I’m often asked how I feel about capitalizing Black. (There, I just did it – for what I think is the first time!)
And the truth is, it’s fine with me. I have given my reasons on my language podcast Lexicon Valley (which, for those interested, moves here to Substack at booksmartstudios.org as of the next episode, dropping on Tuesday, July 20th), but there is only a partial overlap between the audience for that and the audience who follows me elsewhere. Thus I will revisit the topic here.
A small part of me has always sensed that black when referring to race might be capitalized. The racial concept of black is so far removed from the core meaning of the color that it qualifies as very much a proper noun, a concept in and of itself, of a kind that suggests being couched as a label.
And if we’re in for a renovation of the term we use for referring to black people – and given how such things go it was about time: Negro yielded to black in the late 1960s; African-American settled in 25 years later; since the mid-2010s I’ve been wondering what would be next – Black is a damned sight better to me than African-American ever was.
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I never liked it, and have only ever used it when grace required it. Black has always been good enough for me. For one, since the 1990s so many actual Africans have emigrated to the U.S. that the term African-American is increasingly confusing. Is a descendant of slaves in America “African-American” in the same way as the child of parents who grew up in Ghana and speak Twi at home? And let’s not even get into that white Africans in South Africa sincerely feel themselves, when relocated here, to be “African-Americans,” as do people from Africa of South Asian descent.
And overall, the African connection feels too distant to me to justify an ethnic designation. Opinions will differ on this, but to me, black Americans are not remotely “African” in the sense that, say, the Sopranos were Italian-American. Without the languages, with only extreme refractions of the music (as jazz and rock) or food, with different tastes and even values, I find the “African” designation forced – especially considering that “Africa” is no one thing (note how vacuous and depersonalizing it sounds to call white people “European”).
When “African-American” settled in, a critical mass of black people felt differently. The idea was that calling attention to our “roots” in Africa lent a certain sense of legitimacy, indicating that slavery was not the root, the essence, of what black people are. But this always struck me as an oversimplification of black history, and perhaps even a symptom of internalized dismissal. My “roots” are with the black people of my ancestry who forged lives right here in America, racism and the rest be damned. We might even respect what our ancestors thought. Black people even a generation past slavery who had known slaves born in Africa did not tend to think of themselves as “African.” I’m pretty sure my great grandfather John Hamilton McWhorter II, of whom one photo survives, did not. My great aunt T.I., trotting in the 1980s up the steep staircase at the North Philadelphia train station in her nineties, was not “African” in any sense: she was an American black woman.
Certain voices these days may cringe at the idea that black people are fundamentally Americans, given that America’s history is supposedly but an extended crime spree against blackness. However, this take on American history is incurious and simplistic, and I am loathe to accuse of ignorance the millions of black people who have lived disinclined to dismiss their entire life’s experience in this way. To me, modern black Americans’ beginnings in Africa are like birds’ origins as Velociraptors. Sparrows and hawks and parrots therefore are Velociraptors? Neat idea, but ultimately, come on.
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So, Black is better. But why not “White” in parallel? I would prefer it, in fact, if Black is here to stay. However, language, as the life it depicts and mediates, is messy, and “White” has been adopted by white nationalists as a label for whites committed to defending their race from the barbarity of other ones in a country that needs to be Made Great Again.
Of course, we could decide that more civilized whites could pretend the Nationalists don’t exist and use “White” anyway. However, one senses that today’s idea that one is soiled by even implied association with racists and racism will render this idea beyond consideration, at least for a while. One chooses one’s battles. So how about “Black people” and “white people,” despite the slight untidiness, for the time being?
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The reader may detect a faint air of indifference on my part. They are not wrong. For example, I stuck up for “Black” several months ago now, and yet I must admit I have not started writing it myself.
Part of this is because I write a lot, it’s a comfort zone for me, and old habits die hard. But another part is that I am not sure that adding this dollop of dignity to the written version of the term will meaningfully affect how people think about black people.
The term “black” came with an insistent, vernacular pride. The term “African-American” overtly stressed heritage, continuity. The term “Black” is also about pride, one senses, but because it exists only in writing, it cannot get across with the pepper that “black” did. “Say it out loud, I’m Black and I’m proud” sounds the same as the old version.
In the end, calling for “Black” will, to a large extent, make non-black people toe a line, capitalizing that b with a look two parts concern, one part genuflection and a dollop of fear. Okay. But really, it’s less about what you say you are (“I merit a capital B!”) than what you show you can do. Tyler Perry is doing. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield is doing. Alison Stewart of Nation Public Radio’s All Of It is doing. They, to me, are capitalization.
However, “contrarian” though I supposedly am, I do not consider it my job to disapprove just for sport. “Contesting” everything is recreation, not engagement. As such, Black is a nice gesture and, if anything, harmless. Maybe I’ll start using it myself.
"But really, it’s less about what you say you are (“I merit a capital B!”) than what you show you can do.”
Take 1: In moviemaking "show, don't tell" is a maxim. I could interpret that as saying that performing admirably, or just well, is the more effective path to genuine respect and success, than changing the labels in minor symbolic ways. A reasonable belief.
Take 2: There are a number of changes being pushed by the Elect which do not appear to have much real traction on changing behaviors or outcomes, this among them. Consider the real estate industry working to remove "master" (as in master bedroom) from all of their literature and speech - how much will that really change anything on the ground? (There are many other examples). Are there many Black folks who really fail to succeed in society because they are too triggered by continued encounters with the word "master" used in any context, and who now will feel more included and thus successful?
Those "symbolic" demands strike me as more about demonstrating soft yet coercive power in the social domain. "See, we can make you change something by becoming upset if you don't" - the thing being changed in such a demonstration doesn't need to be meaningful on the ground, only visible. Or from the other end, about responding to the demand in a way which doesn't cost very much, an easy way to deflect negative attention or signal political virtue.
"However, language, as the life it depicts and mediates, is messy, and “White” has been adopted by white nationalists as a label for whites committed to defending their race from the barbarity of other ones in a country that needs to be Made Great Again."
Well, "Black" has been adopted by black separatists and racial tribalists who feel pretty much the same as the white nationalists about the desirability of an integrated nation. The notion that there is something essentially sinister in "Make America Great Again" because of its nostalgia for the past which is inevitably more racist is ridiculous, unless you want to make "Bring Back Better" sinister as well, or all the nostalgia from the typical Biden voter for Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Golden Age for "conservatives" is like the 1950s and the 80s. The Golden Age for "liberals" is the 1930s. The 1930s were not just more racist, but it was also a time when the federal government dramatically expanded in power and the executive specifically exercised an atypical amount of centralized control over policy. And one thing congress and Roosevelt didn't do, despite all the consolidated power, was pass anti-lynching legislation despite it being promoted by Roosevelt's wife and his Republican political opponent Wendell Willkie in the 1940 presidential race. Yet we keep hearing about the "Green New Deal."