By LORI THARPS
I am a writer. My husband is a linguist. Words matter to us. I am Black, not African-American. My husband is Spanish, not to be confused with Hispanic or Latino. Labels matter to us as well, especially the labels we give ourselves. Our children, ages 12, nine and two, have yet to find a label for their own unique blend of Spanish and Black that feels authentic and appropriate, but I believe it is important for them to claim a label that gives them both comfort and a connection to a history and a culture. I would be perfectly happy if they identify as Black or Spanish or Mixed. They can call themselves “Blannish” if it works for them, but I resent the fact that my children, myself and any other American who might identify as Black, has to be satisfied with a label that is too often written in the lower case.
This could be viewed as a simple style issue, one that only us writers would take seriously, but I’m not looking to start a revolution over grammar. This is about identity and respect. With a mere slash of a copyeditor’s pen, my culture is reduced to a color. It seems silly to have to spell it out, that black with a lower case “b” is a color, whereas Black with a capital “B” refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces. When a copyeditor deletes the capital “B,” they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.
As a wordsmith myself, I cannot understand how any editor, who understands the significance of an errant comma or a “there” instead of a “their,” can sanction the use of a lower case “b” to signify a culture of people. Latinos get a capital “L,” Asians get their “A,” Native Americans get both the “N” and the “A” in capital letters, but Black people don’t deserve the same? Even visually, seeing that lower case “b” in a sentence where blacks stand beside Latinos and Asians, reeks of second-class citizenry and disrespect on the page. How can one avoid feeling inferior when even the nomenclature associated with our group label doesn’t merit the upper case?
Some like to argue that if we capitalize the “b” in Black than we have to do the same for the “w” in White, when referring to White Americans. I have no problem with that. White Americans deserve their capital letter too, but I’m not here to fight their battles, mainly because most White Americans haven’t spent the last 400 years trying to disassociate their cultural heritage from models of inferiority and endemic pathologies.
Another problem we’re dealing with is that there isn’t a consensus around this issue. Some publications, mostly academic ones, capitalize Black when speaking of Black people. But most news organizations, including The New York Times as well as any publication that relies on the ubiquitous AP Stylebook, use the lower case for any “racial designations derived from color.” Yes, some lifestyle magazines capitalize the “b” – see Essence and Ebony – but most of those publications cater to the Black community. The fact is, even the dictionary is divided on this issue, proclaiming that when referring to Black people, either upper or lower case is acceptable.
So, if capital “B” is acceptable, what’s keeping news organizations like The New York Times and The Associated Press from taking a stand for equality on the page? If both are correct, then why not offer a capital “B” as a token of respect if nothing else? Is it inertia or racism? Not for nothing, the editors of the AP Stylebook just recently updated not one but five !!!! of their rules, so we know that change is possible despite what many editors say.
Ironically, W.E.B. Du Bois fought this very same fight almost 100 years ago. Only back then, he and other activists were demanding to have the “n” in Negro capitalized. Du Bois targeted local and national newspapers and like me, viewed the lower case letter as a form of disrespect and overt racism. And he wasn’t wrong. Reportedly, one editor of a Georgia newspaper said he’d never capitalize the “n” because it might, “lead to social equality.” Finally, on March 7, 1930, The New York Times agreed to change their policy and wrote in a stirring editorial, “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 of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in ‘the lower case.”
If The New York Times editorial staff had the courage and the insight to make that change in 1930, I wonder why they and other mainstream publishers can’t do the same today? Clearly I am not the first person to bring this issue up and I know I’m not the only one who cares. But I will take my cue from Du Bois and wage a campaign that will not cease until everyone from the copyeditor at the Times to the spellcheck robot on Microsoft Word agrees upon this issue. Because we must be a people who refuse to remain “in the lower case.”
Lori L. Tharps is the co-author of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” and the novel, “Substitute Me”. She blogs at MyAmericanMeltingpot.com, where this piece was originally published. It was reposted with permission from the author.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.