On August 25, 2014 Michael Brown was laid to rest in St. Louis. That same morning the New York Times sat on our doorsteps with a cover that told two tales. We learned that the Darren Wilson was a “well-mannered” “relatively soft-spoken” Profile Officer. He kept a low profile and recently received commendation for an arrest on a black teenager. He is pictured smiling in his blue uniform. On the other side, we learned Brown had been caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars and pushing the convenience store employee. He dabbled in drugs and alcohol, got into a fight with a neighbor, and rap lyrics he had recently written were vulgar. The writer of the article said he was painting a picture of a teen who rising past the obstacles and building toward a better future heading to college, but right there in the fifth paragraph: “no angel.” Both the editor and the writer, a young black journalist, admit it was a “regrettable mistake.”
In 2016, Brooklyn-based artist Alexandra Bell revisited the cover. Having completed her Masters in Journalism from Columbia University’s esteemed J-School she had long been studying the power of words, with a focus on liberal-leaning media outlets subtle use of Northern racism. When we see something in the paper, it becomes the truth. But what if newspapers have historically inadvertently or overtly contributed to the problem? Far too often the media intentionally portrays African Americans as criminals. Just as often, great efforts are made to decriminalize whiteness, to apologize, not to prosecute in the paper. White is often equated to the American norm, all others are reduced from full people to be the ambiguous “Other”. This bias is ingrained in our culture and we have to continuously dig deeper and demand better to get past it. Headlines are salacious attention grabbers meant to catch our eye in the check-out line, but in 2016 the Washington Post reported that 60 percent of readers did not engage beyond what was in bold (the number rises to 70 percent with Facebook).
Bell wants to make us all accountable. To boil down the fluff, the framework for certain kinds of information that might justify a white perpetrated crime. The superfluous qualifiers that his raps contained cursing and that he smoked weed are irrelevant. The story remains: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager six times. The teenager dies. Bell reimagines a NY Times that does not blame the victim. With the eye of an editor she went through the story and redacted anything loaded with racial prejudice. Erasing line after line we are left with: “Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.” The profile of Michael Brown was previously titled “A Teenager Grappling With Problems and Promise,” and now reads “A Teenager With Promise.” Michael Brown is presented in his cap and gown, a proud, confident smile. He was going to college and his life was full of promise.
This piece is located on the exterior brick wall near our Studio Artist Courtyard gate and will be accessible 24-hours a day.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website