Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Jayne Cortez, black poet obituaries, and the New York Times

David Corio: source
In a previous post, I mentioned that poets often become the subjects of coverage in newspapers in three main instances -- when their volumes of poetry are reviewed, when and if they receive major awards, and when their obituaries are written. That last one -- the obituary -- is a bit morbid; however, some observers view an extended obituary in The New York Times (NYT) as a sign of acknowledgement and necessary respect for a recently deceased accomplished artistic or cultural figure. Or more accurately, an NYT obit presumably confirms the significance of a person.

Shortly after the death of Jayne Cortez on December 28, 2012, I noticed a few different people on twitter and facebook asking whether the Times had published an obituary. On December 29, for instance, James Neal tweeted: "Still amazed that with all the Jayne Cortez tributes I'm seeing, I've yet to see a proper obituary. cc: ." Someone else responded to his tweet by stating "Agreed" and adding the Village Voice and Guardian newspaper to the "cc" list along with The Times, encouraging those two papers to run obits or tributes as well. 

On January 3, Margalit Fox's obit "Jayne Cortez, Jazz Poet, Dies at 78" appeared in the NYT (An obit on Cortez appeared in The Guardian on Jan. 4). Fox, who has been a main obit writer for the Times since 2004, opened her article by describing Cortez as "a poet and performance artist whose work was known for its visceral power, its political outrage and above all its sheer, propulsive musicality."  Fox's obit also noted that Cortez was born  in 1934, which was a revelation since so many sources state (apparently incorrectly) that Cortez's birth year was 1936.

I noticed a few people on social media express frustrations that the Times was slow to run its obituary on Cortez. If the Times valued her and her work more, and by extension, if the paper valued black poets and black people more, so the accusations suggested, the paper would have taken steps to publish the Cortez obituary a little sooner. I was curious about those claims and decided to pursue a preliminary investigation by considering the timeliness of obits on Lucille Clifton and Ai, both of whom passed in 2010.

Clifton died on February 13; a short notice of her passing appeared on February 16, and a fuller obit, written by Fox, appeared on February 17. Ai died on March 20, and her obit appeared on March 27. Thus, the Cortez obit appeared 6 days after her death, 4 days after Clifton's death, and 7 days after Ai's death. A fuller comparison might be needed to consider when and why obits appear at certain times. For now, I'm going to look into some of the different features of obits of writers and what they signify. 

African American poets and The New York Times 
•  Jayne Cortez, Black Arts Poetry, Jazz, and Intellectual Traditions 
Tony Bolden, Aldon Nielsen and Jayne Cortez
Aldon Nielsen, Jayne Cortez, and my classroom poetry canon
Jayne Cortez at SIUE in 2005


Clayton Eshleman said...

My wife and I have been trying to contact Mel Edwards to express our condolences concerning Jayne's death. A letter we sent to the old address at 192 6th Ave NYC was returned undeliverable. I went to Mel's site and found an address for him ( but it does not go through. Can you let us know how to contact Mel by mail? Thank you. Clayton and Caryl Eshleman

H. Rambsy said...

Send me an email when you get a chance.