It was confounding.
How could the life of Linda Brown, the black woman at the heart of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that declared segregated schools as unlawful, be declared, with one fell swoop, both historically significant and invisible?
The girl who was 8 years old when her father, Oliver, joined other black families in the landmark 1954 case, died last month, and the stories that flooded online news sites around the world were accompanied by a photograph of a teenager in a plaid jacket and an Afro — supposedly Linda Brown.
But it wasn’t.
Brown came to symbolize “one of the most transformative court proceedings in American history,” according to one obituary, but that recognizes only part of the story. That decision shaped thousands of black children’s lives; it certainly shaped mine.
For six years, I attended an all-black elementary school in a small Southern town that would not honor the Brown decision for more than a decade — when I would enter seventh grade.
That last year in a segregated school, Mrs. Jordan, my warm, loving, and devoted black teacher — whose fair, cream-colored skin made us whisper that she must have been part white — would tell us we would have new books and better school facilities than at the all-black high school.
What she couldn’t tell us, perhaps because she didn’t know, was that we would not have teachers like her, who knew their black students’ families, who went to church with them, who pushed us to do our best. My desegregated school was fine enough — civil enough, nice enough — but I always felt like a guest in someone else’s house. The teachers were polite, but I didn’t feel cared for.
Still, we had to finish what was started by this brave young girl, a girl who was the face of a movement that overturned “separate but equal” — until her death, when she seemed to become just another interchangeable black or brown face.
The mistake originated with the Associated Press, which first posted the photo for member outlets to use. An obituary of this magnitude was grabbed by hundreds of papers immediately, and within hours, that photo was being tweeted everywhere, from the New York Times to Le Monde in France. Even our own newsroom used the incorrect photo.
Do I know that mistakes happen? Of course. We are human and, especially in a world of fast-paced, we-had-it-first journalism, errors may happen more frequently. Just the same, we also can correct them more quickly.
AP eventually issued a “photo kill advisory,” alerting its members to delete the image.
But the collateral damage was already done. The wrong Linda Brown still remains on many websites — even AP‘s, as late as April 13, and the Washington Post — meaning she will probably live on in the internet world wrongly identified.
What are the ramifications? Another black person — a historic figure, at that — is not seen.
In her award-winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric, the poet Claudia Rankine writes that in American society, people of color are rendered both invisible and hyper-visible — always under surveillance, watched in the stores, stopped by police because they fit “a description.” At the same time, they are often overseen: A black person is in line at a pharmacy, and a white person walks directly to the counter. When a clerk points out the interruption, the white customer turns to say: “I didn’t see you.” Or, a server at a restaurant returns a credit card not to the black person who had presented it, but to the white friend accompanying the black patron.
“Rankine’s goal was not to enumerate pain, but to expose and address ‘white blindness,’ ” the writer Lynell George wrote when he interviewed Rankine.
I even began to question my own ability to distinguish between the young teen in plaid from the photographs of Brown I’d seen over the years: a chubby-cheeked little girl with pigtails, wide-set eyes, and bangs that curled gently on her forehead; later an elementary school student and her younger sister, walking across railroad tracks to a bus stop blocks away to take her to an all-black school.
Had the “authority” of the New York Times made me doubt my own eyes?
I carefully scrutinized images of the young Brown. The girl being shown to the world had slightly darker skin. And then it hit me — the Afro. Wrong era.
— Valerie Russ (@ValerieRussDN) March 27, 2018
But I had had to wrestle with it. I had doubted myself.
This is how bell hooks, the feminist author and professor, described this inner turmoil:
“And it struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us,” she wrote in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation. “It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identify. Often it leaves us ravaged by repressed rage, feeling weary, dispirited, and sometimes just plain old brokenhearted.”
Efforts to get a comment from the Times were unsuccessful. And AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton acknowledged the mistake, explaining the advisory, but didn’t respond to a question asking how the error occurred.
Two days after her death, the Times put a correction at the end of the obituary.
Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and resource center in St. Petersburg, Fla., thought the correction should probably have been more prominent “given that this was a case of misidentifying the subject of the entire article.”
Now, “the photo lives on in websites around the world,” he said. “This is a timely reminder that we all have a responsibility to fact-check, at all times.”
And then two weeks after Brown died …
As the congressional hearings on Facebook and the Cambridge Analytical data breach loomed, some news organizations had published a caption that misidentified Zuckerberg’s executive assistant, Andrea Besmehn, as his wife, Priscilla Chan. Both women are Asian.
Melody Wong, the event and technical coordinator at the Asian Arts Initiative, noted the “cross race effect,” where people tend to “recognize people of the race they are most familiar with. And a woman of color is going to be the furthest from” the gate keepers at news organizations.
At last month’s Oscars, several news organizations also “mixed up” the names of Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran and Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu.
Both of the women had been in the national spotlight for months, Wong said.
“And they still got it wrong.”