Skip to main content

The AIDS Quilt, and hoping for 'The Last One'

By Julie Rhoad, Special to CNN
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Tue July 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The AIDS Memorial Quilt is on display this weekend in the National Mall
  • Julie Rhoad: Quilt serves as reminder that AIDS continues to claim lives
  • She says one day in the battle against AIDS, we will reach "The Last One"
  • Rhoad: In the meantime, we can work together to help prevent HIV infections

Editor's note: Julie Rhoad is president and CEO of The NAMES Project Foundation, the international, nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that is the caretaker of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

(CNN) -- It is by no accident that the AIDS Memorial Quilt -- which now measures more than 50 miles laid side by side and weighs 54 tons -- is gracing the National Mall in Washington this weekend as the global HIV and AIDS community gathers nearby for the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012).

As scientists, doctors, and program experts articulate a new and hopeful AIDS narrative at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Quilt will serve as a not-so-gentle reminder that this devastating disease continues to claim the lives of too many, too soon.

The Quilt lends voice and volume to the nearly 94,000 individuals whose names are lovingly sewn into panels by more than 100,000 friends and family members -- and symbolically to the 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in this country alone. Due to its vastness, The Quilt blankets the national capital region, with sections of the tapestry on display in 50 other host venues throughout the area.

Today, worldwide, more than 34 million people now live with HIV/AIDS, and 3.4 million of them are under the age of 15. Every day more than 7,000 people contract HIV—nearly 300 every hour. The global numbers are staggering, but so are some of the numbers in the hardest-hit cities in this country. Indeed, recent research shows some U.S. cities have HIV rates that rival Africa in their magnitude.

Opinion: End the HIV stigma

Julie Rhoad
Julie Rhoad

Yet behind the cold statistics, there are faces and stories with legacies. The faces on the Quilt are our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. They are our aunts and uncles, grandparents, daughters, sons, neighbors, our doctors and ministers, our best friends, and co-workers. And, after the tears that are shed for them subside, they are celebrated with lace and mink and bubble wrap...with pearls and buttons, and their favorite T-shirt or logo stitched into the 3-by-6-foot panels, roughly the size of a human grave. These are the stories and lives that together make up the world's largest living work of folk art.

Throughout its 25-year history, this masterpiece created "by the people, for the people" has been used to fight prejudice, and to raise awareness and funding for direct service and advocacy groups. The Quilt is a catalyst and conduit, a tool for healing and grief therapy, a springboard for frank dialogue, both civic and private. It gives voice to far too many lives lost, telling us that never again should we ever leave a community in need and dying, ignored and uncared for. It is a stark reminder that we can never forget that we are all inextricably linked in life.

In America: A quilt displays an American tragedy

More than 20 million individuals around the world have attended displays and witnessed the extraordinary power, beauty, love, rage and sorrow of this multitude of voices. The Quilt's powerful lessons and poignant imagery provide compelling evidence that HIV/AIDS can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any age.

What started out as an activist action has become a powerful voice with artistic and cultural expression, now considered an American Treasure by an act of Congress. It is indeed difficult to walk away from the Quilt, whether a single panel, a block, or miles of expressions of love on material, unmoved.

And yet, unfortunately, almost every day, a new panel arrives at the NAMES Project Foundation, which curates, cares for and manages the Quilt. Each new panel is then added to the Quilt and helps to advance the cause of human rights and social justice.

In 1988, a lone panel was delivered quietly to the NAMES Project in Atlanta. Unlike any other panel among the tens of thousands of panels made at that time, this special panel arrived simply with a handwritten note that read: "I hope this quilt will find a permanent place and help mark the end of this devastating disease." The panel itself was stark in design, white letters on a black background, simply saying "The Last One."

In the decades since this panel was left on our doorstep, we have held on to it with hopeful anticipation that we would one day reach "The Last One." We unveiled this panel publicly for the first time on the National Mall during our opening ceremony Saturday. (It will remain on display until Wednesday.) We did so with heavy hearts, with hopeful hearts, but we still can't yet stitch it into the Quilt. Not until we see the last new infection, the last AIDS case, the last death from AIDS, the last one left orphaned, the last person to face discrimination for living with HIV.

In the meantime, as AIDS 2012 goes about its mission to push the boundaries of science and medicine to find an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we will continue to preserve, care for, and use the AIDS Memorial Quilt to foster healing, to be a bully pulpit for social justice and, most important, to inspire action in the age of AIDS and beyond.

Everyone can help us live to honor "The Last One." Educate, help prevent infection, be an advocate, volunteer in the many communities around the country who host displays, donate to keep hope alive. Only then will we know our work -- like the work of our scientists and researchers the world over -- by our artists and advocates, communities and corporate partners, friends and family members was not in vain.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julie Rhoad.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT