I Refuse to Remain in the Lower Case

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Please enjoy this essay I penned and if you agree with it, please pass it on, share it with your networks, re-post it (with credit please) tell your parents and their friends. I’m seriously trying to start a revolution here and I need your help. Thank you!

Black People Deserve a Capital “B”

This is the face of a revolutionary.

This is the face of a revolutionary.

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.”

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17 comments for “I Refuse to Remain in the Lower Case

  1. Conor Quinn
    5 June, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Just saw this article reposted, as it richly deserves to be, on Facebook. Since you have a linguist in your life, you may have already encountered this, but if not, here’s another point to add to the argument.

    The Deaf community has already established very solidly their claim to a distinct “capital-D” usage. Such that they teach on day one of ASL classes at the University of Southern Maine that you can be deaf without being Deaf—and possibly vice versa: I’m not well-versed in what people say about Deaf-identified hearing family members who sign, etc.

    They make clear that they’ve done this precisely because the historical group label derives from a generic adjective (deaf, black), but now has developed as a distinguishable new and independent designatum, encompassing a socially tangible complex of cultural and historical shared-experience (etc.) -based individual and community identities. So if Deaf can be acceptable for those who want it, then so should Black.

    • Ms. Meltingpot
      11 June, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      Conor,
      Thanks so much for this response and information. I knew about the capital D in Deaf culture from some other research I’m doing, but didn’t think about including it in this argument, but you are so right!!! And thanks for visiting The Meltingpot!

  2. Jim
    5 June, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Hmmm….an interesting take on something I never considered. I’ve always used lower case for black and white and capitalization for African-American or Latino. I’ve never referred to myself as Caucasian and bristle when I’m asked to define myself as such. When I say I’m Irish, I’m Irish, not irish. Interestingly, in Spanish they refer to themselves as españoles, not Españoles. Although I agree wholeheartedly on the respect angle, I’m not sure I can agree with taking the orthographic approach does anything. Then again, as you point out, I’ve not spent 400 years trying to overcome unfair biases. For me as a white person, however, I would never opt for White over white.

    • Ms. Meltingpot
      11 June, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      Jim,
      You know I’ve always wondered about the Spanish lack of capital letters when describing ethnic/cultural/native groups. Thanks for reminding me that I have to dig deeper on that one. :)

      • Jim
        12 June, 2014 at 9:58 am

        LT, I find it interesting that you prefer Black American to African-American. As a white, I always try to avoid inadvertently offending anyone, and given the historical progression of acceptable terms to refer to blacks/African-Americans, I always assumed that African-American was more respectful and accurate than black. For me, white is fine, Irish-American is a little much (although I’m a dual citizen, Irish and American) and Caucasian is detestable. I’ve heard some blacks say that black itself is inaccurate and that it should be brown, not black. Thanks for this interesting discussion topic.

  3. Mi
    5 June, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Hi LT,

    I always capitalized the words “Black” and “White” when using them as a racial description (even if it is just in my head as I do not write about Blacks and Whites frequently).

    Your comment “I am Black, not African-American” brought back memories of when I first arrived in this country. The label “African-American” was fairly new and it was being debated among the Black community including students in my school. I remember once a friend telling me that the use of “African-Americans” to describe Black Americans was offensive. After that, I was so careful not to use that term so as not to offend. Besides, the term “African-American” was a mouthful. Years later, it amazes me to hear the young generation use the term freely.

    Congratulations on the book deal!

    • Ms. Meltingpot
      11 June, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Mi,
      Thanks, and thanks and thanks. Me, I’ve never felt comfortable using the word African-American. It always feels forced and incorrect. Black American seems far more precise. But that’s just my opinion. I don’t ever want to tell anyone what to call themselves, just want to make sure other people respect what I call myself.

  4. Susan:)
    4 June, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    This is good to know. I’ve actually been unsure of the proper way to do this. Am I supposed to say African-American or Black, and do I capitalize or not? Now I know, thanks! I think maybe some people just don’t know or understand why it’s important to capitalize Black if they’re not part of that group, as in my case.

    • Ms. Meltingpot
      4 June, 2014 at 10:21 pm

      Susan, thanks for your honesty and willingness to learn. Please spread the word.

    • letarosetree@centurylink.net
      7 June, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      I AGREE;
      I too, have been unsure of how to word the concept(s) you speak of. I agree: Black needs to begin with a B. Likewise, the ‘W’ i n White. How often capitalization is not considered here. It”s essential to use ‘caps’ to specify the intended meaning of a word.
      And I thank you so much for your helping me become more aware in my thinking and hopefully in my speech: how ‘African-American’ can be different from Black. I’ll continue to examine my words and thoughts; Black instead of African-American? At this point I’m open…I’m considering cultural, ethnic, racial, spiritual aspects… I’m considering…
      I am a w/White woman in my 70s, brought up by parents consciously and unconsciously prejudiced-against-ethnicities ‘other than Caucasian’ and have been struggling to untangle my own resulting ‘tudes’
      I’m further examining, questioning and re-aligning my ‘tudes’ and how my speech reflects this.
      THANK YOU for a challenge to my complacency.
      Leta Rosetree (a Jewish woman raised by an anti-Semitic mother and an anti any ‘non-Caucasian’ father.
      I love that they WERE the best they were capable of being, so I’m still examining, sorting, changing, an ongoing change, a work ever in progress, I hope.

      • leta rosetree
        7 June, 2014 at 11:33 pm

        adendum (by leta rosetree) How tell-tale is this: that my parents continually employed nannys/housekeepers/’maids’/’help’ who were Black or Filipino.

  5. 3 June, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    I’ve been using the capital b for Black for sometime now, even in graduate research papers, and no professor has ever attempted to correct me on it.

    • Ms. Meltingpot
      4 June, 2014 at 10:33 pm

      Evelyn,
      Good for you! It has to start with us. But I don’t want it to just be certain people capitalizing the B, I want it to be the rule not the exception.

  6. 2 June, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    I always use a capital to write Black and lower case to write white. My reason is that Black is a culture that encompasses African American but also more ethnic backgrounds. White is a group that has yet to sign onto their label so that is why I don’t capitalize it. I bristle when I hear the word Caucasian because it is derived from the pseudo science that tried to legitimize racial inferiority and anatomical differences. As a writer, I keep waiting to be confronted on my lower case “w” versus my capital “B” but it never comes. I tell my son that he is African American or Black. That Black is a culture. Honestly, I hadn’t checked the style book, but then again I don’t call the storm that nearly devastated New Orleans Katrina, I call it the 2005 Federal Flood – something the NYT has been unwilling to do.

    • Ms. Meltingpot
      4 June, 2014 at 10:35 pm

      Rachel,
      I love your reasoning and your attitude. Please keep fighting the fight.

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