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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Can Black Children be "Angels"? The History behind the New York Times Insult to Michael Brown

On August 24, John Eligon wrote in the New York Times that Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was "no angel." The full paragraph read:

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

Appropriately, this slur received widespread criticism and caused many readers to cancel their subscriptions to the Times. The police's claim that Brown was a suspect in the robbery at the time of the shooting has now been discredited, and the Times' implication that a teenager deserved to die because he lived in a "rough" neighborhood and engaged in typical teenage behaviors such as rapping, scuffling with one neighbor, and dabbling with drugs and alcohol is the deepest of insults to African American worth. It suggests, as many have pointed out, that black lives don't matter.

Soon after the Times article appeared, Vanity Fair published Kia Makarechi's important analysis of the Times's use of the phrase "no angel." In this article, Makarechi showed a pattern in which the Times used this term to refer to white people who were the most heinous of criminals and black people who were innocent victims of crimes, entertainers, or criminal suspects. Specifically, Makarechi showed that

A sample of the white folks the Times has called “no angel” includes infamous mobsters, murderers, a pornographer, and a Nazi. Black Americans described similarly by the paper include a basketball player, a singer, criminal suspects, and unarmed men killed by white people.

In response to the criticism, Times editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the phrase "no angel" was "ill-chosen" and "regrettable." Eligon said, "I understand the concerns, and I get it."

Sullivan's and Eligon's wishy-washy half-apologies are not just inadequate: by treating the use of the phrase as an isolated incident, Sullivan and Eligon ignore the long history of white assertions that black children cannot be angels. The history that the Vanity Fair article exposed is just the tip of the iceberg.

Shortly before the Civil War, many white writers--especially abolitionists--began anxiously debating whether black children who died could become angels, and if so, whether they needed to become white first. As I write in my book, Racial Innocence, the 1862 abolitionist story "Poor Little Violet," by Lynde Palmer, included a very disturbing scene in which Violet, an enslaved girl, discusses death and angelhood with a white slaveholding girl named Carrie. Violet asks,

“[W]hen we goes to Canaan, that old Sambo sings about, may I be your little slave then, Miss Carrie, ’cause you’s allus so kind?”

“I don’t think there will be any slaves there,” said Carrie, slowly, pondering over the matter.

“Why, what will the black people do, then?” cried Violet, with curious round eyes.

“Maybe,” replied Carrie hesitatingly, “maybe there won’t be any black people—you know, Violet, our bodies are covered up in the ground,”—Violet shivered,—“but our souls go to heaven, and they must all be white.”

“All of ’em?” asked Violet, eagerly.

“Yes, mamma told me that no soul can go till it is washed white in Jesus’ blood.”

“And can my soul be white?” whispered Violet.

“Yes,” said Carrie, “if you ask God.” (Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, p. 59)

The Times's reference to Michael Brown as "no angel" is so deeply hurtful because it extends a historical libel that African Americans, and African American children in particular, cannot be innocent. As the slaveholder Carrie tells Violet, to be an angel is to be white. And in this white-authored text--which was intended to critique slavery--a black girl joyously receives this information with hope that she can shed her blackness, become white, and become an angel.

What is at stake in the phrase "no angel" is the racial distribution of innocence. By calling Michael Brown "no angel," the Times excluded an African American teenager from the realm of innocence. And by doing so, the newspaper of record reserved that assumption of innocence for the white policeman who killed him.


  1. Thank you for reminding us of the long historical reach of the lines the newspapers throw down and throw away. Their power endures and continues to wound and kill.

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