New York Times obits editor Amy Padnani salutes the obscure, the forgotten and the ignored in the newspaper’s well-known series.
In 2017, Amisha (Amy) Padnani, an editor at The New York Times’ obituaries desk, realized an oddity in the manner in which the newspaper had traditionally featured obituaries. Since 1851, the Times had published tributes to noteworthy people who were predominantly male and white. Only a fraction of the obituaries registered the lives of women and people of color.
The paper’s archives were missing obituaries of legends like Charlotte Brontë (who authored “Jane Eyre”), Henrietta Lacks (who unwittingly transformed the landscape of medical research, thereby saving countless lives), Ida B. Wells (“the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime” who crusaded against lynching), Madhubala (the gorgeous Bollywood superstar of the ‘50s-‘60s), and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (who supported gay rights in the 19th century, long before the term ‘homosexuality’ was coined).
Padnani wondered if the paper could “look harder” and acknowledge the unsung lives of individuals who had positively altered society’s trajectory, yet had been marginalized by history due to their race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. As a result, in 2018, the Times introduced a series aptly titled Overlooked, which became a part of its obituaries section. It traced and honored the lives of extraordinary people who had receded into obscurity. The Times admitted on its Overlooked web page: “To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.”
Across borders, readers have gravitated towards these compelling stories. The project has become a propellant in changing the narrative of whom we think is “important” in society. Padnani, the lead editor of Overlooked (which is going to be adapted as a web series for Netflix), tells SEEMA what went into making the series, the impact it has made thus far, and how those who were once sidelined by history are finally being brought to the forefront and celebrated.
To begin, what inspired your interest in the Obituary section of The New York Times?
One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to journalism is because I enjoy learning about life through people. Obituaries are a perfect example of this. There is a beautiful serendipity in picking up the day’s paper and reading about how a person helped shape the world as we know it. Obituaries are also an art form, especially at The Times. Our writers take the story of a person’s life and spin up beautiful narratives that go beyond just the basic facts of a person’s life. Take, for example, this wonderfully written piece about Frances Gabe, the inventor of the world’s only self-cleaning house. She was a visionary who achieved something many people have dreamed of.
How did the fascinating Overlooked series come into being?
After I joined the Obits desk, in 2017, I noticed we would occasionally get emails from readers asking, “Why don’t you have more women and people of color in your pages?” I asked my team how we usually respond. They said, “Well, obituaries are a rear-view look at society, and the people who are dying today were of a generation when women and people of color weren’t invited to the table to make a difference. Perhaps in a generation or two, we’ll see more of a balance.”
While there is some truth to that line of thinking, I still felt unsatisfied. Couldn’t we look a bit harder? I began mulling over this issue and having conversations with colleagues around the newsroom and in the industry. Then one day while I was doing some research, I came across a website about the history of tennis. It credited Mary Ewing Outerbridge with introducing tennis to America. Tennis is such a major sport, and yet I had never heard of her. I wondered if she received a New York Times obituary when she died. On a hunch, I checked our archives: she hadn’t. I wondered who else we missed, and I went on a deep dive through the archives. Before long I had a list of a couple of dozen names. I went back to my team and said, “What if we were to tell their stories now?” On March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day, we launched Overlooked with the stories of 15 remarkable women, and we have continued adding to the series ever since.
As the creator and lead editor of Overlooked, how did you envision the series to bring about a paradigm shift?
To be honest, I didn’t predict the impact of Overlooked. You see, at the time the Black Lives Matter movement was at a rolling boil and the #MeToo movement was just beginning. All of these people were coming out of the shadows to tell stories of injustices that they had faced and I could relate; as the daughter of Indian immigrants growing up in the United States, I, too, had faced discriminating encounters. People were demanding change. And meanwhile, in my new role I had identified an imbalance that I could address.
When Overlooked launched, I got hundreds of emails. People said they cried reading these obituaries because they felt seen for the first time. And all of a sudden, I realized how so many people like me had been walking around feeling invisible, and how this sort of work, of trying to rewrite history and correct the wrongs of the past, could help us think about what we need to be doing differently as a society going forward.
Which has been the most revelatory story that you’ve managed to pull out of the shadows? Has that story left you inspired in any way?
There are so many! I’m delighted when I read about problem solvers, like Melitta Bentz, who invented the coffee filter after she became tired of getting grounds in her teeth. I’m humbled when I read about brave souls like Minnie Freeman, a teacher who rescued her schoolchildren when the building was being torn apart in a freak blizzard. I’m inspired when I hear about strong women who survive adversity to do something great, like Grandma Gatewood, who overcame 30 years of domestic violence at the hands of her husband, to become the first woman to complete the Appalachian Trail in its entirety alone, when she was 67.
