The instant feelings that arise each time I see another “[insert mainstream media publication] apologizes for [insert insensitive action obviously offensive to Black people]” headline range from annoyance to disgust to numb indifference at this point, so seeing that the NY Times is now apologizing for their disrespectful characterization in the obituary for a highly regarded civil rights leader brings many of the same feelings.
Over the weekend, the world mourned the loss of 75-year-old civil rights activist Julian Bond. In addition to his work as an iconic leader in the endless fight for equal rights for African-Americans, Julian Bond was also instrumental in establishing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was well-documented as playing a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Upon completing his education at Morehouse College, he also went on to serve multiple terms in both the Georgia House of Representatives and the Georgia State Senate before later being elected chairman of the NAACP, a position he held for over a decade from 1998-2010.
Shortly following news of Julian’s passing on Friday, the New York Times ran an obituary penned by editor Roy Reed in his honor, but their efforts to pay tribute to the fallen civil rights icon fell short when they decide to include the following line:
“Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.”
As is to be expected, the NY Times referring to Julian Bond’s grandmother as a “slave mistress” did not sit well with the masses and was met with much backlash, calling them out for using such insensitive….and inaccurate….terminology to describe her. Among the many messages relayed to the publication via social media, one user hit the nail on the head with the notion that “on the grounds that a slave, by definition, can’t be in the kind of consensual or romantic relationship that the word ‘mistress’ suggests.”
Dean Baquet, who is the paper’s first African-American executive editor, reportedly relayed the message to NY Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that use of the degrading terminology to describe Julian Bond’s grandmother was “a clear mistake” Sullivan published a follow-up article, apologizing in detail to all who were offended, shortly after. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say:
“There’s no question that Times editors heard readers’ voices loud and clear. Retiring this phrase and expressing regret about using it has nothing to do with political correctness. It’s about recognizing the history of slavery in America, at a time when race is at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Language matters. This is the right call.”
Surely it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that people will take offense to a national publication describing any enslaved human being, who was likely forced into sex involuntarily as a “mistress.” As usual, the time to do better BEFOREHAND so that there won’t be a need for any “after-the-fact” apologies is, and will continue to be, right now.
Image Credits: NY Times/Getty Images