“To heal, we must remember”: ‘Archives of Feeling’ from HIV Activism to COVID-19
By Sonja Mackenzie
On the eve of the US presidential inauguration, President Joe Biden, standing alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, acknowledged the over 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States with these words: “To heal, we must remember.”
These words – and the literal and metaphoric turning of Biden and Harris’ gaze onto the 400 lights shining in silence along the Lincoln Memorial – are a powerful public expression of mourning and remembrance of those many hundreds of thousands of lives now lost to COVID-19 in the US.
By acknowledging the impossible suffering of our loved ones, alongside those of us left to grieve our parents, siblings, children, and community members, this event represents what cultural historian Ann Cvetkovich refers to as an ‘archive of feeling,’ or the public cultures that form in and around trauma. This recent memorial centers in the public domain, and onto perhaps the most visible and symbolic national stage, the expression of what has been so far in the US largely relegated to privately felt forms of trauma.
The soul-piercing beauty of COVID nurse Lori Marie Key’s rendering of Amazing Grace at this ceremony cut through the air, a poignant reminder that COVID-19 is indeed very much a public issue, through (in part) the determination and grit, courage and care of our country’s health and medical workers, laboring endlessly to ease, if for a moment, the grueling experience of life and death with COVID.
This is indeed a significant moment on the national stage, and yet it must serve as a reminder of the many archives of feeling that community activists and BIPOC communities - who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 - have rendered, even in a time of pandemic isolation and physical distancing. This moment is also a reminder of the imperative of learning from history – in this case, the early days of the HIV pandemic, which still affects over 38 million people living with HIV around the world.
How do we make meaning in a pandemic, with its vast swaths of loss, grief, life upended, and people changed? How can we better understand the racialized trauma and impact of COVID-19, as well as see points of resistance and activism that are so often overlooked? Below, I present several ‘archives of feeling’ that move from HIV social movement activism through COVID-19. By calling forward a collective audience to witness the devastating human losses of COVID-19, these public forms of engagement act to create accountability not just to healing, but to action.
HIV Social Movements and Citizen Scientists
In the 1980s and early 1990s, HIV activists in the United States – largely white, middle class gay men living with HIV – mobilized public displays of anger and grief to acknowledge the devastating loss of loved ones to AIDS in the face of institutionalized homophobia and political and bureaucratic inaction. These activists built what sociologist Steven Epstein has referred to as ‘lay expertise’ to demand change to the processes and outcomes of scientific research and treatment for HIV/AIDS. Public displays of anger and street mobilizations from Wall Street to the headquarters of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) were central to the activist organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) as strategies for confronting stigma and power as distilled through the HIV virus. In ‘die-ins,’ activists leveraged clear demands on pharmaceutical companies, politicians, and the broader public in strategic and visible spaces.
Wall Street, 1980s - Tim Clary/AP
This activism paved the way for the development of a new type of antiretroviral medications that turned the tide on the HIV pandemic from one of likely death to a chronic manageable illness. HIV-related deaths plummeted by 60% within two years once these medications were on the market as activists put their own health on the line to fight for a fast-tracked research process. In so doing, HIV activists rendered the scientific domain and community expertise as one and the same.
FDA, 1988 - Photo: Public Domain
Family members who had lost loved ones to AIDS stitched together quilts for loved ones through The Names Memorial Quilt Project and called out their names into the vast expanse of silence as they laid life and death bare on the nation’s capitol. These actions would set a critical tone that paved the way for key civil rights advances for the LGBTQ community – advances that would shift the course of the legal and political status of the LGBTQ community in the US in the years ahead.
The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1996 – Source: Rick Geharter
Archives of Feeling in Covid-19: Toward Racial and Economic Justice
Cultural expressions of mourning and trauma in the COVID-19 pandemic are emerging as they did in the early years of HIV. As with the HIV pandemic, I believe that these archives of feeling will be central to the formation of social movements to adequately address COVID-19.
COVID-19 disproportionately affects BIPOC communities in the US, tracing long-standing impacts of structural racism on health in the United States. Black and Latinx people are four times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 (3.7 times more likely for Blacks, and 4.1 times for those who are Latinx) and almost three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than whites (2.8 times for both groups). American Indian/Alaska Native individuals have been found across US states to be 3.5 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19, and at one point the Navajo nation had a higher infection rate than all of New York State.
Public cultures of COVID-19 mourning have formed in varied shared – if socially distant – spaces, including in the streets where they build on strategic movement-building actions from the HIV social movement - in this example, as activists demand housing policies to remedy the intersecting injustices of COVID-19, racism, and police violence for the unhoused.
Covid Memorial, Act Up Philadelphia - Jeanne Lyons, June 22, 2020
The unspeakable loss from COVID-19 is held within these public displays, which demand recognition of collective and historical racial and economic trauma. From drive-through community memorial services to visual renderings of lives lost, these cultural spaces are, by necessity, circumscribed by the virus itself and practices that ensure physical health and safety for their audiences. Nonetheless, the aim is clear: to inform political processes to acknowledge – and support through policy change – COVID-19’s impact on BIPOC communities.
Detroit, Michigan – September 2020 – Reuters/Rebecca Cook
A collective image of the dead becomes a political act for a community that has experienced sweeping COVID loss, alongside the inability to see or care for loved ones as they died.
Detroit, Michigan – September 2020, Photo and Artist: Eric Millikin
These cultural spaces of COVID-19 reflect archives of feeling for articulating long-standing structural racism and economic injustice, just as the early years of HIV activism confronted the homophobia that rendered a devastating failure of governmental and public response to save lives. I can only hope that these archives of feeling will continue to build social movements to center the lives of the 2.24 million people who have died of COVID-19 worldwide, whose voices were not heard in their final hours. It is for them that these archives of feeling must continue to circulate until the power and pain embedded in their narratives are needed no more.
Covid Memorial by Artist Robin Bell, Washington DC, April 17, 2020, Sora Yamahira, Bellvisuals.com