Memorialization and Preservation of the Stories of the Now
I grew up in a small, conservative town in northern Minnesota called Bemidji. Bemidji is Ojibwe for “water flowing through,” because it is the first lake that the Mississippi River flows through. Not only that, but it’s home to its own iconic story: Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, two large statues of American Folklore. Paul Bunyan was a giant lumberjack and mythical hero of the lumber industry in the U.S. He is said to be a symbol of “bigness, strength, and vitality”. He is considered to be the hero of the Midwest, and is a popular tourist attraction. So popular, that he is the second most photographed icon in the entire nation. In high school, I worked at the Tourist Information Center, and so I was required to know all the “facts” about Paul and Babe. I knew the ins and outs of their stories, and so did everyone else in the town. It was a form of storytelling that I was very familiar with, and a story I loved to tell. Growing up in that small town, I knew the power of storytelling. The preservation and memorialization of these stories fostered community and could quite literally build towns. Stores like the Lumberjack Shack, bars such as Lazy Jack’s, and our high school mascot The Lumberjack all memorialized the folklore, and told the story of Paul and Babe in a way that not all stories are able to be told.
In Bemidji, not all stories are told in the same way or held to the same iconic standard. In high school, I knew that I was queer, but never came out to anyone. There is a lot to be said about the metronormativity of queerness. In metro areas, there are countless gay bars, coffeeshops, sex shops, bookstores, even libraries. In Bemidji, we didn’t have any of that. I often wonder to myself, “Why did I never come out sooner?” -- and I realized that because nobody in my community had told the stories of queer people, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out and potentially being isolated. I assumed that because there were no queer stories, no queer spaces, that there were no queer people.
Stories that are passed down to us throughout history are often biased due to the fact that history books are written by a very specific group of people, who tend to be cis, straight, white, able-bodied men. These pigeon-holed ideas of U.S. history can be seen very clearly through AP curriculum testing bias that is specifically based in Anglo-American and Eurocentric values. The AP curriculum leaves many history teachers unprepared to teach about content not included in textbooks, about the genocide of our own country, racism, and slavery, to name a few. People who grew up with an Americanized curriculum during their K-12 education know the same fundamental concepts: Hitler was a Facist, Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, and the American Government runs on checks and balances. This raises the question: where are the textbooks on queer people, BIPOC, women, immigrants, disabled folx, and countless other marginalized groups?
When talking about queer history specifically, many folx often think of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to the MN Department of Health, “HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is most commonly transmitted during anal and vaginal sex, while sharing syringes or equipment to inject drugs. HIV treatment is so effective that people living with HIV can live a long and healthy life, but there is still no vaccine or cure for HIV.” Rates of HIV are much higher in gay and bisexual men, as having anal sex with someone who has HIV without using protection (such as condoms) is much more likely to spread HIV. When the epidemic began in the 1980s, there was a large stigma surrounding the disease. AIDS drugs were scarce, often ineffective, and expensive. So expensive that most patients couldn’t afford the access needed in order to receive them. While people were fighting for access to medication that would help them, fear of the disease was amplified by public homophobia. Many Republican lawmakers called for all homosexuals to be quarantined.
Many artists stepped up during this epidemic; many coming out as HIV positive or protesting the government's lack of ability to provide access to healthcare or find solutions to the epidemic. David Wojarowicz is one that stood out among the rest. He was an openly gay man that expressed his sexuality through art. Living with HIV/AIDS when government neglect was rampant was a radical act. He told his story authentically, loudly, and for all to hear. He, along with many others, was resentful because of how people died every day due to HIV/AIDS. He is most famous for wearing a quote that will be one of the most iconic quotes of the late 80s, “If I die of AIDS – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the FDA.” The iconic quote was painted on one of his leather jackets -- but his protest art did not stop here, as he was well known for his street art and avant-garde tastes. Most of his works focused on criticising the American government, specifically on their lack of action towards the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1991, Wojnarowicz published a memoir, Close to the Knives, in which he wrote: "what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington DC and blast through the gates of the White House and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps." This quote would end up foreshadowing the death of Wojnarowicz, and was the driving quote from one of the most powerful protests in the late 1900s. Wojnarowicz ended up dying in 1992 of AIDS. In 1996, four years after his death, his ashes were spread on the lawn of the White House as part of the ACT UP Protest “Ashes Actions”. He was an individual that had a platform to talk about HIV/AIDS activism and did so often. His revolutionary voice and critique of American government fueled the anger of people all across the country.
