This morning in Morning Meeting I asked the students and faculty if they ever read obituaries. I read them fairly regularly and even read them religiously for a year when I was writing a history textbook. I think the students thought I was a little crazy for reading so many obituaries. I mentioned that obituaries do not focus on their subject’s death, but typically on their wondrous lives and are often amazing to read. I mentioned how some obituaries are prepared long before their subject dies so that the paper is ready when the time comes. We joked that we are pretty sure that The Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ obit has been ready for a couple of decades…
I then asked the students how they thought that newspapers picked their subjects for their major obituaries and how those choices sent strong messages about what media companies valued and what they might not even see or want to be seen by their readers. We talked about how one hundred years ago obituaries commonly featured wealthy and “successful” white men and how that signaled to people what the newspapers valued. Which readers could see themselves in those pages and stories and which could not? We talked about how this was an example of institutions like the New York Times reinforcing values, stereotypes, and prejudices in a cyclical way. I introduced the Times’ effort to attempt to correct their wrongs by creating Overlooked, their site for writing obituaries about people’s lives that they ignored when their subjects originally died. They point out that they did not write an obit for Ida Wells, a leading activist against lynching and a founder of the NAACP, when she died but they wrote an extensive obit for the inventor of the Slinky.
In light of Hispanic Heritage Month, I decided to share a 2020 Overlooked obit for Jovita Idár an important teacher, writer, editor, and activist who fought for the rights of Mexican Americans in the early twentieth century. I encourage you to watch the short Youtube video about Ms. Idár produced by BESE that can be found at the start of my blog. From taking on the Texas Rangers to defend the free press to traveling to Mexico to serve as a nurse during the Mexican Revolution to fighting against the erasure of Mexican-American history Jovita Idár lived a life that should have been celebrated upon her death and I am happy that I stumbled upon her story and was able to share it today. As a history teacher, I feel strongly that our country is strengthened when everyone’s stories and histories are shared.