment “reprehensible” in a statement. “My hashtag is #Neveragain.”
So while Haiti will commemorate its independence day Monday with a ceremony in Gonaives, the city where slave-turned-revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the country free from French rule on Jan. 1, 1804, Haitians Americans are planning to commemorate another way. They will take to social media to counter the AIDS stigmatization by highlighting their contributions in the United States.
“We are a people who have made very significant contributions to the United States going as far back as to our independence,” said Pierre-Louis, whose group has honored 152 Haitians in the U.S. over the past five years as part of its prized 1804 list. “In the state of New York, we’re the second-largest ethnicity of doctors in the state, only second to doctors of Jewish descent. In the health field, we have made tremendous strides, not only in medicine but across professions.”
She also noted other contributions, including Haitians’ role in the Louisiana purchase, in the Battle of Savannah in 1779, in the founding of Chicago and in contributions through present-day films and books.
“There has been this really concerted effort to redefine the narrative about Haitians and to provide a three-dimensional perspective of who we are as a community and to help create a better understanding of us as an important constituent not only in our various cities but in the United States,” Pierre-Louis said.
Joel Dreyfuss, a member of The Haitian Roundtable’s board and co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, the largest minority group of journalists, said “the success of Haitians in America is the best antidote to the poison of the AIDS slur.”
Dreyfuss recently responded to Trump in a Washington Post op-ed titled “No, President Trump, we Haitians don’t all have AIDS.”
In an email from his native Haiti, Dreyfuss said that despite the White House’s denial, the disparaging comment “sounds like something Trump would say because of all the other horrible things he’s said about immigrants.”
“My first reaction to the Trump comments was: Haitians are doomed to be stigmatized,” Dreyfuss said. “We always have been, one way or the other — for daring to be free, for daring to abolish slavery, for supporting independence movements elsewhere — Latin America, Greece — for daring to work hard wherever we go.”
The report comes just a month after the federal government announced that Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Haitians will end in 2019 despite extensive lobbying by Haitians and immigrant-rights advocates for the Trump administration to extend the humanitarian relief program. Under the TPS program, nearly 60,000 Haitians have been able to legally live and work in the U.S. since the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
Guerline Jozef, of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, which issued a statement demanding an apology from the president, said, “We can’t help but to wonder if this is not the reason why they terminated TPS for Haitians. It would make sense if [the president] believes that Haitians have AIDS.”
Haitian-American blogger Wanda Tima-Gilles said the damage has already been done.
“People are hurt on so many levels,” said Tima-Gilles, whose L’Union Suite Twitter and Instagram accounts and Haitian American Facebook page amassed well over 1 million opinions on the issue after the news broke.
“Whether he said it or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s been trending now for a week and we’re being used as a pawn for these other communities and whatever narratives they are pushing,” she said.
Similar to the push by the Haitian Roundtable, Tima-Gilles is asking Haitians on Monday to post pictures, tweet and update their social-media status in English, French and Creole with facts, history and contributions of Haitians using the hashtag #HaitianAffirmation.
“It’s even more important for us to tell our stories, bring awareness to what we’ve done and what we continue to do in different ways to contribute to this country,” she said. “We can’t wait anymore. We have to seriously become responsible for our own narrative.”