NY Times Exec Editor Regrets Use of ‘Slave Mistress’ in Bond Obit

By Sheryl Estrada

Photo by Shutterstock

The New York Times published an extensive obituary last week on the life of civil rights icon Julian Bond, who died on Aug. 16. However, there is a use of language in a sentence that offended many readers.

“Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.”

Offended readers find it inappropriate or even historically inaccurate to refer to an enslaved Black woman as a “mistress” to her owner as she had no option in the situation.

Comments about the use of “slave mistress” were made on Twitter:

Shaun King, a Black Lives Matter activist,whom recently had to defend his background, wrote in a column for the Daily Kos:

When you own another human being and his or her options are to do every single thing you ask them to do or face dire consequences, using words to describe any sexual contact between slaveholders and slaves words that imply it was either romantic, consensual, or optional is not just wrong, it’s sick and offensive.

In a column published on Thursday, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan addressed complaints she received from readers regarding Bond’s obituary.

Sullivan noted Dean Baquet, the first Black editor at the New York Times to head the newsroom, said the newspaper regretted using the expression: “It is an archaic phrase, and even though Julian Bond himself may have used it in the past, we should not have.”

In 2013, Bond was quoted as using the word “mistress” when sharing his family’s history for an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:

“As a young girl she’d been given away as a wedding present to a new bride. And when that bride became pregnant, her husband that’s my great grandmother’s owner and master exercised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress. That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.”

12 Years a Slave written by Solomon Northrop isa memoir and slave narrative published in 1853. The memoir has been referred to as an accurate account of the common slave experience in the U.S. before the Civil War.

Northrop, a Black man born free in New York, was kidnapped as an adult, sold into slavery and kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana. Northrop details his life on the plantation of Edwin Epps, including how Epps sexually and physically abused an enslaved Black woman, Patsey, and the jealousy of Epps’ wife, Mary. He specifically describes Patsey’s flogging for going out for soap. The Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation ofthe memoir.

Martha S. Jones is the associate chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan and a member of the Law School’s Affiliated LSA Faculty. In October, during a lecture titled “Female Slaves and the Law,” Jones discussed the experiences of enslaved women in the U.S. She notes that sexual violence was “central to the experience of slave women.”

In her column, Sullivan sums upwhy language about slavery matters:

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.