In 2018, The Whitney Museum of American Art held an exhibition dedicated to David Wojnarowicz titled “History Keeps Me Awake At Night”. The Whitney Museum immediately received backlash from many HIV/AIDS activist groups, including ACT UP. They accused the show of historicising the continuing the AIDS epidemic. “AIDS is not history. The AIDS crisis did not die with David Wojnarowicz,” reads a mission statement displayed by protesters at the museum. “We are here tonight to honor David’s art and activism by explicitly connecting them to the present day. When we talk about HIV/AIDS without acknowledging that there’s still an epidemic—including in the United States—the crisis goes quietly on and people continue to die.” While the Whitney Museum attempted to make reparations and apologize for their mistake, these reparations were not enough. ACT UP shared grievances and concerns for the fact that when people and movements are historicized in this way, it gives people the idea that the problem is over with, and is no longer a problem affecting thousands of people everyday, to this day.
Over one hundred youth in Minnesota are diagnosed with HIV every year. Nonprofit organizations are actively combating these statistics by providing HIV testing and increasing PrEP Access. JustUs Health is one organization that actively combats these statistics. The mission of JustUs Health is “to work for equitable health care and access and outcomes for people who experience injustice at the intersection of health status and identity." Every year, they put on their Walk to End HIV, where they raise funds to support community efforts to end HIV in Minnesota. In 2019, Cree Gordon spoke before all of the participants began their walk. Cree is a HIV positive black queer southerner who currently serves as the HIV Prevention Coordinator at the University of Minnesota. They have dedicated their life to advocating for those whose voices are ignored in the fight to end HIV. In their speech, they highlight that those living with HIV need to be the ones included in the fight to end HIV. They stress the importance of centering the needs of those furthest on the margins. Cree is a terrific example of how to memorialize and preserve the stories of folx living with HIV, a stark contrast to that of the Whitney Museum for American Art.
Looking specifically at the queer community, there are very few textbooks on these marginalized groups, because these marginalized groups do not tell their stories in textbook format. Why? Because these stories need to be told by queer people, for queer people. One great example of preserving history of queer folx is was completed through The Envisioning Queer Justice Collaborative. Their mission statement is as follows: “The Envisioning Queer Justice Collaborative is a digital platform that seeks to disrupt punitive and exclusionary conceptions of justice, and uplift people in the Queer community who envision justice as healing, creating and transformation. Through research, storytelling, and content curation/creation, we offer resources to bring people together for safer, more inclusive, and liberated communities.” This collaborative emerged from a community peacebuilding circle beginning in January 2020. Queer folx from all professions and places in life came together to discuss the barriers that queer youth encounter in the juvenile punishment system (the juvenile justice system in America is not concerned with justice, so we will be using the word punishment instead). These circles talked about school, prison, police, justice, accountability, and social change. To ensure that youth voices were heard, volunteers created art, curated articles, facilitated workshops, analyzed transcripts of the peacebuilding circles, and created a podcast rooted in what youth thought was important for queer justice to be actualized. I was chosen to be the sound designer/engineer for this podcast, and I couldn’t have been more thankful to be part of a project that was dedicated to memorializing and preserving the histories and stories of queer people fighting for social change. Through a collaborative effort to conserve queer history and social change, we are able to preserve the stories of queer youth in Minnesota in a non-traditional way.
When we listen to the life histories of people from these marginalized groups, we are able to analyze the inherent societal discrimnation of the institutions in which they have been a part of. The stories of people that went through institutions that promoted inhumane treatment and oppressive conditions are, more often than not, removed from textbooks. When we learn these people’s stories directly from the source, we learn a new kind of history. These collective memories are an act of resistance, creating a counter-narrative told in opposition to the dominant narrative. Historical memories draw upon preserving history by drawing on these people’s perspectives and writing about them from a third-person-perspective. Documenting collective memories helps us determine experiences, activities, and dive into the life and livelihood of these individuals in order to tell stories. Through consciousness-raising, forming relationships, and talking about their own lived experiences, marginalized people are able to break down the systems that are put in place to prevent them from doing just that. Life histories and collective memories become counter-narratives to dominant narratives based on historical memories, beliefs, and stereotypes. Memorializing the art of these current stories takes work. It takes making sure that these stories are told by the people that have these lived experiences. It means changing our K-12 curriculum to include collective memories instead of just historical memory. It means funding projects that are meaningful in preserving and protecting these stories that are ongoing. It means actively breaking down and abolishing oppressive systems that we live in every single day. All that being said, none of what I just listed can be considered radical acts. People are already doing all of these things. We can memorialize and preserve these stories in the ways that I have listed above. We must uplift and nurture the folx telling current stories in order to preserve movements, histories, and the lives of people that have historically been left out of history, media and data. This is only the beginning.