I’m brought to tears when I read about women like Margaret Garner, a slave who, in one soul-chilling moment, killed her own daughter so that she would not have to experience the horrors of slavery. Reading these stories of vision and strength is revelatory — they teach us about our role in society, about what we can accomplish and who we should be as individuals going forward.
What is the process behind choosing who deserves to be featured? Is there is certain criteria they must meet?
As the lead editor of the project, I’ve gotten thousands of pitches from readers on who else we might have overlooked. The primary criteria is that the person has to have died after The New York Times began publishing, on Sept. 18, 1851. Other than that, the criteria is pretty similar to how we select contemporary figures. Generally speaking, the subject should have helped shape society or a way of thinking for a set of people in some way.
Once you decide whom to feature, what kind of research goes into excavating rich and crucial aspects of their life?
We try to contact surviving family members, if there are any, and read articles about the person from when they were alive. We also contact experts like biographers and scholars and dig deep into old records, letters the person may have written, for example, or birth or death certificates. Often we find inconsistencies that we have to work around. Sometimes certain facts are completely lost to history and we can only get so far.
Could you give an example of how you tackle inconsistencies?
In one particular instance, a reporter ran into some trouble while researching the life of Bessie Stringfield, a Black woman who was known as “the motorcycle queen of Miami” after unabashedly roaring through the Jim Crow South doing tricks on her bike. The reporter called me with a concern — Bessie had lied about her upbringing, about who her parents were, about her nationality and her birthplace. I asked how she knew this, and she said she obtained birth and death records that contradicted other reports. When the reporter spoke with Bessie’s best friend about the inconsistencies, the friend became angry. “This is how Bessie wanted to be known,” she said. I found it fascinating that Bessie, for whatever reason, felt she needed to alter perceptions about her to get through life. In the end, I encouraged the reporter to write that thread into her story and it ended up being a much more powerful piece.
During your research, have any peculiar adjectives or phrases sprung out that describe the people you plan to feature? For example, Emily Roebling who supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when its chief engineer (her husband) fell ill, was described as a woman with an “almost masculine intellect.”
There are many instances of disparaging language used in the past to describe subjects in Overlooked, but we choose not to repeat the language. One interesting practice, however, that spurred another project I worked on, called “The Mrs. Files,” was that of referring to a woman by her husband’s name. The famous artist Frida Kahlo, for instance, was at times referred to as Mrs. Diego Rivera. This practice sometimes made it more difficult to uncover information about our female subjects. “The Mrs. Files” explores the honorific Mrs. and what it means to women and their identity.
How has the series evolved over the last few years and how do you see it developing in the future?
While Overlooked began with the stories of 15 women, it has grown to include many other underrepresented groups of people. One year, for Black History Month, we told the stories of about a dozen Black men and women. Many of them had been slaves or were a generation removed from slavery. A lot of them lied about their backgrounds. Some, despite their achievements, died poor and were buried in paupers’ graves. All of them, however, had to fight just to survive. One example was Major Taylor, a bicyclist who broke world records even as people threw garbage at him during races because of the color of his skin. Overlooked has also told the stories of LGBTQ figures like Alan Turing, who, despite being a computer programming genius who helped end World War II, was criminalized for his sexuality. Most recently, we have been adding the stories of people who were central to the disability rights movement, like Roland Johnson, who suffered 13 years of neglect and abuse in an institution as a youth, but as an adult became a leading advocate in the fight to shut such places down.
In 2020, death took on a new meaning. As an Obits editor, what has been your most challenging experience during the pandemic?
As journalists, we try to maintain a certain emotional distance from our subjects to ensure impartiality and accuracy. It’s harder when you’re living it. We started a series called Those We’ve Lost, which puts faces and names to the numbers as we grapple with the human toll of the pandemic. More than once, while editing these stories, I’ve had to take breaks. One that had me getting up more than once for a tissue was the tragic story of Brandy Houser, a hospice care consultant who looked out for everyone in her life and who shared a beautiful relationship with her husband, Kris, before she was claimed by the coronavirus at age 41.
What crucial advice would you give to young South Asian women in the United States who are aspiring journalists and editors?
My work is still continuing. While it’s been meaningful to highlight voices from the past, I’m still working to balance our coverage of obituaries going forward. But I haven’t given up, and I would say the same to you. Be persistent.
If you have an inkling of an idea in your mind, don’t let it go. Keep fanning that flame. Talk to as many people as you can. Find supporters and advocates. Your perspective is important and others will see value in it, too — just as they did with me.