Philip Bump documented the latest outrage from the orange menace in The Washington Post. From my point of view, describing Trump’s vile words about Haitians as “disparaging”—as Bump did in his headline—is far too mild.
A few months after he took office in 2017, President Donald Trump was handed a list of visas granted by the United States that year. He took the document (helpfully provided by aide Stephen Miller) to a meeting with advisors at the White House where, according to New York Times reporting, he began insulting various countries as undesirable or disease-ridden.
“You know,” he said to the network’s Sean Hannity on Thursday night, “there’s one other thing that nobody talks about. So we have hundreds of thousands of people flowing in from Haiti. Haiti has a tremendous AIDS problem.”
“AIDS is a step beyond. AIDS is a real bad problem,” he continued. “So, hundreds of thousands of people are coming into our country. And if you look at the stats, if you look at the numbers, if you look at just — take a look at what’s happening in Haiti, a tremendous problem with AIDS. Many of those people will probably have AIDS, and they’re coming into our country. And we don’t do anything about it. We let everybody come in. Sean, it’s like a death wish. It’s like a death wish for our country.”
Trump’s resurrection of the Haitian AIDS stigma may not ring a bell with readers who were not engaged in fighting the early HIV/AIDS epidemic here in the U.S.—where superstition, homophobia, and racism reigned with impunity over a disease that was not understood. As an HIV-AIDS activist at the time, I watched that full-blown ignorance take hold and hold sway.
In 1983, as Marlise Simons wrote for The New York Times, the stigma was devastating to the nation’s tourism economy.
… since the summer of 1982, when American health authorities linked Haiti and the so-far incurable disorder known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, this country’s tourist industry has collapsed. They said the largest group of AIDS victims consisted of male homosexuals, and the second largest group of victims consisted of Haitians.
Since then, charter flights and cruise ships have stopped docking in Port-au- Prince, the tropical verandas of the AIDS is now a worldwide problem, scientists at a meeting in Geneva agreed, and there has been a surge in cases in Europe.
Hotels stand empty and maids, waiters, guides and handicraft vendors have been laid off. Hoteliers, local officials and foreign diplomats complain that the whole country has been stigmatized by AIDS. An American resident of Haiti said that after landing at New York’s Kennedy Airport last month, he was asked by a customs official where he had embarked. ‘’When I said Haiti,‘’ the traveler recalled, ’’the customs lady told me: ‘Open your passport. I’m not touching it.‘’’
Julio Capo Jr. wrote about this in 2013 for HIVPlus magazine. The headline says it all: “Haiti has been linked with HIV for 30 years. Will the stigma ever go away?”
On March 4, 1983, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control listed Haitians as one of the four “high-risk” groups for AIDS. With a relatively high number of cases among recent Haitian immigrants, the CDC warned, “Physicians who care for Haitian patients should be aware that opportunistic infections may occur in this population.” The federal designation singled out Haitians as the only ethnic group believed to be inherently susceptible to the then-mysterious disease. As such, they became members of the notorious “4-H” club that also included homosexuals, heroin users, and hemophiliacs.
This sparked a new wave of discrimination. Many people of Haitian descent were fired or denied employment, housing, and admission to school. Immigrants played a critical role in the grassroots movements that combated HIV and AIDS. Activists cried racism and pseudo-science as the impetus for the designation. Meanwhile, many others shifted the conversation to other plagues that affected Haitian communities: poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, and discrimination.
Years later, here we are again, hearing the same racist bullshit from the lips of a man who will stop at nothing and use every tool in the hater toolkit to continue to get support from those racists and xenophobes among us.
But as Bump notes, something’s different this time.
There was an immediate and fierce response from the Haitian Embassy.
Here’s Ambassador Bocchit Edmond’s “fire” statement in full:
The Embassy of the Republic of Haiti, on behalf of the Haitian Government, strongly condemns the racist and baseless statement about Haitian migrants, i11 particular, and the Haitian population, in general, of Donald J. Trump on Fox News Network, on Thursday, October 7, during Sean Hannity’s program. These vile comments aim only to sow hatred and discord against immigrants.
The Embassy of Haiti in Washington believes that civilized people, the media, especially television, and human rights organizations should not remain indifferent to this umpteenth denigration of the Haitian people by former President Trump.
The Embassy would like to point out that the Republic of Haiti, the second independent country in the Western Hemisphere, since 1804, has always been a staunch ally of the United States. As a historical reminder, to cite just two references, from September 16 to October 18, 1779, a contingent of 800 soldiers from the French West Indies, mainly Haitians, fought as reinforcements to the federal troops to preserve the independence of the United States during the Battle of Savannah, Georgia, against British colonialist forces. Also, in 1943, the Haitian people contributed one million ($1,000,000.00) dollars to the United States’ war efforts against the Nazi allies.
Today, many Haitian nationals and their offspring, who, like the Trump family, coincidentally, immigrated to the United States of America, contribute to the prosperity and defense of the American people. These historical and human ties must not be undermined by such unacceptable declaration.
Though I doubt many people here saw the response from the Edmond, I think it’s important to reintroduce the history that he highlighted. Though a monument to that history exists (in Savannah, Georgia, as pictured above), it is part of our history that I can’t remember ever being taught in school—though I do remember clearly being taught about aid to American revolutionaries that came from Prussians and the French.
The monument to the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Domingue was dedicated in 2007. It commemorates the courage and dedication of the over 500 volunteers—free men of African heritage—who fought alongside the Americans in the Battle of Savannah in 1779 during the Revolutionary War.
