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The NAMES quilt spread across the Capitol Mall towards the Washington Monument.

All photos by
Ola Butler

A signature quilt signed by visitors of the quilt display.

Panels of the NAMES memorial quilt.

People gather on the stairs of the capitol before the candlelight march.

a reflection of the
aids memorial quilt by Ola Butler
Morning, 9:00 a.m., Washington, D.C. 

The dew has hardly had a chance to dry upon 

the grass of the National Mall. The sun has 

just passed the tip of the Washington 

Monument as people scatter in one direction 

or another, in a frenzied rush to clear the 

Mall's lawn. Strips of black tarpaulin are 

laid one across each other, 21 miles 

outlining a grid. The welcome mat to the 

display. Soon the narrow walkways will be 

covered with thousands of feet.

Slowly a shared silence fills the expanse. 

Small groups file onto the lawn, dispersed 

between the Washington Monument and the 

Nation's capital. Plastic tarps are spread 

out and four huge bundles folded in the 

form of a lotus are placed in the middle of 

each square. In a prelude to the display, 

the opening ceremony begins with the 

reading of names. Each group joins hands, 

encircles the lotus and carefully unwraps 

the bundles in an ritual revealing sorrow, 

love, pain, memories and union. 

Friday morning, Oct. 11, 1996, marked the 

beginning of Columbus day weekend and the 

three-day celebration of the NAMES quilt. 

One quilt, made up of over 40,000 panels. 

Each panel, approximately three feet by 

five feet, the size of an average grave, 

tells a rich narrative of anger, memoirs 

and afterthoughts in memoriam to thousands 

of lives claimed by the AIDS virus. 

The intensity of an artists' homage is 

overwhelming as the surge of inspiration 

emanates forth. Bedazzled by a myriad of 

materials ranging from sequins to leather, 

stuffed animals, military medals, stories, 

tears; the creation of a panel has become, 

for many, a reunion. Uniting in a 

collaboration of creativity; fathers, 

sisters, lovers, sons, daughters, friends, 

are remembered. It is the creative aspect 

of the quilt, both personal and monumental, 

which represents the continual dialogue 

between those who have died and their loved 

ones who continue to carry on the fight.

To see the quilt as merely a requiem, 

however, would be an injustice of its own. 

The NAMES quilt, a project started by Cleve 

Jones in 1987, is now a national emblem 

of the battle against AIDS. The 

recognition that the quilt has gained was 

marked by President Clinton and Vice 

President Gore's participation in the 

'reading of names'. Proving that indeed 

"Not all battles are fought with a sword," 

the quilt's slogan, it has become one of 

the most powerful tools for AIDS education 

and awareness.

Much like the Vietnam Memorial, the NAMES 

quilt has become this generation's emblem 

of strength. Possibly one of the most 

important artistic contributions of the 

time, the quilt is suspended in time, 

continually growing as the battle grows. 

During the weekend, over 2,700 new panels 

were brought to the display, a dynamic 

contribution to an already magnificent 

display. Yet the quilt only represents one-

tenth of the population of those who have 

died of AIDS.

Dusk, Saturday evening. Thousands of 

participants have now gathered on the steps 

of the Capitol, spilling out around the 

reflecting pool and onto the front of the 

Mall's Lawn. Weary from the day, consumed 

by a roller coaster of emotion, 

bittersweet, clusters of people begin to 

form, new friends and old. They are fueled 

by the awe of remembrance. A handful of 

lights flicker in the twilight. Slowly 

their brilliance spreads and soon the 

entire mass is emblazoned with light in the 

crisp Washington sky. The candlelight march 

has begun. Marching in union the vigil 

makes its way to the Lincoln Monument. 

Songs are sung, hands held, interspersed by 

the passing of the wave from one end of the 

procession to the other. They are truly 

united in remembering their names.

OLA BUTLER is a student at Vassar College.