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Call My Name adds color to the AIDS quilt

  • Story Highlights
  • Blacks honored in fewer than 400 out of 47,000 panels in AIDS quilt, curator says
  • Volunteers for Call My Name make panels to honor African-Americans
  • In 2005, nearly half of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS victims were black
  • Project has goal to make 100 panels by December 1, World AIDS Day
  • Next Article in Living »
By Robert Johnson
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As the room echoes with R&B music, students from Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman colleges laugh, talk and work on brightly colored pieces of cloth on long tables.

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Marquetta Johnson, left, and Sky Feather share a laugh at a "Call My Name" workshop in Atlanta, Georgia.

The group of Call My Name volunteers is at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia to create panels for the national AIDS quilt. Their goal is to make 100 new panels memorializing African-Americans who have died from AIDS for World AIDS Day last year.

Since the epidemic began, about 42 percent of those diagnosed with AIDS in the United States have been black, but, according to the quilt's curator, fewer than 400 of 47,000 quilt panels honor African-Americans.

At the workshop, volunteer facilitator Sky Feather watches as the participants begin their quilt panels.

"Some people come in with images in their minds, some just stare," she said. Others seem overwhelmed and have a look she describes as "a scary kind of look, 'Want-me-to-paint-without-a-pattern?' look."

It is how the quilters walk away from the project that makes it a crucial tool in the fight for AIDS awareness in the African-American community. Video Watch what happens when people discover how few panels are made for African-Americans »

"There is something in everyone's story that we can connect with -- the truth about myself," Feather said about the process. "I am working on someone else's story and I need to know the truth about myself."

These volunteer quilters come to help the community but quickly make the project personal, she said. Some get tested for HIV after volunteering.

"Sometimes people relate the panel to death -- in actuality they are making awareness of people's life."

The U.S. population is about 13 percent African-American, but blacks accounted for nearly half -- or 49 percent -- of the people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the United States in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. See a chart comparing AIDS cases with population »

AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for blacks in the United States, according to CDC. And in 2005, blacks made up nearly half of newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS cases.

But for many, those deaths remain a secret kept from the community.

"We are finding out that, publicly, people are saying they are dying of lupus and heart disease and all these other things. It [AIDS] still holds stigma and shame," said Jada Harris, AIDS memorial quilt curator.

AIDS Memorial Quilt

  • Began in 1987 as a creative means for remembrance and healing
  • Most of the 3-by-6-foot panels memorialize a person lost to AIDS
  • Portions of the quilt are always on display around the country

Source: The NAMES Project Foundation Web site

The Call My Name project is organized by the NAMES Project Foundation, which is located in Atlanta and is the caretaker of the quilt. The panels will be stitched together into displays, or blocks, that will travel for exhibitions in schools, corporations, places of worship and community centers.

Since the AIDS quilt project started in 1987, at least 47,000 panels have been created, Harris said. Of those, fewer than 400 were made for African-Americans, she added. So the "Call My Name" project was created to honor those forgotten victims.

The quilting workshops have been taking place around the country since 2006. They meet at churches, community centers and colleges.

Some quilters select names of strangers; others are there to pay tribute to a friend or family member. All the materials for the 3- by 6-foot fabric panels are provided by the foundation and no experience is necessary. The quilt panels will go on tour to historically black colleges around the country in 2008. See how a woman picks items to remember her brother »

Dorinda Henry, chaplain at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Hospital, attended the workshop at Spelman to offer spiritual support and encouragement.

"One of the things that I found striking was that quilting was something that I would oftentimes think about my grandmother and great-grandmother doing and African-American women in particular," Henry said.

She said African-Americans need to get over their guilt about AIDS and start dealing with the disease and those who suffer from it. Photo See photos of volunteers making panels »

"Until more African-American people talk openly and honestly about this disease, it's not going to matter," Henry said.

"The quilt is a critical visual but if we are not at the table and we don't look at the panels with black faces and babies [on them] then it's real easy to escape it.

"But if we walk down those aisles [of the display] and see people we know, we won't say there ain't nothing but a bunch of white gay men on there."

Crystal Barnes, who was walking around a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia, sees the panels as a symbol "that their family or friends sat down and showed that they had time to send them all over the world."

After finding out that there were so few panels for African-Americans, Barnes was inspired to quilt a panel for her cousin and her cousin's daughter, who both died from the disease.

Harris, the curator of the quilt, has conducted at least 20 workshops through the Call My Name project. Those workshops have generated between 30 and 40 panels and about 100 more are being made.

Harris reaches out to the black community to create panels in any way she can. "I go wherever the people are. I am at health fairs. I am at rec centers, I go to churches, I speak to every group that will have me in the door," she said.

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"There is not one community within our community that I will not speak to. I could be speaking to a basement full of elderly black women at a Baptist church. The next week I could be speaking to some transgender people. Normally these two groups will never meet. "

"Whoever the people are, wherever the people are, that's where I will be." she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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