Everybody gets sick. For most of us, our health is a deeply personal and even private topic. But sickness and health are also public issues that have long shaped Brooklyn’s economy, its built environment, its laws and institutions, and its diverse communities.
Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is one of Brooklyn Historical Society’s current exhibitions which explores how centuries of Brooklynites have understood sickness and health. Through the experiences of everyday Brooklynites giving, receiving, demanding, and being denied health care, Taking Care of Brooklyn shows us that sickness is as much a social experience as a biological one. Portions of this blogpost have been directly excerpted from the exhibition.
One section of the exhibition shows how the stories of Brooklyn’s diverse communities complicate mainstream narratives about the history of AIDS that present the disease as a largely white, gay, middle-class issue. A number of factors were at play. The continued segregation of Brooklyn neighborhoods and its immigrant population; the rise of devastating drug crises; the decline of city services after a decade of financial austerity; and widespread misunderstandings about HIV/AIDS meant that very different communities in Brooklyn were affected. BHS’s AIDS oral history collection reveals the personal and intimate experiences of Brooklyn’s residents struggling with AIDS. (Listen to these oral histories here.) Additionally, Taking Care of Brooklyn displays a plethora of educational and protest materials that show how grassroots organizations sought to conduct outreach to children, young adults and to the borough’s multilingual communities.
In 1981, reports emerged of a new confounding illness affecting gay men in New York City and San Francisco, California. Otherwise healthy people were developing life-threatening cases of pneumonia or rare forms of cancer. Over the next several years, as doctors and scientists struggled to find answers, the disease was branded as one primarily affecting gay men. As more and more people died, a vocal advocacy movement emerged to support people with HIV/AIDS, protest government inaction, combat stigma and misinformation, and agitate for changes in funding, research, and the law.
HIV/AIDS education and outreach materials reflected the diversity of the borough. Especially in the1980s, some materials employed more serious messages and imagery, particularly in the earliest days of the epidemic. The ominous “death certificate” at the center of this poster is meant to reinforce the life-threatening nature of AIDS. This poster demonstrates efforts to reach communities that speak languages other than English, and highlights the close ties between intravenous drug use and HIV/AIDS in 1980s Brooklyn.
Despite this vociferous activism, this is only part of the story of HIV/AIDS in New York City. The experiences of Brooklynites complicate the mainstream understanding of HIV/AIDS as primarily white, gay, and middle class. Racial segregation of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, the borough’s changing demographics, the rise of drug use, and the decline of city services meant that in Brooklyn, communities of color and poor people were particularly impacted by HIV/AIDS. Because local and federal government took several years to adequately fund research and education initiatives, confusion and misinformation about HIV/AIDS and its transmission persisted, affecting Brooklynites for decades to come.
In 1992 and 1993, Brooklyn Historical Society was the first history museum in the nation to mount an exhibition on HIV/AIDS. BHS collected numerous oral histories and many artifacts from diverse Brooklynites impacted by HIV/AIDS. Staff believe this condom was made for distribution at the exhibition. While some HIV/AIDS materials use serious imagery or tone, others use humor and positive messaging to promote safer sex.
What exactly is HIV/AIDS and how is it contracted? HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks cells of the immune system. It is spread when bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluids enter into the bloodstream or come into contact with mucous membranes (usually via sexual intercourse). Over time, as the immune system weakens and the viral load increases, individuals develop AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Without treatment, people with AIDS typically live about three years. People receiving treatment with antiretroviral therapy, available since the mid-1990s, may have an average life expectancy.
In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) singled out four groups of people as high risk for HIV/AIDS due to overrepresentation in early cases of the virus: Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and homosexuals. The CDC’s focus on identity groups rather than high-risk behaviors however, stigmatized various communities and downplayed risks for other groups, like heterosexual women, among whom HIV/AIDS was on the rise. For Brooklyn’s growing Haitian population, this CDC announcement directed negative attention on their community at a time when misunderstandings about HIV/AIDS and its transmission created an environment of fear and hysteria. Many people began to associate Haitians with the virus and assumed the community posed a grave public health risk. Brooklynites of Haitian descent lost jobs, endured harassment, and faced housing discrimination as a result. Haitian Americans formed advocacy organizations, protested discriminatory government policies, and sought to counteract rapidly spreading misinformation. Haitian Americans formed the Haitian Coalition on AIDS in 1983 and established an office in Downtown Brooklyn. The organization challenged the stigmatization of Haitians, fought racial bias, provided care to underserved communities, and addressed housing and employment discrimination.
In 1990, New York City’s Haitian community, most of whom lived in Brooklyn, organized a mass protest in response to a new recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration that people from Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa be barred from donating blood. Over 80,000 demonstrators marched from Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan, ending on Federal Plaza. Protesters highlighted both the racism and the dangerous consequences of policies that stigmatized specific social groups rather than targeting at-risk behaviors.
HIV/AIDS devastated many families and communities in Brooklyn, and provoked a variety of responses from those living with the disease. Women, people of color, and immigrants often emerged as local leaders. Some organized and became grassroots activists, protesting local and federal government’s inadequate response to the AIDS crisis and lobbied for research, funding, and medical care. Widespread misinformation about the virus prompted thoughtful and important education campaigns to reach those at risk. Artists recognized the power of art to shape public opinion, politics, and culture on the topic of HIV/AIDS. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, activists, artists, and educators blurred the boundaries between their work.
Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is made possible through generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President, Pfizer Foundation, Wellcome Trust, JP Morgan Chase & Co., the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and The Brooklyn Hospital Foundation. Related programs are also made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.