The day I visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I went on Amazon and bought a used copy of Cleve Jones’s memoir, Stitching a Revolution. Jones created the Quilt, with a small team, after having a vision of it during a memorial event for Harvey Milk in 1985–years after Milk’s death but when the new virus was devastating gay communities–and hitting particularly hard in Jones’s long-time home, the Castro district in San Francisco. He is a wonderful writer, and has survived when so many of his friends have not, and he seems to feel that burden, and it comes through in his continued activism, public speaking, and writing over the years.
In 1988, the NAMES Project staff and an enormous group of volunteers brought the Quilt to the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. for the second time (a year after its first memorial display), and he gave a speak that can be found on YouTube–filled with emotion and setting much of responsibility for where we stood in 1988 on inaction from the government of the United States, the one country in the world with the most resources to act. The story behind the Quilt, its legacy, meaning, and growth–not to mention the hundreds of thousands of stories contained within its squares–are incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of its provenance and meaning through Cleve’s eyes.
But I will not share all of this here. I will share an excerpt from that 1988 speech.
We stand here tonight in the shadow of monuments, great structures of stone and metal created by the American people to honor our nation’s dead to proclaim the principles of our democracy. Here we remember the soldiers of wars won and lost. Here we trace with our fingers the promises of justice and liberty etched deep by our ancestors in marble and bronze.
Today we have borne in our arms and on our shoulders a new monument to our nation’s capital. It is not made of stone or metal and was not raised by engineers. Our monument was sewn of soft fabric and thread and was created in homes across America wherever friends and families gathered together to remember their loved ones lost to AIDS.
We bring a quilt. We bring it here today with shocked sorrow at its vastness and the speed by with its acreage redoubles. We bring it to this place, at this time, accompanied by our deepest hope: that the leaders of our nation will see the evidence of our labor and our love and that they will be moved.
We bring a quilt. We’ve carried this quilt to every part of our country, and we have seen that the American people know how to defeat AIDS. We have seen that the answers exist and that tens of thousands of Americans have already stepped forward to accept their share and more of this painful struggle. We have seen the compassion and skill with which the American people fight AIDS and care for people with AIDS. We have witnessed the loving dedication of volunteers, families, and friends and the extraordinary bravery of people with AIDS, themselves working beyond exhaustion. And everywhere in this land of ours we have seen death.
In the past fifteen months over twenty thousand Americans have been killed by AIDS. Fifteen months from now our new president will deliver his first state of the union address. And on that day, America will have lost more sons and daughters to AIDS than we lost fighting in Southeast Asia–those whose names we can read today from a polished black stone wall.
We bring a quilt. It grows day by day and night by night and yet its expanse does not begin to cover our grief, nor does its weight outweigh the heaviness within our hearts.
For we carry with us tonight a burdensome truth that must be simply spoken: History will record that in the last quarter of the twentieth century a new and deadly virus emerged and that the one nation on earth with the resources, knowledge, and institutions to respond to the new epidemic failed to do so. History will further record that our nation’s failure was the result of ignorance, prejudice, greed, and fear. Not in the heartlands of America, but in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress.
The American people are ready and able to defeat AIDS. We know how it can be done and the people who will do it. It will take a lot of money, hard work, and national leadership. It will require us to understand there is no conflict between the scientific response and the compassionate response. No conflict between love and logic. Some will question us, asking how could that be. We will answer, How could it not?
We bring a quilt. We hope it will help people remember. We hope it will teach our leaders to act.
There are many, many things more I could share. There is so much meaning, lore, love, and anger contained in the Quilt. Over time, I will share more.
I have also learned so much more about Parnell Peterson and Craig Koller, the two men whose squares I visited, since writing about what I wish I knew and then about visiting their panels. In some way, over time, I would like to share that here, too. I must figure out how best I want to express it, share stories. For now, they are mine, held close, and written in the notebook I’ve dedicated to the stories I collect of their lives.