In the first week of December, I went to see a block panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed in the lobby of West Hollywood City Hall. It had been a long time since I'd seen any portion of the quilt and I wanted to pay tribute to this powerful memorial and be reminded of the important stories the quilt holds. There's something to be said for seeing the quilt in person. Up close, you can appreciate the details- the colors, textures, stitching, and fabrics interwoven to create a permanent acknowledgement of a life cut short. At the same time, to see the largeness of a single block panel is to get an inkling of the enormity and the scope of the tragedy that this quilt documents.
The particular panel I saw was in remembrance of the employees of West Hollywood City Hall who died of AIDS between 1984 and 1993. On one, each name was painstakingly crocheted into a blanket and the blanket was sewn to the quilt. On another, loved ones wrote their remembrances in indelible ink:
"Too many have been here and are gone, but it is because of you that we will do more," penned one. Another wrote, "It's been ten days since you died and the last image I have of you is you asking for a hug as you lie in the bed that had become your world. I did not want to let go. I wish I would have hugged you harder- I love you."
There were so many messages of hope, sadness, grief, and compassion just on one panel, I can't begin to imagine how many stories are contained in the entire quilt. When I got home from City Hall that day, I looked up the AIDS Memorial Quilt to view more panels and I was moved to tears by what I saw. There's no single unifying aesthetic or theme to any of the quilts, because each one represents an actual life and a distinct human being. A teddy bear and baby blanket sewn onto a quilt by parents mourning the loss of their infant daughter. A collage of Barbara Streisand memorabilia stitched together with the declaration, "The Angels in Heaven Welcome Bab's Biggest Fan!" A delicately embroidered image of a bird flying away from an open cage with the words, "At last my love, you're free!" A quilt that reads, "I never located your parents. Maybe someone will see this and tell them."
The quilt is so universal and yet so specific. It documents the history of a global pandemic while simultaneously telling thousands of individual stories. What began as a small-scale memorial in San Francisco in 1987 became the largest community art project in the world. The quilt was created to memorialize a catastrophe but it became a symbol of a growing civil rights movement and a powerful tool to raise awareness, fight prejudice, and promote understanding.
Can a simple quilt, created by ordinary people sharing their personal stories have an impact? Indeed it can. More than a decade earlier, women in Chile created small quilts, or arpilleras , to document and protest the human rights abuses under the dictatorship of Pinochet. (See Facing History's resource on this history: Stitching Truth: Women's Protest Art in Pinochet's Chile.) These quilts, when smuggled out of Chile, brought world-wide attention to human suffering and gave a voice to the unheard and oppressed. The arpilleras gave encouragement to the victims, provided a community of support for those who had lost loved ones and inspired others to take action on their behalf. The AIDS Memorial Quilt had a similar effect.
When the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed for the first time in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington D.C., it was larger than a football field and contained 1,920 panels. In a single weekend, half a million people visited the display, which then inspired the organizers of the quilt, the NAMES Project Foundation, to take the panels on a 4 month, 20 city tour. Response was overwhelming and immediate. Millions of people around the country saw the quilt, panels were added in each city, and the quilt tripled in size by the end of the tour. During this time, the tour raised $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS service organizations.
Why is it that a hand-sewn quilt can move us in such ways? Perhaps something of the maker remains in the fabric; maybe a personal story becomes permanent in a way that mere telling and mere printing cannot duplicate. The crush of statistics can feel so impersonal, but it is difficult to deny or trivialize the power of an individual story turned into a tapestry of personal truth.
Have you ever seen the AIDS Memorial Quilt? What was your experience?
How might you use the AIDS Memorial Quilt as a tool for teaching about social activism, the power of art, or the history of the gay civil rights movement in the United States?