Black lives lost to AIDS commemorated in heartbreaking virtual exhibition

L-R: Sharon Redd, Sylvester and Arthur Ashe
L-R: Sharon Redd, Sylvester and Arthur Ashe (Photos: YouTube)

Fondly-remembered names including singers Sylvester, Sharon Redd, and Jermaine Stewart, and fashion designer Willi Smith, are among those remembered in an online exhibition to mark Black History Month.

It’s been put online by the National AIDS Memorial, which oversees the AIDS Memorial Quilt that began life in the mid-1980s.

The idea for the quilt was conceived in 1985 by the San Francisco-based LGBTQ activist, Cleve Jones. That year, he once again organized an annual march to commemorate the murder of slain councilman Harvey Milk, but he also asked people to bring names on placards of those lost to AIDS. When the placards were placed together, they resembled a quilt.

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The following year, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt project was born, and people immediately began making quilt panels in memory of friends, lovers, or family who had died. The first exhibition of the quilt took place in October 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It featured almost 2,000 panels, growing to 6,000 by the end of a national tour in 1988.

It has continued to grow since that time and now has over 48,000 panels.

The quilt commemorates all those lost to HIV, including many LGBTQ people and Black Americans. The AIDS Memorial has assembled 56 blocks from the quilt that highlight black lives, both familiar names and many who are probably little-known beyond friends and family.

Some of the panels features in the online exhibition
Some of the panels features in the online exhibition (Images: National AIDS Memorial)

“This virtual exhibition shares stories of hope, healing and remembrance to honor Black lives lost to AIDS,” said John Cunningham, Executive Director of the National AIDS Memorial.

“Our hope is that it helps raise greater awareness about the ongoing struggle with HIV and the impact systemic barriers have to positive health outcomes, particularly among the Black community.”

Black Americans and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by HIV. In 2018, Black Americans made up 42% of the nearly 38,000 new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.

To highlight the toll of HIV on Black communities, in 2013, the AIDS Memorial launched a campaign entitled ‘Call My Name.’ Its aim was to specifically create more panels honoring black lives. Some of the ‘Call My Name’ panels feature in this online archive.

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Among the members of the public honored is “Wandra”, whose panel was created by her hairdresser. The stylist kept Wandra’s secret about being HIV-positive for ten years. She says she wanted to honor Wandra, a neonatologist in Atlanta, who “had a life of accomplishment” noting that her friend loved to ski and watch ballet: “I wanted to honor that.”

Other panels mark names such as Sean Sasser, an AIDS activist who appeared on MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco, and who openly shared his relationship with Pedro Zamora, helping open hearts and minds to LGBT issues and those living with HIV/AIDS. There’s also Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy Johnson in the TV show Fame), rapper Eazy-E, and tennis player Arthur Ashe.

Even more heartbreakingly, it also includes several children. One is for “Dougie,” who lost his life to AIDS at the age of eight. His mother made his panel, which includes a painting of him from a photo taken when he met musical artist Ice-T.

The exhibition is online now, coinciding both with Black History Month and National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (#NBHAAD) on February 7, 2021. It will be viewable until March 31.

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