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Explained: Why a capital ‘B’ in ‘Black’ is culmination of very long journey

The debate over capitalising ‘Black’ is nothing new. It has its historical roots that go way back to the late 19th century when the question of how to most appropriately address Black people in print had first arisen.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 4, 2020 4:15:36 pm
Black lives matter, capital B black, George Floyd protests, US protests, African Americans, Express explained, Indian Express During a protest in front of a police line on a section of 16th Street that’s been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, in Washington. (AP Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Weeks after massive protests erupted in America and Europe over the murder of George Floyd, newsrooms across the world have been discussing ways to be more sensitive in the coverage of race. One small typographical change being made is that of capitalising the ‘B’ in Black.

On Tuesday, The New York Times put out a statement announcing that they will “start using uppercase ‘Black’ to describe people and cultures of African origin, both in the US and elsewhere.” “We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” the publication wrote in their statement.

The decision taken by the New York Times comes days after the Associated Press (AP) announced that they would be capitalising the Black while referring to the term in an ethnic, racial or cultural context. The AP stylebook is used as a guide by several news organisations, government and public relations agencies. Other organisations to have recently switched to a capitalised ‘Black’ while addressing the African community include the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and NBC news. The National Organisation of Black journalists have been urging other organisations to follow as well.

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Putting it simply, those who insist on a capitalised ‘Black’ reason that black in lower case is a colour, and that by writing the same in upper case is referring to the cultural identity of African Americans and recognising the shared experience of institutionalised discrimination they have, as a group, been subjected to for generations. But the debate over capitalising ‘Black’ is nothing new. It has its historical roots that go way back to the late 19th century when the question of how to most appropriately address Black people in print had first arisen.

From capitalised ‘Negro’ to capitalised ‘Black’

From the age of the Black rights activist, Booker T. Washington in the late 19th century to the post-World War II civil rights movement, the term ‘Negro’ which the Spanish word for black, had come to be most widely accepted to refer to the African-American community in America. During this period, ‘Blacks’ had waged a campaign in favour of the practise of spelling ‘Negro’ with the ‘n’ in upper case. “Since all other racial and ethnic designations were capitalised, the small ‘n’ was just one more form of discrimination,” wrote historians Donald L. Grant and Mildred Bricker Grant in their article, ‘Some notes of the capital ‘N’’, published in 1975.

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One of the earliest protests against the small ‘n’ was in an editorial published in an 1878 issue of the Chicago Conservator, a pioneering Black weekly newspaper, captioned, ‘Spell it with a capital’. The author of the editorial, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, who was also the founder of the weekly, emphasised that by refusing to capitalise ‘negro’, the whites were showing disrespect to and attaching a badge of inferiority upon African Americans. The editorial also asked Blacks to adopt the practise of capitalising ‘negro’.

Those in the academic profession were at the forefront of this campaign to capitalise ‘Negro’. But it would be decades before news organisations would concede to the matter. In 1898, the American sociologist and civil rights activist had made a historic statement as he said, “I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.”

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“The increased militancy among Blacks which developed from the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and World War I experiences was reflected in increased pressures from Blacks to capitalise Negro,” wrote Donald L. Grant and Mildred Bricker Grant. By this time, the Black press too had become unitedly aggressive in their attack on the usage of a lower case ‘negro’.

It was only in the 1930s that major news publications began considering the adoption of a capitalised ‘Negro’. The success was largely due to the efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), which began a letter writing campaign in 1929 to pressure all newspapers to adopt the capital ‘N’.

The campaign bore fruit immediately, as the New York city based newspaper ‘New York World’ was the first to agree to the change. The white newspapers in the South were the last to capitalise ‘Negro’. The Eatonton Messenger in Georgia refused to comply with the NAACP request on the grounds that the capital ‘N’ would lead to social equality.

But by February 1930, influential newspapers of the time like the, the New York Herald Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune had started using the capital ‘N’. The New York Times announced its policy to make the typographical change in an editorial published on March 7, 1930. “It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act in recognition of racial self-respect for those who have for generations been in ‘the lower case’,” the editorial stated.

Explaining why at a time the Black community was struggling economically, a change as minute as ‘n’ in the upper class mattered, Donald L. Grant and Mildred Bricker wrote, “the reason Blacks and their white allies fought for the little added dignity and recognition that the capitalisation brought was because they realised that degradation and exploitation went hand in hand and that any victory on one front would reinforce the possibilities for victories in other fronts.”

In the wake of the civil-rights movement, the terms ‘black’ and ‘Afro-American’ gained more popularity. Yet, the argument made against ‘African-America’ was that it was disregarding the connection among African people across the world.

While ‘Black’ was seen as a more appropriate terminology in that sense, the debate around using it in the lower case is a more recent development. In 2014, Lori L Tharps, who is professor of Journalism in Temple university wrote an article published in the New York Times, titled ‘The case for Black with a capital B’.

“If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?,” she asked in the editorial. “Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct,” added Tharps.

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The recent development made by news organisations in the wake of the protests against George Floyd’s death, comes years after several publications focusing on African-Americans such as Chicago Defender, Essence, and Ebony have been capitalising ‘Black’. Others like the Seattle Times and Boston Globe made the shift last year.

What about ‘white’ and ‘brown’?

Even as the demand for a capitalised ‘Black’ gains momentum, there is no unanimity on how to best write racial designates like ‘white’ and ‘brown’. The New York Times in their statement to capitalise ‘Black’ noted “We will retain lowercase treatment for “white”. While there is an obvious question of parallelism, there has been no comparable movement toward widespread adoption of a new style for “white,” and there is less of a sense that “white” describes a shared culture and history. Moreover, hate groups and white supremacists have long favoured the uppercase style, which in itself is reason to avoid it.”

But the opposing view to the decision taken by the Times regarding how to designate white, is the fact that ‘white’ too needs to be capitalised since white as a race is determined only in context of the power dynamics with ‘Blacks’. The American non-profit organisation, ‘Center for the Study of Social Policy’ released a statement this spring announcing their decision to use capitalised ‘Black’ and ‘White’. “To not name “White” as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard,” they wrote. The statement explained further, “We believe that it is important to call attention to White as a race as a way to understand and give voice to how Whiteness functions in our social and political institutions and our communities. “

As regards brown, the Chicago Sun Times recently announced that they would be capitalising Brown as well to designate Arabs, South Asians, and Latinos. “Our decision puts Black on the same level as Hispanic, Latino, Asian, African American and other descriptors,” they wrote.

However, other publications have decided against capitalising ‘brown’ since it refers to a very disparate group of people who have no shared history of experience like that among the Blacks.

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