The AIDS Quilt: Another Dimension
Length: 1906 words (5.4 double-spaced pages)
"Jones originally envisioned the AIDS quilt as a message that would call upon the conscience of the nation." (Sturken 186)
"The AIDS quilt raises the question of the purpose of mourning. For whom do we mourn when we mourn? The foregrounding of the needs of the living and the creation of a community through the quilt point to mourning not simply as a process for remembering the dead and marking the meaning and value of their lives but also an attempt to create something out of that loss." (Sturken 199)
Although the AIDS quilt is thought of by most to be a mourning device, there are in fact panels in the quilt that actually oppose the idea of mourning. In this section of the quilt, one out of the eight sections clearly stands out. It is one that reads: "Terry Sutton; He hated this quilt…and so do we." This panel, surrounded by the seven more traditional panels shows how although, on a broad level, the quilt is thought of as a non-activist mourning attempt, there are definite aspects of activism that show through despite discourses popularly associated with the quilt.
The other panels pictured here typify the finds of panels that are made for the victims of AIDS. "In memory of…" and "we will remember…" are some of the more common inclusions in the panels. Terry Sutton’s panel is incredibly significant because juxtaposed against the other panels it shows an opposite reaction to the quilt. It illustrates Sutton’s hatred of what other victims and families think is an amazing coping device. More often than not, the families and friends who decide to make panels for AIDS victims think it is a wonderful idea. Although the creators of the Sutton panel are certainly in the minority, creating a panel of this nature makes an intense impact.
The "ACT UP’ t-shirt that is included in Sutton’s panel is most likely a symbol of his involvement with the well-known activist group, ACT UP. The letters stand for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. They define their organization as follows: "ACT UP is a diverse non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis. We advise and inform. We demonstrate. We are not silent." Because ACT UP is a well-known activist group, the fact that Terry Sutton’s panel associates him with the group shows the audience his feelings toward the idea of making a quilt as a strategy to fight AIDS.
He hated the quilt because it is silent—a principle that ACT UP is specifically against. Although, because of the severity and rebelliousness of his panel, its hardly silent at all.
Much like Sutton’s, Roger Lyon’s panel is not a typical panel in the AIDS quilt. The poignant quote speaks volumes about the way Roger and the creator of the panel felt about AIDS and the issue of mourning. This quote was actually taken from a speech Lyon made before a congressional panel about AIDS.
The quote used is extremely powerful because when placed on the AIDS memorial quilt it shows that he has died of AIDS and perhaps as a result of the one thing he specifies that he didn’t want to die of—red tape. He acknowledges the fact that our nation does have many resources at its disposal and that there is an abundance of compassion, yet unfortunately it was not enough to put an end to AIDS in his lifetime.
The fact that the quote chosen for the quilt panel was taken out of a speech that Roger Lyon once gave is noteworthy. The quote represents his efforts to do all he could to sway the government to do more to fight AIDS. This quote represents the activism that Lyon was involved with. Lyon’s death could be considered almost parallel to dying in the line of duty--he died in the middle of fighting a battle for the good of our nation. His panel in the quilt does a fantastic job of representing his efforts in the activist movement while still incorporating the mourning aspects of the quilt.
This panel was obviously decorated by the victim’s younger sibling. The "cutesy" pictures surrounding the serious message have a dramatic effect. Like Lyon’s and Sutton’s panel, this panel stands out among others. In the inscription, the way the child does not name the victim because "[his] parents did not want his name used publicly" shows how much of a problem oppression of AIDS victims is.
Many panels in the AIDS quilt are made without using the last names because many fear discrimination and prejudice. It is a tragedy that in our society that there is a real fear that you will be treated differently because of a disease that you can contract. In this panel, the dismal message saying that his name could not be mentioned reveals a horrifying reality.
It is panels like these that make the AIDS quilt not only a mourning device but a collection of many interpretations and reactions to a disease that effects a large portion of the United States. Mourning and activism are both represented in the AIDS quilt. Both Douglas Crimp’s "Mourning and Militancy" and Marita Sturken’s chapter six of Tangled Memories argue the appropriate method of dealing with the AIDS epidemic. Both works discuss the advantages and disadvantages of taking the approach of the angry activist or the sorrowful mourner. The slogan Silence = Death and the NAMES project AIDS quilt symbolize the technique each group used to convey their message to society. While they seem like almost opposite approaches, ideas of both activism and mourning manifest in both.
