Memorial Quilt Honors Black Lives Lost to AIDS

56 blocks of the Quilt raise awareness of the impact of AIDS on communities of color.

For Black History Month, the National AIDS Memorial has dedicated 56 blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to honor Black lives lost to the disease. The blocks are each created with fabrics and imagery conveying unique stories about individuals’ lives. Letters from the families and friends who created the quilt are available to read as well. Visitors can view the special exhibition, part of the 50-state AIDS Memorial Quilt Virtual Exhibition, until March 31. 

Longtime San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones conceived of the Quilt in 1985. Upon learning that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS, he encouraged fellow activists to write the names of loved ones who had passed on small posters and tape them to the San Francisco Federal Building. The names looked like a large quilt, and inspired Jones and his friends to organize the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as a piece of folk art to continually commemorate lives lost to the disease. Two years later in 1987 a massive real-life quilt with 1,920 panels was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. In November of 2019 the National AIDS Memorial took over caring for the now more than 48,000-block quilt, bringing it back to it’s conceptual birthplace here in San Francisco.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a notably more severe impact on Black people in the United States than any other ethnic group — largely because of stigma, racism, and discrimination according to the CDC. In 1993, the disease was the leading cause of death for Black men between the ages of 25 and 44, and became the leading cause of death for Black women by 2004. As recently as 2018, Black people made up 42 percent of new diagnoses with the disease. Public health efforts to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in Black communities focus on raising awareness and correcting misinformation about testing, medication, and other harm reduction measures while making sure health care providers are accessible and non-discriminatory in majority-Black communities. 

However, people lost to this illness are more than numbers. The Quilt tells the stories of those lives, integrating articles of clothing and other artifacts that represent hobbies, passions, and families. “We selected Quilt panels for this exhibition that tell some of the many stories of Black Americans who lost their lives to AIDS, and whose loved ones honored them by stitching their stories, their memories, their hopes into the Quilt,” says Gert McMullin, National AIDS Memorial Quilt Conservator. 

One quilt panel, for example, honors a neonatologist from Atlanta named Wanda, as created by her hairdresser of 10 years. The block shows small figures engaged in some of her favorite hobbies, like skiing and ballet. In another, a Boys and Girls Club in Hartford memorializes the passing of 12-year-old Monica Price with words like “legend” and “friend.” A series of three blocks honor Black men who served in the military, with pieces of their uniforms sewn in. Others honor the lives of Black celebrities lost to AIDS, like Sean Sasser, Eazy-E, and Max Robinson. 

The high rates of HIV/AIDS amongst Black Americans highlights “the need to center Black and LGBTQ people in the fight to end the epidemic,” says Raniyah Copeland, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. “By sharing these powerful stories from the Quilt, we can continue to advocate for Black people living with HIV, defy stigma, and create awareness around prevention and treatment options available today that can end HIV in Black communities over the next decade.”

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