Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Lesbian Feelings in a Global Context
·Mourning and Militancy Revisited
·Activist Grief
·Remembering Hope
·Works Cited

Printer Version

Ann Cvetkovich, "AIDS Activism and the Oral History Archive" (page 4 of 4)

Remembering Hope

Important as these comments about mourning are for the record of AIDS activism, they were not that easy to gather. It was only as I became more pointed in my questions that they emerged in the interviews. I would argue that the tendency to see mourning and militancy as different, or even mutually exclusive, structures not only the experience of activism but the memory of it. In creating a public document, the activists I interviewed understandably wanted to leave a hopeful record, one in which their sense of accomplishment is recorded. When I have discussed my project's connections with trauma, some of the women I interviewed have been extremely wary, concerned with the pathologizing implications of describing their experiences as traumatizing and insistent on their activism as a way of moving beyond or warding off trauma. I very much respect this sentiment, which motivates my written account as well. But I'd like to open up space in which exploring the emotional ambiguities and complexities of activism doesn't compromise or undermine its significance. There are implications here for oral history, which in constituting its own forms of activism, should not, I think, be bound to any kind of simplistic celebration but should instead become a forum for reflecting critically upon the past. I am also gratified to see that oral history is being used as a tool to record ACT UP's history in the ACT UP Oral History Project, currently being conducted by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman.

My argument is also informed by my experience with other delicate interview topics. In addition to exploring the emotional dynamics of mourning in activism, I also investigated sex, romance, and friendships within ACT UP, as well as the intensities of political conflict and disagreement, both areas that people were sometimes reluctant to talk about or that presented challenges for me to write about in a way that was accurate and respectful. The lessons of feminism and gay and lesbian studies about sexual politics have bolstered my insistence on emotional life as the focus of interviews, reminding me that aspects of our lives that we might think of as private or inappropriate can in fact be of historical or public value. Of course, the use of oral history as a tool for exploring emotionally charged terrain such as trauma or sexuality presents a host of challenges both practical and theoretical, so making this recommendation constitutes a problem not a solution.

The need for a record of activism that acknowledges its emotional complexity has seemed all the more urgent to me in the wake of the traumatic events of 9/11, especially as some of us search for ways to articulate dissent from military retaliation and, as of this writing, the ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq. The popular public memorials that sprang up in New York immediately after 9/11 in places such as Union Square or the Times Square subway station have been a way for people to make their mourning public and they recall similar efforts on the part of AIDS activists. These public shrines express a complicated range of feelings that go beyond the sentimental patriotism demanded by the government and documented by mainstream media. The need to address mourning as part of militancy seems very important as we seek to do justice to the dead while reckoning with the violent history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. Space and time to acknowledge fear, confusion, and not knowing what to do would help to avoid violent and xenophobic responses. To this end, an oral history that can do justice to the complexity of emotional response seems an important tool in developing forms of activism that are similarly complex.

I'm hoping that Columbia University's September 11 Oral History and Narrative Memory project will be such a resource. (For more about the project, see Mary Marshall Clark's contribution to this issue and the Oral History Research Office web site, and my article in Trauma at Home: After 9/11.) In spring and summer 2003, I helped conduct interviews for this archive, and the lessons of my oral histories with AIDS activists remained with me. I encourage those I've interviewed, many of whom are immediate survivors only in the sense of having been in New York that day, to make connections between 9/11 and other aspects of their lives, whether very public events such as the history of the Holocaust or migration, or more personal events such as marriages, birthdays, and the completion of graduate degrees and other creative projects. As an interviewer, I often find it challenging to establish the rapport that will invite people to share their emotional histories with me, including their experiences of trauma. I take from my experience of documenting AIDS activism that nothing is too small or unimportant when exploring the impact of trauma on everyday lives, and I learn from the people I talk to that the effects of 9/11 are wide-ranging. Whether and how these interviews can make an impact on the massive cultural apparatus that is busy memorializing 9/11 in contexts such as the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site remains to be seen, but for those who find their way to it, the archive of feelings recorded in the 9/11 oral histories will be the repository of many forms of alternative cultural memory.


1. This article is adapted from my remarks at the 2002 Scholar and the Feminist plenary session on "Memory, Trauma, History, Action," as well as from a talk I gave at the 2001 Oral History Association conference plenary session on Memories of Trauma and Resistance. I was confronted there as well with the challenge of situating my work on AIDS activism in the context of geopolitical sites of struggle that seemed to have wider significance. My fellow panelists there were Stevan Weine, a psychiatrist who has worked with survivors of war in Bosnia and the author of When History is A Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzogovina, and Gertrude Fester a former ANC member who was imprisoned during the years of anti-apartheid struggle and who at the time of the panel was Commissioner on Gender Equality in South Africa. [Return to text]

2. For Crimp's own reflections on the past, see Melancholia and Moralism, especially the title essay. [Return to text]

3. The material in this section is drawn from my book An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures. [Return to text]

4. Phone conversation, May 24, 2001. [Return to text]

Works Cited

ACT UP New York. 2003.

ACT UP New York. 2003. Ashes Action. 2003.

ACT UP New York. DIVA TV. 2003.

Artists With Aids. 2003. Estate Project: Royal S. Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection at the New York Public Library. 2003.

Artists with Aids. Gregg Bordowitz on Fast Trip, Long Drop. 2003.

Ashes Action 1992. Prod DIVA-TV. 1996. Videocassette 2003.

Banzhaf, Marion. Personal Interview. April 10, 2000.

Carlomusto, Jean. Personal Interview. May 28, 1997 and January 31, 2000.

Crimp, Douglas. "Mourning and Militancy." October51 (Winter 1989): 3-18.

Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

Columbia University in the City of New York. Columbia University Oral History Research Office. 2003.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Eng, David L. and David Kazanjian, eds. Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.

Fast Trip, Long Drop. Dir. Gregg Bordowitz 1993. Videocassette 2003.

Health Global Access Project. Health GAP. 2003. ACT UP Oral History Project. 2003.

Saalfield Gund, Catherine. Personal Interview. November 3, 1997.

Treatment Action Campaign (in South Africa).

United Nations. org. 2001. United Nations Special Session on HIV/AIDS. 2003.

Weine, Stevan M. When History is A Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzogovina. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999.

Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. New York: Vintage, 1991.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.