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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 6
Fall 1997


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Upon Viewing the AIDS Quilt:
One Feminist's Response

Jace Condravy


I loved my friend.

He went away from me.

There's nothing more to say.

The poem ends,

Soft as it began

I loved my friend.

(Hughes)

Hegemony is the ongoing and complex reworkings of dominant interests to win repeatedly the consent of subordinate groups-women, people of color, lesbians and gays, the disabled-to be dominated. According to Laclau and Mouffe, only when democratic discourse becomes available do the conditions exist that allow for resistance to subordination. Out of these conditions arises the potentiality to mount an opposition, the possibility of a counter-hegemonic practice. The dilemma, however, in constructing such an opposition is that both groups, the powerful and the oppressed, use the language of the dominant group, though they stand in different relations to it. Marginalized groups must create an alternate discourse, one created apart from the mainstream. Biddy Martin points out in "Sexual Practice" that art activism is an effective oppositional discursive response to AIDS, which has become a culturally loaded metaphor (96). She states, "Art activism provides a means of imagining and representing subjects rendered unintelligible by the hegemony of certain discursive formations" (96).

As art activism, the AIDS quilt challenges the hegemonic notion, produced by the ideological discourse of the Moral Right and rampant heterosexism, that would have us believe that AIDS is a gay disease visited by God upon those who practice unnatural sex. The AIDS Quilt Project threatens the prevailing hegemonic construction of the disease by engaging its viewers, who, through their intellectual and emotional interaction with the project, become participants in a creative dynamic, in a confrontive visceral experience more powerful than words in revealing the true nature of this blight upon us all.

"Roger" . . . "Kenneth" . . . "Ed" . . . "Kathy" . . .

and my friend, Patrick Gear." The predominant sound in the gymnasium where the quilt is exhibited is the names of those who have died from AIDS, intoned slowly and quietly by volunteers. Aside from occasional murmurings and the soft, shuffling of soles across the hardwood floors, only the names fill the solemnity of the hall. The message is clear: AIDS is personal and communal. It is not a gay disease, a glib, calculated and false naming that effectively separates and categorizes those persons who have contracted the disease as "not us," setting up the classic Subject-Other dichotomy in which the Subject is privileged to construct and insist on the correctness of its version of reality. From this position, the Subject is free to define the Other, however inaccurately it may choose -- gentle, nurturing, emotional or man-hating, strident, angry or immoral, unnatural, sinful -- and in the case of the latter, consequently unworthy of compassion or sufficient government funding for medical research into the disease's cause, prevention and cure.

The AIDS Quilt Project assumes the agency that is usually reserved for the Subject by using the same technique of naming; however it uses naming differently-to erase rather than erect the artificial division between Subject and Other. It personalizes the disease by naming individuals in their full diversity, a diversity we all recognize and respond to in each other as a feature of our humanity, reminding us vividly that AIDS affects all of us.

I can no longer remember exactly when I met Ted only that he was one of a upper-level college preparatory classes together and formed a loosely cohesive social circle. Slightly stoop shouldered, pale, brown-eyed and bespectacled, Ted was a serious introspective sort, a good listener with a wicked sense of humor and an affinity for good-natured teasing. Ted was a good guy, always ready to listen to my latest boyfriend travails. Sympathetic and quick he steadied my teetering self-esteem by flirting humorously with me. I didn't get to know Ted very well until our group split to go to our respective colleges and universities. Ted went to Mt. Union College, a tiny liberal college in Illinois, and I to Gettysburg College in south-central Pennsylvania. Our friendship grew through correspondence and summers home between college. Ted lived a fifteen-minute walk from my home in Allentown.

The quilt, large blocked sections laid out on the floor as well as panels hanging on the walls, graphically affirms the diversity and humanity of AIDS victims. Here we find full names, nicknames, birth and death dates, and often photographs. But even more than that, the quilt sections reveal who these individuals were in relationship to others, in relationship to their work, and in relationship to their struggle with AIDS. Victims of AIDS are babies, teenagers, women and men in their prime. The photographs show us a woman with long hair holding a child on her lap; a smiling young man sitting with his parents on a sofa; a woman dressed to go to a prom; a groom kissing his bride; a man holding his cat; two beautiful men in evening tuxedos; a man, gaunt but grinning, sitting at a kitchen table. And sometimes, alongside these photos, is the individual's baby picture.

Those who created the panel-nieces and nephews, children, parents, spouses, friends, and lover have left notes and poetry. AIDS victims are first and foremost members of our families-aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, those we count as our dearest friends. Many panels reflect the special interests or skills of the deceased. Some of them were extraordinarily skilled card players ("a scourge to his friends' pocketbooks," one panel claimed); some made outstanding martinis; some were Redskin fans, others Phillies fans; some were memorable party-throwers; some were great dancers.

I’ll bet that Ted and I exchanged letters almost every other week throughout our college careers, sharing news of classes and professors, new friends, the crumbling of old romantic relationships and the beginning of new. Ted was undecided about what to major in, and under some pressure from his working class father to set a clear direction and goals. We were each the first in our families to attend college. His father was impatient with Ted's earnest search for his identity, believing him to be something of a dilettante. Nevertheless, Ted wrangled a trip abroad as part of his college experience. I was the impressed recipient of postcards and letters from all over Europe for a semester.

As time passed, correspondence with other high school friends dropped off, but Ted's and mine continued, I suspect, because we spent hours together almost every night of the week during our summer breaks. I think both of us felt alienated from our families and class background at the time and felt more at home with one another than anyone else. After dinner, Ted walked to my house, and we sat on the side porch and talked about everything-religion, politics, music, relationships, parents. He introduced me to Pink Floyd, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolfe and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun the latter sealing my fate as a dove. Sometimes we walked my Siberian husky Ton/a to a Dairy Queen several blocks away at a local shopping center where we'd take turns buying each other ice cream. Ted forever endeared himself to me by occasionally purchasing a small vanilla cone for Tonja. He held it while she lapped it down to the cone which she was not interested in eating, all the while wagging her tail. She adored him.

