On Women’s Day, the New York Times published an interactive collection called “Overlooked,” a series of obituaries written for notable figures who are long gone but for myriad reasons were not recognized by the Times when they died. In it, the Times acknowledges that over the years, it has repeatedly neglected to recognize notable women in its obituary section.
“Since 1851, obituaries in the New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now we’re adding the stories of 15 remarkable women,” reads the paper’s intro.
Among that illustrious group of 15 are black women and other women of color who shaped our world in deep, fundamental ways. They include trailblazing journalist Ida B. Wells; transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson; Henrietta Lacks, whose genes helped push forward numerous medical advances; Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen; and Cuban artist Belkis Ayón.
While much of the series’ power comes from this sense of righting wrongs, of long-denied recognition finally being granted, the short articles themselves are poignant and thorough. These overdue tributes are “more about life than death,” the Times notes, and serve as a “testament to human contribution.”
Below are some excerpts from the obituaries of black women whose lives and achievements are finally being recognized by the Times:
Whenever possible, Wells named the victims of racist violence and told their stories. In her journals, she lamented that her subjects would have otherwise been forgotten by all “save the night wind, no memorial service to bemoan their sad and horrible fate.”
Wells also organized economic boycotts long before the tactic was popularized by other, mostly male, civil rights activists, who are often credited with its success.
In 1883, she was forced off a train car reserved for white women. She sued the railroad and lost on appeal before the Tennessee Supreme Court, after which she urged African-Americans to avoid the trains, and later, to leave the South entirely. She also traveled to Britain to rally her cause, encouraging the British to stop purchasing American cotton and angering many white Southern business owners.
Her goal, she declared in an interview for a 1972 book, was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” with her “gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.” She added, in a reference to the radical politics of the time, “We believe in picking up the gun, starting a revolution if necessary.”
The 1970s were a time of greater visibility for Johnson. Tall and slender, she had a knack for commanding attention. Her outfits — red plastic high heels; slippers and stockings; shimmering robes and dresses; costume jewelry; bright wigs; plastic flowers and even artificial fruit in her hair — were often assembled from scavenged or discarded materials.
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville, until I became a drag queen,” she said in a 1992 interview.
While she was sick, a Hopkins doctor appeared on a TV science program. “Now let me show you a bottle in which we have grown massive quantities of cancer cells,” said the doctor, George Gey, as he held up her cells. “It is quite possible that from such fundamental studies such as these that we will be able to learn a way by which cancer can be completely wiped out.”
There was no mention of Lacks on TV and there was not a single obituary for her. After she died, a lab technician was in an autopsy room, taking more of the precious cells from her body. In Lacks’s medical records, a doctor wrote of small white tumors covering some organs: “It looked as if the inside of her body was studded with pearls.”
According to Davis, Larsen was remarkable in approaching the subject of race as a modernist, rather than drawing on Southern tropes or vernacular to convey her characters’ blackness.
Larsen followed “Quicksand” the next year with “Passing,” which tells the story of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two mixed-race women who grew up together and reunite at a Chicago hotel after years of separation. Clare, Irene discovers, has been living as a white woman married to a racist who is none the wiser about his wife’s background. The relationship between the two women flirts with the sensual as each becomes obsessed with the other’s chosen path.
In its review of “Passing,” The New York Times noted that “Larsen is quite adroit at tracing the involved processes of a mind that is divided against itself, that fights between the dictates of reason and desire.”
Her art was stoic, less colorful — she worked almost exclusively in gradients of black, white and gray — yet stunning. Her work focused on Abakuá, a secret religious fraternity.
The female characters in Ayón’s works are without mouths to represent the absence of women in the Abakuá religion. Women are not allowed to participate in the society, but for Ayón, they were still a presence. She said her obsession with Abakuá was born out of curiosity.
For her, the subject had “more to do with life than with religion,” she said in an interview in 1999. “I am mostly interested in questioning humanity, the fleeting feelings, the spirituality.”
This will be an ongoing project, and readers can submit nominations for future “Overlooked” obits. While the series will focus on women for now, the Times says it will expand its lens beyond women in the future.