They're bringing the Quilt back to Washington.
When the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was first laid out on the Capitol Mall in October, 1987, during the mammoth National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights, its 1,920 panels covered a space larger than two football fields. Conceived two years before in San Francisco by activist Cleve Jones, who wanted a way to publicly eulogize a friend, the quilt had grown with dizzying speed.
Friends, relatives, loved ones, spouses and the euphemistic "longtime companions" of men and women who had succumbed to AIDS rallied around the idea. Because in the United States gay men had been hardest hit by the epidemic, the project offered a means for replacing with love the cruel stigma that surrounded the disease. In each hand-stitched panel the wicked image of a demon had been wiped away by the singular face of a human being. Out there on the Capitol Mall, the quilt bore silent, shocking witness to the thousands of lives lost and to the exponentially greater number of lives touched by the epidemic.
One year later, the quilt returned to Washington. This time 8,288 panels filled the Ellipse across the street from the White House. The symbolism of its placement was inescapable. Barely one month before the presidential election, its tragic, dignified presence quietly but firmly asked an awful question, 8,288 times over: Why, in all the years of the Reagan-Bush Administration, had the nation's two highest elected officials not only failed to take the lead in combatting a national health emergency, but actually participated in erecting roadblocks to the fight?
The following October, the quilt was spread out on the Ellipse yet again. Now, it had grown to more than 10,000 panels, filling the lawn with mourners. Early in his term President Bush had done something his predecessor never had, during all eight years of his, by delivering a speech that addressed the subject of AIDS. But those fulsome words hung stale and brittle in the autumn air just beyond the President's back yard, because determined White House action had not followed the oratory. The quilt, covering the ground like a funeral shroud, said: We are growing in number, and we will not go away.
And now the quilt is back. At 10 o'clock Friday morning, the unfolding ceremony will begin. While the names of dead men, women and children are read aloud from a podium, the quilt's individually sewn, 6-by-3-foot panels will be joined edge to edge on the grass. This time they won't be laid out on the Ellipse, because that sizable plot of sod has become far too small to contain it.
With more than 21,000 handmade panels, the quilt today is more than 10 times the size it was during its first display in Washington five years ago. (At that it represents fewer than one in every seven AIDS deaths in the United States.) So at the start of the Columbus Day weekend, and continuing through Sunday afternoon, it will spread out from the base of the soaring Washington Monument, filling the gently rolling lawn of Presidents Park all the way down to the stately Lincoln Memorial.
The symbolism of this year's display is as sharp as ever--even sharper, given current circumstance. This weekend marks the Columbus quincentenary. Another presidential election looms. The current occupant of the White House is fresh from a Republican convention at which hate was a rallying cry, cultural civil war an organizing theme and bigotry a platform plank. What more dramatic contrast to those malicious ideals could possibly be imagined than a monumental work of art, conceived in love, created with inclusive generosity and offered up in dignity?
In this political season of mean-spirited rhetoric and hollow posturing, the quilt stands as a model of American citizens' resilience and of their refusal to be silent and docile in the face of government inadequacy. Spontaneously generated, this simple yet simply grand expanse of decorated cloth is an extraordinary work of American folk art--certainly the greatest of our century, and perhaps of all our national patrimony. The quilt has called upon a deeply revered, nearly vanished tradition and stunningly revived it for modern life.
Births, marriages, harvests, anniversaries--in American quilts of the pre-industrial era, milestones of a hard and difficult existence were stitched into the daily fabric of a family's life. Quilts assumed the status of tangible memory when passed down between generations, recording family history. And when the situation demanded, they wrapped the corpses of the dead, blankets for a final resting place.