Some of the quilt panels feature individuals' work -- a chef’s jacket, ballet slippers, a radio producer's microphone, a statement boasting that the deceased was the best hair dresser in West Virginia. Other panels honor the work of bankers, deacons, teachers, non-profit agency employees, military officers, artists. One panel declares, "AIDS was only a small part of my life. Dance was my life." And woven through in handwritten, painted, or sewn messages are both the grief and longing for those who have died and pride in the dignity of their loved ones' struggle with the disease. These messages lament their pain and suffering, commend their strength and courage, and assert their belief that the dead are in a better place where the party never stops, champagne pours from faucets, dinners always end with strawberries dipped in white chocolate, and the beach is always warm and sunny."

After we graduated from college, Ted and I continued our correspondence though it slowed some. The last time I saw him was when he agreed to accompany me to our tenth high school reunion. He wore a vintage burgundy velvet jacket and a diamond stud in his left ear-he was beautiful to me. I had come to know, though we never spoke openly of it, that Ted was gay. His letters were sprinkled with references to male lovers as he continued to try to figure out what he was going to do for the rest of his life. For a while he was a baker in a restaurant in the theatre district in New York, then for a few years he was a stockbroker in Chicago. During that time, shortly after the media alerted us to AIDS, Ted made playful references to his having discovered the bathhouses in Chicago. Even in my naive uncertainty about the significance of this information, a tiny alarm sounded, quickly dismissed by the resolute robustness of my own health which I glibly attributed to all my age. Ted finally moved back with Jeff to New York where they set up housekeeping, and where he enrolled in culinary school. Other than for some ongoing difficulty with lethargy and anemia, which he dismissed as minor, Ted seemed settled and content.

The medium of the quilt reinforces its message. A quilt is, after all, the product of a collective effort created out of the common materials of our lives. Often a product of love, it provides comfort and warmth to the users, those who have sewn it in memory and in honor of a beloved and those who participate in the dynamic of its display.

Quilts historically have offered an alternate discourse through which to protest the dominant power structure. Like peace quilts from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the AIDS quilt offers a rhetoric of agitation that deviates from the usual overt, confrontive discourse ordinarily associated with such rhetoric. Constructed by people who advocate significant social change in the face of resistance within the establishment, this quilt, nevertheless, does not reference the policies of the dominant power group, nor does it construct a win-lose, us-them confrontation (Williams 20). Instead, the AIDS quilt directs attention to familial grief, the tragedy of lives cut short-emotions and events that touch us all personally; here is a pain with which we can all empathize. The quilt does not address the purveyors of heterosexist bile but rather develops, clarifies, and reinforces the recognition of the humanity of the individuals attacked by AIDS. The quilt, by inviting the public, to observe or create the panels, reenacts the social bonding inherent in the art of quilt-making. This growing solidarity begins to challenge the prevailing hegemonic discourse, eventually supplanting it with an alternative understanding of AIDS and its victims.

The quilt -- this powerful mode of art activism -- continues to challenge and to defy hegemonic conceptualizations of AIDS and AIDS victims. By demonstrating both the collective action of thousands of individuals whose intimate experience with AIDS refuses dismissal, and by personalizing the faces of those felled by the disease, it rejects a simple and false categorization. The AIDS Quilt Project says no to the politicization of people's pain. Graphically and aurally, it illustrates that the political is personal, for these panels are the public display of individuals working out their private grief and insisting on the recognition and respect for the full diversity and humanity of AIDS victims. The quilt symbolizes the comfort and warmth deserved by all who struggle with this fatal disease. Through the AIDS Quilt Project the voices of the deceased and of their loving survivors ultimately alter the discursive field of AIDS.

In 1983, I received a phone call from an old high school friend who read me Ted's obituary from the Allentown Morning Call. He was 32. Ted's mother reportedly said that his health had failed over a matter of several weeks. He had been hospitalized in New York; they discovered that his stomach was riddled with cancer, beyond surgical intervention. Ted asked that there be no funeral service and that he be cremated. The newspaper reported that Ted died of cancer. I must assume that this public fiction is easier for his family to live with than the private truth.

I see Ted everywhere and nowhere at the AIDS Quilt Project. A son and brother, a fine baker, a wonderful conversationalist, a beloved friend, Jeff’s partner -- he is very much like any individual commemorated in the quilt panels, but his name does not appear, nor is it likely that it will ever appear in the AIDS Quilt Project. His family's inability to acknowledge the nature of Ted's lifestyle and the nature of his death allows a narrow and self-serving discourse to prevail. But I know and honor him with a small resistance, scribbling on the panel provided for participants by the local sponsor of the display, "For Ted: whose life and death remain unnamed. Still in my thoughts. Still in my heart."

I loved my friend.

He went away from me.

There's nothing more to say.

The poem ends,

Soft as it began

I loved my friend.

(Hughes)

REFERENCES

Hughes, Langston. The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1932.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantel Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985.

Martin,Biddy. "Sexual Practices." Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. Eds. Michelle Barrett and Anne Phillips. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992. 93-119.

Williams, Mary Rose. "A Reconceptualization of Protest Rhetoric: Women's Quilts As Rhetorical Forms." Women's Studies in Communication 17(2) (1994): 20-44.


Jace Condravy, Ph. D., is a professor at Slippery Rock University, where she teaches English and also directs the Women's Studies Program.

 

Copyright 1997, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Condravy, Jace. (1997). "Upon Viewing the AIDS Quilt: One Feminist’s Response." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 6-8.


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