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Pieces of the Quilt

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AIDS quilt
(The NAMES Project Foundation, Atlanta, GA)
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Today is World AIDS Day, and in many places across the U.S. parts of the AIDS Memorial Quilt are being displayed. In Atlanta, Jada Harris and a group of individuals from the Names Project Foundation has been feverishly sewing new blocks to add to the quilt. Their goal is to create more blocks that represent African-Americans, which make up 42 percent of all diagnosed AIDS cases, but are represented in less than one percent of the quilt panels. Weekend America host Desiree Cooper checks in with Harris about the groups progress.

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Desiree Cooper: I understand that you have some quilts on your wall.

Jada Harris: Yes.

What do they look like?

I have a panel that was made in a workshop that we call "Call My Name" that's specifically designed for the African-American community to come in and make panels. And it's for a young man who was an activist here in Atlanta, his name was Jesse L. Warren. He actually died this year. What you see behind me is a panel with his face on it, and it's bordered with some kinte cloth. It has some designs on it that the women in the workshop call yo-yo's, little round pieces of fabric that are bunched together.

Jada, those people who have never seen the AIDS quilt, describe to me what it looks like. What are the kinds of things that people put on their panels?

Almost everything that you could possibly imagine. You know, each panel is starting to really represent an individual life. What we have on there is people's diplomas, wedding rings, buttons, barbie dolls, love letters, legos, motorcycle jackets. We even have one that has a bowling ball on it. We even have one that has a turntable on it.

When did you first realize that African-Americans we underrepresented in the panels for the AIDS quilt?

It was a couple of years ago. I was having problems filling the demand for [panels memorializing] African-Americans on the quilt that we were getting from across the country. And I just decided to go through our records in our database and take a look at what was available, and what was going on. And I was totally shocked. Of the 4,600 to 4,800 individual panels that we have, less than 400 are African-American.

Why is it that African-Americans are so underrepresented? When I think about the importance that quilting has had in the history of African-Americans, quilts were made by enslaved people, used in the underground railroad, and it's a tradition that had been passed on for many years. Why aren't African-Americans making memorial quilts?

You know we can only guestimate. One of the things that I know is that because the AIDS memorial quilt began as an activist movement on the West Coast, a lot of times people will see something like this as a relic. Or they'll see something like this as something only for the gay white male community. So I don't know exactly the reason why, but I know that the response has been tremendous when you share with people the information.

Once your efforts have come to fruition, how will the AIDS quilt be different?

It will be able to speak to the community. If there are prevention efforts that are going on, then the faces that the people see have to be faces that look like them. And we want the quilt to have the greatest effect that it can have for high school students and college students, young people, all over this country, and so we need to show them, themselves. And when you see someone on the quilt that looks like you, what it says to you is: oh my god, I need to protect myself, because that could be me.

Jada, have you ever made a commemorative panel?

You know, it's very interesting. Making a panel, it's extremely emotional. And I've been working two panels, for two close friends of mine for the last couple of years. It was only until I actually started the Call My Name workshops that I was really able to make progress. And I finished a panel for this World AIDS Day, for my best friend from elementary school--someone that I considered my sister--that I grew up with. And so it's been really an emotional rollercoaster for me also.

Jada, will you call the name of one of those that you've commemorated and tell me about the panel?

Yes, it was my elementary school friend, his name was Gregory Harris. He didn't live to be 30 years old. One day he was here, and the next day, he wasn't. And I was just overwhelmed with grief. What have we lost, when these people leave in the prime of their lives? The average age of the people on the quilt is somewhere around 30. And what isn't being contributed to our community? What do we lose when these people leave here so soon?

Comments

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  • By Denise DeAngelis

    From Secane, PA, 06/30/2009

    I can't seem to find a display in philadelphia or delaware county. My brothers panel is #5734 Dominic R. De.Angelis. Could you please e-mail me and let me know if that 12 X 12 is going to be on display somewhere soon. Thank you for everything.
    Dominic's sister,
    Denise De Angelis

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