Mourners like the Cleve Jones, the creator of the NAMES project AIDS quilt thinks that using direct anger and disruption to achieve goals is counterproductive. "‘Anger is released at the quilt, it is expressed in the quilt, but we don’t cut people off. And the greatest source of conflict between me and my colleagues in the movement is that they want the quilt to be angrier.’" (Sturken 201) Many AIDS activists’ mourning changes forms as time goes by and they begin to realize that mourning the dead doesn’t receive any direct results. This idea introduces Crimp’s opinion that "mourning becomes militancy."
Crimp explains that in order to mourn a loved one that died of AIDS, one must acknowledge the feeling of survivor’s guilt and the guilt of occasional secret wishes that the he/she would just die to get it over with. These are hard feelings to face, and like Crimp, many activists feel like "Mourning feels too much like capitulation." (Crimp 237) Militancy sometimes arises from AIDS related deaths because the one left alive is terrified that he/she will die the same way. Sometimes the only way to express these feelings is through militancy and activism.
Activists prefer demonstrations and the like to mourning the dead as a way of bringing about change. In "Mourning and Militancy," Crimp writes, "Public mourning rituals may of course have their own political force, but they nevertheless seem, from an activist perspective, indulgent, sentimental and defeatist." (234) Activists wonder why so many thousands of people can be present for a vigil and only a small percentage of those people be present when there are demonstrations. The famous labor movement martyr, Joe Hill’s famous last words were, "Don’t mourn, organize!"
The slogan Silence = Death is a striking image that AIDS activists have used to motivate society to not sit and watch as AIDS kills more and more people. It communicates to the people who acknowledge it to take direct action and to not be "silent." While the AIDS quilt, like the slogan, initially was created to bring attention and recognition to the AIDS epidemic, the quilt attempts to create a visual image of the tremendous proportions of the disease and its capacity to kill millions all over the world. "Crying is considered the most appropriate response and is properly attended to (with tissues)—and facilitates both personal and collective grief." (Sturken 199)
Although the AIDS quilt doesn’t take a specific stance in the fight against AIDS, like Silence = Death, it does make an important impression. The AIDS quilt, like the vietnam memorial means different things to different people. Sturken’s idea of cultural memory is "a means through which definitions of the nation and ‘Americanness’ are simultaneously established, questioned and refigured." (13) While on display at the mall of Washington DC, the quilt both defies and commands inclusion in the nation. On one hand, it is shown adjacent to the other monuments like Lincoln and Jefferson, suggesting that it too is a part of the history of our nation. While, on the other hand, the memorial is dedicated to a group that have been "symbolically excluded from America—drug users, blacks, latinos, gay men." (Sturken 13) This paradox reveals the subtle activist facets of the quilt.
Not going through the motions of mourning could be dangerous. If activism is not keeping violence inside, it’s making all violence external. When this occurs one denies the psychic articulation of the feelings that death brings, and one begins to even deny that they are effected by it. "By making all violence external, pushing it to the outside and objectifying it in enemy institutions and individuals, we deny its psychic articulation, deny that we are effected, as well as affected by it." (Crimp 242) It is interesting to note why the activist turns away from sadness and grief. Some gay men use militancy as a coping device which might arise from conscious conflicts within mourning itself; they may be scared they will share the same fate. For many gay men who have connections to the AIDS epidemic, memorial services can become tedious. They feel that they have been to so many that they are void of any meaning anymore. Many of these men have replaced their grief with anger. (Sturken 201) This replacement, however, is not that dissimilar to the traditional mourning that they flee from. Activism is dealing with feelings differently but it is still a form of mourning.
With the quilt, one can create the panels according to their feelings. As a result, some of the panels on the quilt are angry, some hopeful, some sad etc. The quilt gives the creator of the memorial panel the freedom to convey his/her feelings. Overall, the quilt communicates a message of connection and common humanity, which attempts to counteract the isolation of AIDS. As Judy Elsey writes it in her essay, the quilt "works toward turning around a nation’s thinking about homosexuality and AIDS. This constitutes an unlikely goal, an impossible an impossible dream, and yet the quilters strive for it regardless of the apparent impracticability." (Nelson 195) For this method of transformation, it is a slow process that will most likely not yield results in this our lifetimes. Unfortunately, the quilt, as stated above, evokes sadness and crying which doesn’t help the cause even though it has the power to help people deal with their losses.
These two different devices for getting society to concentrate on AIDS are both necessary. Silence = Death leans more toward the militancy side while the AIDS quilt leans to the mourning side. I agree with Crimp that both mourning and militancy are needed in getting America’s attention. Without either, the campaign would not be complete. It is important to see that in mourning lies activism and vice versa.