As the United States marks 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, NPR’s Ari Shapiro explores the different ways we might commemorate the pandemic in the future.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
How are the over 500,000 people in this country remembered who died from COVID-19? Artists have already started to create answers to this question. Poets, muralists, and architects all have a vision of what a COVID-19 memorial could be, what it should do.
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TRACY K SMITH: It’s trite to say what we always say. Like, we will never forget. So I don’t want to say that, but I want the memory to sink into my skin.
SHAPIRO: Former American Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith wrote a poem for New York City transit workers who died of illness, and I asked her to read it for us.
SMITH: (reading) He travels far. What you gave – brief tokens of respect, sweet words spoken, barely heard, the glimpsed smile of a car passing through stations and years, through the veined chambers of a stranger’s heart – what you gave trip away.
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SHAPIRO: It was a very specific memorial to a city’s transit workers who died from the coronavirus. And so I asked Tracy K. Smith what qualities she wanted to see in a pandemic memorial that has a larger mission. And she told me that we had to invite people to bridge the gap, to answer a question, to complete a sentence.
SMITH: It makes me feel good to look at something like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and realize that there are a lot of things I have to fill out to activate this memorial. Nothing tells me, well, those are the three steps you need to take to come to that conclusion that we think is effective. And lingering in the uncertainty of dealing with possible feelings and deciding, well, is that the one I need to invest in? – all of this work brings me to a place that feels indelible to me in a way more than it could if I was just looking at a conclusion that someone else is offering to accept.
SHAPIRO: If you imagine in 10 or 20 years that you will be visiting this memorial, what do you hope this experience will bring you?
SMITH: I hope there’s something in – I mean every big city that’s been touched by this, which is every big city, brings a sense of local uniqueness. I want Minneapolis to have a COVID memorial that includes George Floyd. I want Washington, DC to have one that includes the forms of injustice that peaceful protesters also endured in the summer of 2020. This is all part of what I think is one global epidemic that America has endured. been confronted with since its inception, which perhaps has to do with contempt. It’s a very concise way of putting it. It has to do with the feeling that some people are consumable.
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SHAPIRO: Many of the ideas artists are exploring do more than pay homage to those we’ve lost to the pandemic. They also touch on the conditions of the society that brought us here.
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PAUL FARBER: People are really trying to find a way to collective memory. I am Paul Farber. I am the director of Monument Lab. We are a public art and history studio that examines the past, present and future of monuments.
SHAPIRO: Paul Farber’s organization works with cities and states that want to build new monuments, and he told me that he doesn’t hear much talk from civic leaders yet. What he hears comes from artists leading the way. In Philadelphia, where he lives, Monument Lab worked with local artists over the summer to create a series of video projections called “Cleanse.” He projected photographs, videos, poetry and more along a wall.
FARBER: And then a number of messages put on a monumental sized face mask projected that included phrases like, commemorate the fallen among us, it didn’t have to be that way, and, find the light within us. .
SHAPIRO: So when I asked Paul Farber what he wanted to experience when he went to a coronavirus memorial in a day, he said, of course, that should create a space for mourning. But he wants more than just a monument to the loss.
FARBER: I also want to know, in this memorial, how ordinary people took due diligence and are history as well. And then finally, I want to understand how he will live in the future – you know, that it will be a bridge, that it will allow us to understand and mark those that we have lost but also to give us a path for the lessons learned that can turn into new avenues of healing.
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SHAPIRO: So Paul Farber’s checklist includes a collective experience, something that evolves over time and serves as a bridge to understanding. These bullets all describe one of the most powerful memorials in recent American history, an art project born out of another pandemic that has killed some of our society’s most vulnerable people. Mike Smith is the co-founder of AIDS Quilt, a vast patchwork of over 50,000 brightly colored panels created by people to remember loved ones who died in the AIDS crisis. At one point he covered the National Mall in Washington, DC
MIKE SMITH: When you say the word quilt, you think of your grandmother coming home to you at night and the women in the western community getting together to work on a blanket for a new family that has just arrived – I mean , that sort of thing. It’s a real metaphor for the heat in America. And that was certainly not how anyone reacted to AIDS at the time.
SHAPIRO: One of the things I find so moving about the quilt is that, unlike a concrete and marble monument, the quilt is not designed by one person. It is a collective creation. Can you talk about the importance of this?
SMITH: Well, I think it was definitely important to us at the time. We needed this multitude of voices. Each panel can represent a life, but it really represents the relationship between that person and the person or group that creates it. And we wanted to tell these stories. You know, we needed a way to do more storytelling and less story writing.
SHAPIRO: And do you think that’s relevant to how we think about commemorating those who died from COVID-19 as well?
SMITH: I would like to hope that – like what the quilt did, regardless of the COVID memorial, communities come together and don’t isolate themselves. The Nature of COVID – the devastating nature of COVID is this isolation. The closures, the gradual re-openings, the closures again, the people who disappear in hospitals and never come back – I mean, there’s this enormous loneliness and invisibility with COVID. And I hope some kind of memorial teaches people that next time we have to do it differently.
SHAPIRO: This isolation has also prevented us from holding funerals and other collective mourning rituals, so one day these memorials could allow us to mourn together in a way that has not been possible since the start of the pandemic. one year ago.
(SONG BY OLAFUR ARNALDS SONG, “WOVEN SONG”)
NPR transcripts are created on a deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.
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