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Can a controversy over a quilt help Martinsville to heal decades of racial division?
Monday, May 6, 2013
The disputed square on the Piedmont Governor’s School quilt depicts a “small black person,” a bridge and a larger gold person on the other side, arms raised high as if in victory.
It was one member’s contribution to a patchwork quilt a group of students had created to showcase what they had learned in doing a survey of residents for the city. This particular square was inspired by their visit to Philpott Dam.
A student interpreting each square for Martinsville City Council members explained: “The small black person represents us before we learned all the information about it, and the bigger gold person is how he feels after we’ve been enriched with all the different knowledge.”
Is this not the perfect metaphor for how to salvage the good intentions behind the students’ work, and to do a greater service for their community than they could have anticipated?
Students, city officials and residents of good will — black, white, brown, whatever — might come together and talk about the ensuing controversy, listen with open minds, understand each other better and perhaps cross that bridge, enlightened and enlarged.
Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge has been widely and unfairly vilified since the council’s April 23 meeting for interrupting the students’ proud, and quite innocent, presentation by brusquely objecting that she took offense at the image of transformation from “small black person” to gold.
Hodge, the only black council member, pointedly noted the group “only talked to 10 percent of black people in a city that is 45 percent African American” as she reiterated her objections to the image, “and I hope that you do not display that.”
Her tone was hurtful, the flustered students appeared dismayed, and when another board member asked them later, “for one instant did anybody think they were putting anything on there that they think would offend anybody?” the question was rhetorical.
No. Of course not.
But so, too, was Hodge’s parry when she asked if any African American was involved whom they might have asked.
During her perhaps too-sharp interchange with students, someone is heard on video gently objecting that they are generations removed from the racism of the past. That is not an excuse, but an indictment.
High school students may well be ignorant of the Jim Crow era, but they can be sure that their African-American counterparts are not.
Ignorance of history is neither blessing nor virtue. It leads people to wrong assumptions and misunderstanding and hardens divisions that linger from a poorly understood past.
A group of clergy suggested last week that all of the parties come together for diversity training, and the students themselves figure out how the “little black person will be replaced.” Why replaced? Why not joined by little people of many colors who, crossing a bridge, come to better understand each other?
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