Some Thoughts On…Capitalizing the “b” in Black + Jam of the Day: “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted”

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 6.49.45 PMAll throughout my college academia, I never capitalized the “b” in “Black” when referring to Black people on my own accord, and definitely received no insistence from my professors. I did however notice this style or grammatical choice when I read Black magazines like Essence and Ebony, and it always transpired as very strong and defiant. Like, I am BLACK.

I appreciated the sensitive choice to capitalize but would intermittently wondered how that came about since for writers, teachers, and publications, it was as peppercorn as whether to italicize or not italicize. To apostrophe a name or title ending in “s” (think James’s) or not to bother (Thomas’).

Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.

To find out why we should capitalize “b” would always slip my mind because I just kept on reading whatever I was at the time but a November 18 Opinion piece for The New York Times finally gave me some answers. Sent to me by an online editor, Lori L. Tharps (an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Temple University) penned her thoughts backed with history on why it is imperative to grant racial identities, especially Black, with the grand gesture of a capital. I joined Tharps’ stage of standing behind “Black” versus “black” and nothing that was shared seemed indignant but certainly passionate.

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?

Tharps explained that when discussing human beings and doing so in such a categorical manner, capitalizing showed a mutual respect for people of a specific culture or region. Her breakdown included how freed blacks in America sought to re-identify by their names but still felt like a shadowed figure of their country when on important documents like the Census, where they would naturally gravitate to check off read like one of the following labels: “black, negro and colored”. To be referred to as just “black” with a lowercase was the same as feeling like just a number.

I was engaged by this Op-Ed because as an active journalist, I noticed that to capitalize “b” was a matter where it fell on one’s personal chart of significance. The first publication to give me friendly reminders of capitalizing was with JET magazine. I still have emails that included “don’t forget to capitalize “b” for Black!” I remember thinking, “Dang! They’re serious!” I went back numerous times to edit. While I still sometimes forget to do so on my own personal blog, I do when I write for other people. Honestly, it used to appear as quite aggressive to me, and it didn’t matter what race the capitalization was dignifying: she’s a Black woman. He’s a White man. Every time I saw this, it felt like something was about to happen, like I’m suddenly a voyeur of a thriller and I take pauses. “she’s a–BLACK–woman. He’s a–WHITE–man…” got it. It’s like also reading a text or message in full caps. You break into a hot-cold sweat because it’s not meant to be read with ease.

By the end of the article, I was still standing with Tharps and my jolts have dwindled towards these capitals as I’ve written for more Black-oriented media or in discussing race. Tharps wrote her Op-Ed in such a united tone, she really wants everyone to get on board, and her piece is a springboard for a wider conference on the topic of racial identification and acknowledgment in a world that is increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial.To capitalize a race or culture was nearly rebellious as a novel suggestion but since the Black Power movement is empowering when this same gumbo pot of world is still dealing with a copious level of prejudice. There’s no need to diminish or belittle the people, group, or title you identify with.

Reach out to me on Twitter: @lavishrebellion

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Jam of the Day: “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” by Jimmy Ruffin, who passed away today at the age of 78. He was a Motown legend.

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