[December 1 is World AIDS Day, an occasion to remember not just the global epidemic overall, but also and especially the individual and communal stories within it. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the commemoration and a few of those stories, leading up to a weekend post on whether and how we can learn from those stories in our own ongoing pandemic moment.]
On two telling ways that the global commemoration has evolved, and where we go from here.
World AIDS Day was the brainchild of James Bunn and Thomas Netter, two journalists and public information officers at the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Global Program on AIDS; Bunn and Netter brought the idea to their boss, Dr. Jonathan Mann, in August 1987, and with his support they launched the first annual commemoration the following year, on December 1st, 1988. It made sense for the day to originate under the auspices of a global health organization, of course, but the truth about a pandemic like HIV/AIDS is that it’s far more than just a health or medical crisis—it’s a profoundly social and collective one, affecting every level of society and culture. So when the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) began in 1996, it made sense for the planning for World AIDS Day to shift to that more multi-tiered global operation—and UNAIDS immediately and importantly broadened the focus, turning the single day into component of a comprehensive World AIDS Campaign (which since 2004 has been a stand-alone operation unto itself).
Since that first 1988 commemoration, World AIDS Day has consistently featured an annual theme, and the evolution of those themes likewise reflects an important paradigm shift in the day’s meanings and purposes. The first few themes—Communication (1988), Youth (1989), and Women and AIDS (1990)—were overtly intended to dispel one of the central myths around the pandemic: that it only affected adult gay men. While that early focus did represent an understandable attempt to broaden the conversation, it neither suggested ways to combat the pandemic nor addressed the way it was indeed ravaging the gay community. That early focus continued for some time (cf. 1997’s Children Living in a World with AIDS) but also began to evolve toward more activist purposes (cf. 1998’s Force for Change: World AIDS Campaign with Young People). And with a series of four straight themes between 2005 and 2008, all with the central title of Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise, the day became much more fully and aggressively activist still, recognizing the disease’s continued global destructions and asking all people to commit to being part of fighting that pandemic. Recent themes have only amplified that continued shift toward an appropriately aggressive tone and collective goal, such as 2012’s Together We Will End AIDS and 2015’s On the Fast Track to End AIDS.
We do indeed seem to be on that track, but if I can quote two moments from the chapter on AIDS in my book History & Hope in American Literature: “Such changes are all for the better, but they come with an unexpected and troubling side effect: they can make it very difficult for us to remember and engage with the dark realities and histories that defined the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.” And “In the introduction to her book, Witnessing AIDS: Writing, Testimony, and the Work of Mourning, Sarah Brophy impressively argues for the stakes in countering both our historical amnesia toward and our relatively triumphal contemporary narratives of the AIDS epidemic: ‘The epidemic’s ghosts protest through the voices of their spokespersons against their being exorcized, rendered untroublesome by a public rhetoric of AIDS that would fast-forward public consciousness to a sometime future world, one purified of the scourge and its ‘victims,’ a world, in other words, purified of grief and of mourning.’” Remembering the stories of AIDS offers one vital way to challenge that amnesia, and there’s no better time to do that than on World AIDS Day.
Next AIDS story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d share?