At a time when slavery was a way of life in the Americas and in the Caribbean Islands, the fact that these free Black men would voluntarily travel to fight is startling not only to ordinary citizens, but to historians as well. These men were young and inexperienced; 25 of their fellow soldiers were either wounded or killed. Their names appear on the monument.
One of the figures which dominate the monument is that of Henri Christophe. He is portrayed as a drummer, an important role in battle, as the drummers give signals and encouragement to the soldiers. Henri Christophe would grow to become an important General in the Haitian Army for Independence.
The HAHS celebrated the 14th anniversary of the monument’s unveiling last weekend.
Melanie K. Jones’ Go South Savannah has more details.
The Chasseurs-Volontaires was the largest Black regiment to serve in the War of Independence and the largest military unit to serve in the Siege of Savannah. 545 soldiers landed in the city for the 1779 battle, around a third of the French force that sailed from the Caribbean to Savannah’s rescue.
They were recruited as auxiliary troops, their main duties to be the support work of digging the fortifications needed for siege warfare and the movement of supplies. In the end, however, the Chasseurs did fight on the front line.
Unexpected British resistance meant that the French troops were not in position when required; the soldiers from Saint-Domingue took their place, providing vital cover for the French soldiers’ retreat.
After the war was over, some of the Chasseurs-Volontaires became important figures in Haiti’s own struggle for independence over the next 25 years.
Another key historical link to Haiti was Frederick Douglass. Though I did learn quite a bit about Douglass at my enlightened New York City high school and at home, what I learned was focused on his role as an abolitionist. I don’t remember learning any details about his relationship to Haiti and his appointment as ambassador to the new republic until grad school.
Historian Brandon Byrd, writing in 2017 for Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), tells that story.
Byrd documents Douglass’ tenure as U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison, and his response to U.S. “intervention” in the Haitian regime change in 1891, which historians have dubbed the “Môle Saint-Nicolas affair.”
The Haitian government closed negotiations for the Môle on April 24, 1891. By that point, Douglass could hardly reconcile his responsibility to the U.S. government and his respect for the wishes of his Haitian brethren. The admission that the United States had affected regime change in a sovereign nation was repugnant. The hubris to expect to profit from that interference was too much. And so, Douglass wiped his hands clean of the mess made by incompetent and immoral U.S. officials, announcing that he could not accept imperialism “as a foundation upon which I could base my diplomacy.”
For Douglass, the lessons of this embarrassing episode in U.S. history were clear. Enduring, even. In the summer of 1891, Douglass resigned his diplomatic post and returned to Cedar Hill House, his Anacostia home. There, in a library whose walls soon included portraits of Toussaint Louverture and Florvil Hyppolyte, Douglass crafted his response to white critics who blamed him for the failed negotiations for the Môle. First, Douglass pointed out, the United States had given Gherardi a role for which he had no preparation solely because he was white and Haitians were supposed to be more willing to defer to a white man. That assumption was laughable, Douglass suggested. It showed a stunning ignorance of Haitian history. Besides, he continued, even if a white diplomat could have exploited Haitians, a supposedly great country like the United States should “ask nothing of Haïti on grounds less just and reasonable than those upon which they would ask anything of France or England.”
Put simply, Douglass reasoned, racism was unacceptable policy. Whiteness was no substitute for competence. Historical facts rather than alternative ones mattered. And the nation—the people—owed no allegiance to a state more concerned with flexing its muscles than admitting its moral failings.
In January 1893, Douglass addressed the Chicago World’s Fair, reenacted here by performance poet Nathan Richardson.
“Haiti is Black … and we have yet not forgiven Haiti for being Black.”
This is a key excerpt from the transcript of Douglass’ lecture at the World’s Fair.
Now, notwithstanding this plain possibility, it is a remarkable and lamentable fact, that while Haiti is so near us and so capable of being so serviceable to us; while, like us, she is trying to be a sister republic and anxious to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people; while she is one of our very best customers, selling her coffee and her other valuable products to Europe for gold, and sending us her gold to buy our flour, our fish, our oil, our beef and our pork; while she is thus enriching our merchants and our farmers and our country generally, she is the one country to which we turn the cold shoulder.
We charge her with being more friendly to France and to other European countries than to ourselves. This charge, if true, has a natural explanation, and the fault is more with us than with Haiti. No man can point to any act of ours to win the respect and friendship of this black republic. If, as is alleged, Haiti is more cordial to France than to the United States, it is partly because Haiti is herself French. Her language is French; her literature is French, her manners and fashions are French; her ambitions and aspirations are French; her laws and methods of government are French; her priesthood and her education are French; her children are sent to school in France and their minds are filled with French ideas and French glory.
But a deeper reason for coolness between the countries is this: Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black [applause] or forgiven the Almighty for making her black. [Applause.] In this enlightened act of repentance and forgiveness, our boasted civilization is far behind all other nations. [Applause.] In every other country on the globe a citizen of Haiti is sure of civil treatment. [Applause.] In every other nation his manhood is recognized and respected. [Applause.] Wherever any man can go, he can go. [Applause.] He is not repulsed, excluded or insulted because of his color. [Applause.] All places of amusement and instruction are open to him. [Applause.] Vastly different is the case with him when he ventures within the border of the United States. [Applause.] Besides, after Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations. No people would be likely soon to forget such treatment and fail to resent it in one form or another. [Applause.] Not to do so would justly invite contempt.
It has been heartening to see that in the last six months or so, the subject of some of the primary reasons why Haiti is so impoverished today have been raised. However, far too many of our citizenry are still oblivious to and uneducated about that history.