Winning Essay by Michelle H. from Tennessee attending Vanderbilt University

I remember the time I interviewed Deborah Brown, a local artist, for a project on quilting in my art history class. Amidst the chilly weather that afternoon, I could smell the musky scent of her antique fabrics even before entering the workshop. Escaping the doors, the odor enveloped me, giving me a quick glimpse into the life of the artist. When I finally met Deborah, I found myself surrounded by an artistic hub—one that I later learned to be unmistakably representative of her distinctive art and culture.

Notepad in hand, I followed Deborah as she toured me through her workshop. Intricately detailed quilts surrounded us. In each piece, she revealed bits of her culture and childhood, bringing them to life. Through her distinctive style, I discovered Deborah’s unconventional path to becoming an artist. In her paintings, I learned of her familial obligation to her craft. Using quilt-work as her outlet, Deborah knit a story of perseverance through social and cultural pressures. Although we did not personally share these experiences, Deborah’s art allowed me to see her perspective, drawing me into her world.

Immersed in her story, I sat entranced, vividly imagining Deborah’s courage as she boldly sacrificed her dreams of becoming a physicist. Instead, she embraced the essence of the many strong African American women before her. Rather than falling prey to the economic and social misfortunes of her youth, Deborah maximized the opportunities she had, selflessly continuing her family tradition despite her passion for an alternative profession.

Growing up in the heart of Knoxville, Deborah was raised in a household that prioritized the importance of education. It was during her schooling when Deborah was first impacted by the growing social dissent of segregation. Such friction compounded after a historical landmark: the controversial ruling of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Faced with overwhelmingly hostile racial prejudices and enduring financial hardships, Deborah was urged to abandon her lifelong dream of becoming a scientist. In her personal narrative, I grew a deep admiration for her incredible resilience; despite not fulfilling her aspirations, Deborah was not phased by her obstacles. Rather, she used them to fuel her potential as an artist.

Although my project has ended, the influence of Deborah has not. Much like Faith Ringgold—a 20th-century artist famed for her radical narrative quilts—she wove into her art a dignified and compassionate message. In their challenges to fight and overcome societal norms, Ringgold and Deborah have inspired others in their respective communities to do the same. It is in this unifying tale that these women have made their lasting mark on society. In their distinctive method of storytelling, they have reformed the identity of female African Americans.

Beyond my secondary education, I aim to further Deborah’s legacy by creating and implementing gender-inclusive STEM workshops and competitions. By bringing these to all children—regardless of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status—I hope to continue to break the discriminatory boundaries that individuals like Ringgold and Deborah have worked so hard to dissolve.


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