The Silence, and Death, Around Haitian Americans and HIV

Shani Akilah Robin
Shani Akilah Robin
Hanbit Kwon

I used to hide the fact that I was Haitian. "Don't catch the HIV!" kids would chime and cackle, pronouncing HIV in one syllable, like "give." They thought they were slick. My heart would catch in my chest like a spider trapped in a web it had spun for itself.

In 1995, I was 11 years old. I did not know much, but I knew enough not to say I was Haitian. "Haiti isn't called Haiti for no reason. … Haiti is hell," my father said as he described the country and the material living conditions of its people.

The small town where we were living could not contain all of my questions about my father's homeland. The need to build and sustain family had landed my father a job with State Farm Insurance in a place not even found on a map: Bloomington, Illinois. By 1995, we had been in Bloomington for about a year and a half, and I was attending the local elementary school. It took me about five seconds to get to school. I walked out my backyard, through a metal gate and onto a cement courtyard attached to the red brick building.

In the 1990s, Bloomington felt like a State Farm Insurance camp. Literally every other kid I knew had a parent who worked for State Farm. It was nothing less than suffocating. This, coupled with the facts that I was one of the few black kids I knew and was surrounded by cornfields and farmland, made a small Caribbean island like Haiti fascinating to me.

The Stigma of Being Haitian in a Time of AIDS

I did not know the word "stigma" at the time. All I knew was that I associated shame with being Haitian, and in the '90s, being Haitian meant that you shared proximity to AIDS -- a disease no one understood. By 2003, up to 560,000 adults in Haiti had contracted HIV and 47,000 Haitians had died from AIDS complications. Television screens would show images of emaciated black bodies in huts in some obscure part of Haiti. Stigma was amplified and sanctioned by the fear-mongering produced by the media and poorly written news articles. For these reasons, I spoke in silence. I cut off half of my bloodline to escape the sharp tongues of white middle-class 10-year-old kids.

The distance between anti-blackness and HIV stigma is short. In a white supremacist society, being black is seen and treated as deviant, criminal and dirty. Within this context, black bodies contract HIV at the highest rates, further complicating what words are placed on black flesh.

Predominately white HIV/AIDS service organizations craft narratives pointing the finger at black communities, suggesting that different individual choices need to be made. They medicalize a social issue. They turn their backs on their own reflection to negate their part in a system that gives us mass incarceration, lack of access to trustworthy medical facilities and state-sanctioned violence.

The distance between accountability and white supremacy is long -- perhaps infinite. All of these factors make stigma a component of state-sanctioned violence. Stigma attached to blackness results in bullets in black flesh and HIV/AIDS service organizations run by white folks. In other words, as black people, we are all impacted by HIV stigma.

"HIV Carriers," Once Again

Privilege is real. I cannot reflect on stigma without stating that what I experienced as a Haitian American cannot be compared with what someone living with HIV experiences on a daily basis. This experience I cannot access. From the place I stand within this matrix of oppression, in a black queer body, what I can say is that, if we distance ourselves from our community members who are living with HIV, than we are willfully complicit in the anti-black violence our community faces, both interpersonally and systematically. In a June 27, 2017, press release for National HIV Testing Day, President Trump stated (the emphasis is mine): "[O]nly 50 percent know they have contracted it. HIV carriers who do not know they have the virus put themselves and others at risk, missing out on life-saving treatment and possibly, inadvertently infecting others."

Here is some perspective: In 1991, just days after a government was overthrown in Haiti, U.S. president George H.W. Bush ordered the Coast Guard to stop allowing fleeing Haitians into the U.S. and instead to redirect their boats toward the U.S. military base at Guantanamo. At this checkpoint, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services designated some Haitians as political refugees. Haitians with this designation were permitted entry to the U.S. on one condition: that they did not test positive for HIV. Those who did test positive were denied entry under a 1987 law barring immigration of HIV-positive individuals into the U.S. A total of 267 Haitians were detained at Guantanamo, making camp Bulkeley the world's first detention center for people with HIV/AIDS.

The statement carefully crafted by the Trump regime indicates that we are walking backwards. Here is the hard truth: An openly white-supremacist U.S. president intentionally used the language of HIV "carriers" to start building the groundwork for containment policies -- meaning mostly black bodies face potentially being quarantined -- and there was silence from spaces that exist solely for the purposes of black liberation.

Where was the call to action, the shutting down of highways, the outraged cries for resistance? The familiar silence stung every part of my body. It was as if Trump had never uttered the words "HIV carriers." It was as if he had not just put out another hit on our community and our chances of survival by using just those two words.

All of Our Black Lives Matter

The ways in which we have internalized white supremacy create blind spots that result in incomplete movements, poor strategies and apathy. What happens if the majority of folks living with HIV are black? This means that we will lose valuable energy, brilliance and vision from our movements, as many of our HIV-positive comrades will risk being targeted and removed from the broader population. Most importantly, this means we will lose people we love. How can we say the words "Black Lives Matter" if we do not move as if all black lives are worthy of our rage and movement?

We live in each other's reflection. Sometimes the vulnerabilities we see in each other scare us because we know that it could be us. The response to this cannot be distance. We desperately need to walk toward each other. To win this battle, we must engage in the struggle for black liberation on all fronts. Each time we break down state-sanctioned violence we must include how the current regime is responding to HIV in our communities. We must study past movements that centered resistance on stigma-infested governments so that we understand how to strategize and protect our entire community. We need to center the voices of black poz revolutionaries and communities in this struggle. In the Black and Brown Workers Collective, our rallying cry has been, "Anti-blackness anywhere is anti-blackness everywhere!" -- a phrase coined by comrade Abdul-Aliy Muhammad. In this vein, HIV stigma must not just be eradicated from the broader society but also from our movements for black liberation.

I love us. I believe we can do this. We will do this, because all of our black lives depend on it.

Shani Akilah Robin is a non-binary queer black femme political organizer, teacher, trainer, writer and creator/cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC). They believe in the power of collective movement and direct action as tools to engage the broader Black Liberation Movement. They believe we will experience Liberation in this lifetime.