Conducted for an exhibition undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1993, the AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project yielded an exceptional set of twenty-one recorded oral history interviews. The project attempted to document the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Brooklyn communities. Recordings, initially made on audiocassette tape and videotape, were with narrators who had firsthand experience with the crisis in their communities, families and personal life. For many years since the exhibition closed, the tapes had not been fully processed or digitized. Thanks to the generous funding provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to process, describe and make available ten oral history collections, the AIDS/Brooklyn project can now be heard digitally in full at Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library.
Cover of postcard invitation to
exhibition opening, 1993.
Brooklyn Historical Society began preparing the exhibition AIDS/Brooklyn in 1991. David M. Kahn, executive director of BHS at that time, had lost his lover Ron Wogaman to an AIDS-related illness earlier that year. With a goal of documenting the crisis in Brooklyn through the material culture, personal narratives and life histories of those living with HIV/AIDS, BHS opened the exhibition in April of 1993. The exhibition not only informed of the experience of people living with the virus, but told of the precipitating factors and collateral effects; the strain on their neighbors, friends and family members, practices and attitudes with regard to drug use and sex, prejudice and discrimination in communities, and activist responses. Until that time, only art exhibitions had been inspired by the calamity of HIV/AIDS. In the museum establishment, BHS was seen as having pushed the boundaries of what an AIDS exhibition could do.
For the oral history effort, interviews were compiled by a team including Robert Rosenberg (Project Director and Interviewer), Robert Sember (Researcher), and Kathryn Pope (Research Assistant). Narrators came from diverse backgrounds within Brooklyn and the New York metropolitan area and had unique experiences which connected them with HIV/AIDS. Substantive topics of hemophilia, sexual behavior, substance abuse, medical practice, social work, homelessness, activism, childhood, relationships and parenting run through at least one, and often several, of the thirty-four hours of oral history in the collection.
What often unites these narrators, aside from the intertwined subject and place of the exhibition title, is their outspokenness. Likely because of what they faced with a loved one or their own sickness, many of these narrators have a pronounced sense that there is a clock running on their own mortality. As one coping strategy, they reached out for help and, in turn, began helping out others. And it wasn’t just a sense of life-and-death urgency they faced, but a social welfare system that could be cold, opaque, and threatening to the very people that the system was ostensibly there to protect. In a segment with Kenny Post and Cheryl Wagner, the married and HIV positive couple relies on their sense of humor to tell a story of a case worker at Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn who had particular sentiments about how her pens were used and by whom. Post goes on to praise his doctor and elaborates on his feelings about the support systems he has managed to navigate and how people with AIDS can be written off from private insurance plans and workplaces.
WAGNER: I was just remembering the time you went and Miss Johnson wouldn’t let you touch, and she didn’t want to use the pen after she found out you had HIV.
POST: The case worker.
WAGNER: When you came home like a lunatic?
POST: No, I didn’t forget that. But, that’s ignorance. I’ve always had a hard time dealing with other people’s ignorance about this. What she’s talking about was the case worker I had with the welfare. I didn’t have a pen. She wanted me to sign the paper, at the end of the interview, and I didn’t have a pen. So, I asked her if I could use her pen. She gave me her pen, I used her pen to sign it with, but she wouldn’t take the pen back from me. She told me to keep it. She said, “Just put it down there.” I said, “Here, take it, it’s yours.” She said, “No, you keep it,” like that, and she took a tissue out of her bag and wiped off her hands, without even having touched the pen, just to let me know that this was why I was keeping the pen; that she wasn’t really being nice at all! To this day I know she has a God in her life, believe me. To this day, I know that. Her name was Johnson, Miss Johnson, from the Jay Street Borough Hall office.
WAGNER: [laughter] And what did she look like!?
POST: Nah, I’m not going to get that crazy. But, that’s how she was. Now, my doctor, on the other hand, has been very compassionate. He doesn’t take Medicaid anymore. He has a private practice. I started with him, in the beginning, and he’s kept me.
WAGNER: Both of us.
POST: Both of us, for that matter, and the difference in the money, from what he gets from private insurance and what the Medicaid pays him, is quite a substantial difference. But, I’ve learned that in this area he’s very compassionate, he’s a good guy. I’ve also found that the accessibility I have to various treatments is extremely limited with the Medicaid. I went through a thing where I was pissing blood for quite a period of time, almost a year, and I found that, after it stopped, after we went through all these various tests and all, that I found out there was one test where they could have found out right away what it was. But, I couldn’t afford to take the test, and Medicaid wasn’t paying for it. They wouldn’t pay for that one, so we had to do it the long way. But, this is what happens. But, the whole system is dictated with that. I’m not going to turn this into an Act Up meeting, but that’s pretty much what we’re about doing now, just dealing with that. In the beginning, I didn’t want to go along with the Medicaid program, because I saw it coming and I knew what it was about through different friends of mine who had already been hooked up with it. I started looking into the feasibility of not dealing with it. I found that private insurance companies didn’t want to handle it because of existing conditions, pre-existing conditions to getting it, you had a hard time with that. I found that employees, although they won’t fire you because you have the virus, they might fire you if you show up ten minutes late, and they might fire you if you go to lunch five minutes too early. They might fire you for not shining your shoes right that morning. They’ll find another excuse to do it, so, I realized right away what that game was about. The most important thing was just the general cost of the medicines themselves, so even if I found a private doctor and all this other stuff, the cost of the medication itself was astounding; that Medicaid became a necessity. Wasn’t even something where I really had any choice about it. So, it pretty much dictates how things go now. Which is okay, I guess, I don’t know. But, when I say it’s okay now, I’ve grown accustomed to it. I’m quite familiar with it, so, the comfortability that goes along with it now comes from familiarity, not from any comfortability that the system itself offers at all, because the system sucks, big time, the whole thing.
As part of the exhibition preparation, six of the interviews were transcribed on paper. Today at BHS, five of those legible transcripts are now in accessible, digitized form. As for the remaining sixteen interviews; these were indexed into thematic segments. Visiting researchers will now be able to access an interview and find topics based on timestamps correlating to a media player’s counter.
Later in the fall of 2016, this collection and others will come online publically in the oral history portal from BHS. Many of the audio recordings will be synchronized with their transcripts or audio will be thematically indexed with the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) viewer. A great leap forward for legacy oral histories in the digital realm; OHMS integrates oral history sound and searchable text like never before. To find out more, visit the OHMS website from University of Kentucky Libraries’ Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and investigate other OHMS-enhanced collections.
For an overview of the AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection and descriptions of narrators and oral history content, please see our guide which is available online via our finding aid portal. Our library is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. To make an appointment to hear the collection, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.