What Have We Learned?

12 Jun

This morning I attended the opening ceremonies for the display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. My friend Marjorie and I arrived at Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park as Quilt co-founder Mike Smith addressed the assembly. The quilt lay in sections, folded, each within a grassy rectangle demarcated by vinyl walkways. The day has been beautiful throughout. The vistas Golden Gate Park affords were particularly sharp today. The gathering was calm, peaceful, reflective. Toward the end of a succession of speakers’ addresses attendants began the ritual of unveiling the quilt sections while the names of those individuals represented by the displayed quilts were spoken. Only six percent of the entire quilt was on display.

“Today, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is an epic 54-ton tapestry that includes nearly 50,000 panels dedicated to more than 110,000 individuals. It is the premiere symbol of the AIDS pandemic, a living memorial to a generation lost to AIDS and an important HIV prevention education tool. With hundreds of thousands of people contributing their talents to making the memorial panels, and tens of thousands of volunteers to help display it, the Quilt is considered the largest community arts project in history.”

As I listened to the names I remembered a past visit to the Washington Mall when the Quilt was on display during the March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights in 1987. Names were also read there. I was able to speak my godfather’s name from the podium during that event as volunteers read portions of the list of names of those who had died of complications from HIV/AIDS.

I also remembered the earliest time when the gay and lesbian community could respond to the unnamed, unknown disease that was killing gay men. I was living in New York. There had not been any formal response from any government, local or national, to address the beginning of this pandemic. Rather, individuals such as myself came together to discuss the care of our afflicted brethren. We met in private homes and mapped out strategies and duties to assist those we knew were sick.

Today Cleve Jones, another co-founder of the Quilt, asked us what had we learned? He spoke to the anger and despair that consumed him during that earliest time. He spoke of the Quilt and its development. Jones reflected on the power of that community-driven response and its legacy. But he reminded us that we learned nothing from this experience. Citing the cultural climate surrounding our response to COVID-19 we have learned nothing at all. He told us how the Quilt has transformed his heart into love and hope. He encouraged us to continue to address HIV/AIDS as it continues to infect and kill, especially in communities of color across the nation, particularly in the Southern states where people have little access to affordable and comprehensive care and live with the stigma of disease.

As Marjorie and I were leaving we stopped at a tent for Kau’aina Associates. Kua’aina seeks to preserve the wisdom of the ancestors through traditional and contemporary arts by assisting indigenous communities with program development and special projects. The woman who spoke to us explained their mission and shared with us various online projects developed to document the experiences of indigenous people and their communities with HIV/AIDS. There were ribbons suspended from a tent display with Post-It notes. Each note contained a handwritten name. Marjorie and I were invited to add the name of a loved one lost from AIDS to their ribbon display. Thus, Marjorie was able to speak her brother’s name today as I was able to speak my godfather’s name, Alfred Garcia.

Quotation source: “The History of the Quilt,” National AIDS Memorial; https://www.aidsmemorial.org/quilt-history

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