Memorializing AIDS Epidemic Dead at New York’s Hart Island
Hart Island is home to a burial ground for people who were interred in obscurity in New York City. The Hart Island Project, founded in 1994, aims to recover the stories of people buried there and recently launched its “AIDS Initiative,” which aims to recover the names and stories of those who died in the AIDS epidemic and were buried on the island.
Much of the memorializing of the AIDS epidemic focuses on cis, white, gay men. In contrast, the Hart Island Project centers the experience of people of color. In a new article published in NCA’s Quarterly Journal of Speech, Daniel C. Brouwer and Charles E. Morris III examine Loneliness in a Beautiful Place, a film by the Hart Island Project about AIDS in New York, as well as a web series about Hart Island and a virtual memorial that is maintained by the project.
Hart Island is located near the western end of Long Island Sound in the northeastern part of the Bronx. Hart Island has been home to a prison, an asylum, and a tuberculosis ward. In addition, since 1869, Hart Island has served as a “potter’s field,” a place to bury the unclaimed dead. The individuals buried in these unmarked graves have been subject to stigma, even after death. Brouwer and Morris write that Hart Island’s isolation from the rest of the city “represents and constitutes inequality’s alienation of those relegated to its mass burial trenches: the pauperous and unwashed, stillborn and mentally ill, the incarcerated, terms inflected by but silent about race and class.”
For much of its history, the cemetery was maintained by Rikers Island prisoners, but this practice ended in 2020. While Hart Island is now under the control of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Brouwer and Morris argue that the relationship between the Bureau of Prisons and the island helped shape attitudes toward those buried there. For example, they describe how loved ones of people buried on Hart Island were unable to visit the graves because of “bureaucratic red tape.”
Loneliness in a Beautiful Place
Released in 2018, Loneliness in a Beautiful Place makes Hart Island, which at that time was still largely inaccessible because of the Bureau of Prisons, accessible to viewers via drone footage. The aerial footage introduces viewers to the island and includes textual overlays with information about the island’s history. The names of the dead interred on the island and their burial places are listed on screen as the drone flies overhead. As the drone reaches the southern tip of the island, the on-screen text marks the viewers arrival at the burial place of the first AIDS dead. The on-screen text notes the first child who died of AIDS related complications, unknown AIDS dead, and finally the names and plot numbers for seven dead: “Soto—Plot 231; Maria Roman—Plot 241; Martin Loder—Plot 239; Felix Reyes—Plot 237; [Rachel] Humphreys—Plot 205; Paul Alladice—Plot 263; and Raymond Charnick—Plot 265.”
Brouwer and Morris argue that this video makes the inaccessible accessible and also illustrates the closeness of Hart Island to the city and asks viewers to consider why there was such limited access to the island. Furthermore, the video draws connections among racial inequality, the AIDS epidemic, and the prison system. The video notes that the burials on Hart Island were conducted by incarcerated men of color. This draws a connection between the dual racial injustice of mass incarceration and the forced labor on Hart Island. Furthermore, the video draws attention to the social structures that seek to erase people of color from the AIDS epidemic. While AIDS dead are of many racial and ethnic backgrounds, Brouwer and Morris argue that the “grievable AIDS subject” is often a white, cis, gay man. By drawing attention to people with Latinx surnames and others who did not fit into this category, Loneliness sought to “decenter the persistent whiteness in AIDS public memory.”
AIDS Burials on Hart Island web series
Launched in 2020, the Hart Island Project’s AIDS Burials on Hart Island web-based video series features interviews with family members of people who are buried on the island. All five people in the videos self-identify as Latinx or Black, which helps to decenter whiteness and de-stigmatize the Hart Island burials. Brouwer and Morris argue that one way the videos destigmatize Hart Island is to reframe it as a “beautiful place.” For example, one person remarked that “[W]hen we got there, it’s peaceful…. And my mother loves the water, and where’s my mom? Surrounded by water.… She now is resting.… And I know that she’s happy that we found her.”
Another video described the “home-going service” of Shawn Ross, a gay Black man. The video reveals that Ross’s burial on Hart Island occurred in part because of a lack of support from Ross’s parents. A cousin, Martha Wade, seeks to bring Ross home to Clairton, PA, to be memorialized at a church service attended by family and friends. Brouwer and Morris argue that bringing Ross home served as a “necessary correction” to a parental mistake.
Traveling Cloud Museum
The Hart Island Project’s Traveling Cloud Museum features the names (if known) and locations of those buried on the island as well as timers marking how long they have been buried there. Brouwer and Morris argue that the clocks “function as an ‘affect generator,’ heightening a sense of urgency to claim the unclaimed.” The clock stops when the person is “found” virtually and a story is shared by a visitor to the website. Many of the posts are eulogistic and explain how the individual came to be buried on Hart Island.
In one video, the Wiscowitch and Ruiz families describe the life of Julie, a trans woman whose record on Hart Island is under a name typically associated with cis Latino men. Because the Hart Island records are derived from government documents, some trans individuals, such as Julie, may be “dead named” (or referred to using the wrong name). Brouwer and Morris argue that this “limit[s] our capacity to find and remember trans and gender non-binary people who died of AIDS and are buried on Hart Island… [because] institutional records misrecognize them.”
Brouwer and Morris write that Hart Island’s “transfer to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation provides an important opportunity, after the COVID-19 pandemic, to reimagine and revise how the site is accessed and narrated, and how the dead are remembered.” They also write that during the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 10 percent of the city’s dead have been buried there. Brouwer and Morris posit that this influx of “more privileged dead” may alter the stigma associated with Hart Island and may possibly make the island a site of national mourning for COVID-19, which could eclipse the 1 million Hart Island dead, including those lost to AIDS.