The Case for Black With a Capital B
PHILADELPHIA — I WAS sitting in my office at Temple University when I overheard an exchange between a colleague and his student. The student had come to see her professor to go over a paper, and he was patiently explaining that the abundance of grammatical mistakes detracted from her compelling content. I sympathized with my colleague as he pointed out error after error. Until he came to this one.
“Why did you capitalize black and white people?” he asked. “I thought I’d seen it written that way before,” the girl stammered. “Come on,” he said. “Why would you capitalize black or white?”
The student didn’t have an answer. But I did, and it took a great deal of self-control to not insert myself into the conversation, because this is one of my greatest frustrations as a writer and a Black woman living in the United States. When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.
Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change. Both Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries state that when referring to African-Americans, Black can be and often is capitalized, but the New York Times and Associated Press stylebooks continue to insist on black with a lowercase b. Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of “nationalities, peoples, races, tribes” should be capitalized. What are Black people, then?
Ever since African people arrived in this country, we have had to fight for the right to a proper name. Upon arrival in the “New World” we were all collectively deemed Africans, even though we came from different countries, cultures and tribes. Very soon after, British colonists borrowed the Spanish term for black, and we became negros, negars, nigras and blacks — anything oppositional to the supposed purity of whiteness.
After emancipation, as many individuals replaced their slave surnames with ones of their own devising, like Freedman or Freeman, they still bore the painful legacy of the labels they’d been given: black, negro and colored.
It wasn’t only Black people who didn’t know what to call the nearly four million newly freed citizens of the United States. The government itself fumbled its way through names, categories and labels for Black people. Between 1850 and 1920, the United States census classified those of African descent as black, negro, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon — depending on the visual assessment of the census taker. By 1930, the Census Bureau offered just one of these categories: negro.
This wasn’t solely an issue of identity politics. In a 2008 article on the census for Studies in American Political Development, Jennifer L. Hochschild and Brenna M. Powell wrote, “Over the course of almost a century, the U.S. government groped its way through extensive experimentation — reorganizing and reimaging the racial order, with corresponding impact on individuals’ and groups’ life chances.” These names matter.
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In the mid-1920s, W. E. B. Du Bois began a letter-writing campaign, demanding that book publishers, newspaper editors and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people. Even though Du Bois himself didn’t use the word Negro consistently — one of his most famous works, after all, is “The Souls of Black Folk” — it was the official name for the race, and as such, Du Bois wanted that word to confer respect on the page as well as in daily life.
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In 1926, The New York Times denied his request, as did most other newspapers. In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.” The editor changed his mind and conceded to the capital N, as did many other mainstream publications including The Atlantic Monthly and, eventually, The New York Times.
On March 7, 1930, The Times announced its new policy on the editorial page: “In our Style Book, Negro is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’ ”
But within a few more decades, Negro itself had become an unpopular term, associated with a subservient type of Black person, one whose politics were more about patience instead of protest. The 1960s ushered in the Black power movement, inspiring a generation to claim that which had been demonized. In the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson pushed “African-American” into common usage, offering a new term that wasn’t tainted by a racist history — and conferred the respect of indisputable capital letters.
By 2000, Black Americans had a choice of what to call themselves on the census: “Black, African Am., or Negro” (because some older people preferred it). All racial and ethnic categories are capitalized on the census — including White.
If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won? Publications like Essence and Ebony push back, proudly capitalizing the B. But claiming the uppercase as a choice, rather than the rule, feels inadequate. Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.