In his Introduction to this collection, Gustavo Subero makes reference to the AIDS Quilt, a reference made especially significant since the year 2012 marked its 25th anniversary. The whole quilt had been last displayed in 1996; in the summer of 2012, 8.000 panels were rotated each day in the National Mall in Washington, DC. The quilt, composed of thousands of 3’ x 6’ panels (intentionally the size of a human grave), currently consists of over 48.000 panels honoring more than 94.000 individuals who have died of AIDS. In the early days of the quilt, in the 1980s and 1990s, the quilt grew at a rate of 11.000 panels a year; these days there are about 500 panels added each year. The executive director of the NAMES Project Foundation overseeing the quilt, Julie Rhoad, nowadays has sections displayed in various locales around the country, and tailors the choice of panels to fit particular communities (e.g., those commemorating Jewish individuals might be gathered and displayed in a synagogue, etc.), and Rhoad is intent that Americans “never leave a population uncared for” (UlabyJune 27, 2012: page[there’s no page #, since it’s an electronic source]). She recently noted that the newest panels are returning to the custom of commemorating individuals only by first name; these most recent additions, she says, are often for African American victims of AIDS. Though some like bell hooks argue that “black homophobia” is a myth resulting from the mistake of stereotyping African Americans as speaking with one voice (hooks), Rhoad asserts that this lack of a surname for some recent quilt panels is, suggestive of the stigma that still remains in that community against those with the disease, and repeating the stigma that attached to all early victims in the 1980s and that was similarly symbolized by the lack of surnames in the earliest panels. Thus, one might think that the very idea of a quilt would be a perfect metaphor for the community of AIDS sufferers, yet for a number of reasons that is not actually the case. If they were laid out side by side the quilt’s thousands of panels would stretch for more than 50 miles—though those commemorating African Americans who have died of the syndrome would make up only one half of one mile of those 50.
This suggests in a pictorial way one of several imbalances in the description, reporting, and imagining of the epidemic that have shaped the understanding of HIV and AIDS in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009, African Americans comprised 14% of the US population but accounted for 44% of all new HIV infections (“the estimated rate of new HIV infection for black men was more than six and a half times as high as that of white men, and two and a half times as high as that of Latino men or black women” [http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/aa/])—yet the most common perception among the U.S. populace is that HIV is a white man’s disease. This is a direct result of the skewed representation of the syndrome and its associated illnesses in the United States. Jacqueline Foertsch, for example, laments that we have seen “so far, mostly white, middle-class AIDS novels, plays and poetry” (1999: 57). If it ever was a white-man’s disease, these most recent statistics suggest that things are changing in the United States. How that is happening is partially the subject of this essay.
HIV in World Cultures: Three Decades of Representation
Hawley, J. C. (2013). Distancing the Past: New Forms of Discomfort with AIDS in the U.S. In G. Subero (Ed.), HIV in World Cultures: Three Decades of Representation (pp. 13-33) Ashgate.