March 29, 2000
American University Bender Arena
It was hard to tell if the 30 or so people in American University’s Bender Arena were feeling the same thing I was. Overwhelmed was how I felt, taking in the sight of panel upon panel (672 at AU alone) of a quilt dedicated to loved ones, friends and co-workers taken by AIDS. The solemnity of the entire event was emphasized hauntingly by the only sounds emanating from the arena – the scuffling of feet on the floor and the occasional squeak of the floorboards.
Draped from the bleachers and spread out evenly across almost the entire floor of the expansive arena, the individual panels represented people from all walks of life and from all areas of the country. Entering the center from above the parquet floor provides quite a striking image. A visitor’s first impression is of the sections spread out below. The site is chilling.
Each of the individual panels is three feet by six feet, a size mandated by the NAMES Project Foundation, the group that created and maintains the quilt. That particular size, three feet by six feet, represents the average dimensions of a human grave, said AU Public Information Officer Kathy Thompson.
But the individual pieces refuse to dwell on death, instead choosing to celebrate life. Using letters, poems, pictures, articles of clothing and in one case a luggage strap, each panel reflects the vibrancy of life and the individual contributions of the people they represent.
Viewing such personal creations, I felt almost like an intruder. Like an outsider sharing in private jokes, the laughs and the memories of a foreign family, I felt out of place and awkward.
One piece struck me intensely. It contained a handwritten letter from a sister to her deceased brother. It was about the births, marriages and other occurrences of note in their particular family. Its simplicity is the reason it was so moving.
Some pieces simply contained a person’s name with little other decoration, while others were littered with photographs and mementos. Families weren’t the only ones creating these quilt patches. The American Red Cross, Virginia Tech, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Library of Congress each created a panel to honor the memory of former employees. The design is entirely the decision of each person or group submitting a piece for the panel.
The victims were from around the world: from Washington, D.C., to Tulsa, Okla., Phoenix, and Long Beach, Calif., and even Puerto Rico, Ireland, and Venezuela. The most important message one receives from the quilt is that AIDS knows no bounds, no nationality, no age, no sex and no creed. It is universal.
Transmitting that message is exactly what this entire project is about. Though about 43,000 individual panels represent more than 83,000 people that have died of AIDS complications, only a fraction of the people that have been claimed by the disease worldwide. Awareness is goal of the NAMES Project. It is also why AU decided to host the event.
Thompson said she was happy that the quilt garnered as much media attention as it did, but she said she was even more overjoyed when a busload full of elementary students entered the AU campus Tuesday to view the living memorial.