Saturday, July 7, 2012

Remembering Friends: “Creativity and Crisis – Day 3

I’d intended to get to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival on the National Mall early today, to help unfold the Quilt. But 9:00am came and went, as the organizers discussed the advisability of displaying the Quilt in ever more oppressive heat.

While they did, someone suggested I go to the Quilting Bee tent. That’s where panels were being made by volunteer quilters during the Festival. I was welcomed into the tent, and I did indeed unfold Quilt panels. But these were panels in various stages of completion.

Each was different, as unique as the person they memorialized: Bible verses, song lyrics, photos, messages. The quilters used scraps of fabric, pens, colored thread and other materials to create each panel. I unfolded each one, and set up the table for the quilters still to arrive. I sorted fabric and stocked shelves with supplies. Those of us who did this were pretty much done in an hour or so.

By then the Quilt itself was in the final stages of being unfolded, so I missed that opportunity. But I enjoyed what little I did, before heading inside the Smithsonian Castle for a brief air conditioning break.

Next was a session on the history of the Names Project Foundation, and once again, the subject of anger came up.

Imagine a time when your friends – almost all of your friends – are getting sick and dying of mysterious diseases. They can’t rely on their families, their government or their churches to help them. In fact, the one thing they can rely on is to be condemned and shunned, hated and feared.

Would that make you angry?

One way the anger in the gay community expressed itself was through activist groups like ACT-UP. They were angry, in-your-face, and unapologetic. Lives were at stake and they didn’t have time for social niceties. Love them or hate them, they were incredibly effective.

Another way was the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Whereas the Vietnam Memorial commemorates an event, and lists names in chronological order, the Quilt is a patchwork of random individuals. Organizers channeled their anger into a less strident expression, but one that is no less powerful.

25 years

48,000 panels (each one 3’x6’ – the same size as a grave)

93,000 names

What was initially an effort to simply remember their friends – and make sure the world remembered them, too – has grown into a legacy of an epidemic that created scapegoats and heroes.

No one envisioned AIDS lasting this long without a cure. Certainly no one expected the Quilt to still be growing 25 years later.

The Quilt is not a static, historical artifact, although there is definitely a sense of history about it. By virtue of the volunteers who maintain the panels, travel the world to display them, read aloud the names, help family and friends create new panels and dream of a day when no more will need to be added, it has the feeling of being alive.

I didn’t run into anyone I knew while I was in DC, although I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would. What I finally realized was that I wasn’t really alone. Steve and David and Scott and Clayton were there, even if their panels weren’t on display.

And that is the legacy of the Quilt. As long as it exists, those people – men, women, and children – are still in our hearts.

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