How we got to capital B ‘Black’

Police officers confront protesters near Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. In several other cities across the country, journalists reported being physically confronted or arrested by police while they tried to cover the protests. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

So black is now Black. In the wake of the protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others, editors everywhere have decreed with sudden and remarkable unanimity that the formerly common adjective referring to African Americans will henceforth be a proper adjective.

I’m all for the change. Yes, as a card-carrying Grammar Curmudgeon I have a few curmudgeonly concerns. But before we get to that part, let’s do a little history.

Over the past half millennium, the U.S. and its predecessor colonies have invented all sorts of ways to refer to the Africans they bought and sold and their many generations of descendants. Many of those terms were derogatory at the time; most are considered derogatory today. The nation’s difficulty in finding the proper word to describe a people dragged unwillingly to its shores itself mirrors the difficulty the nation has had in digesting the original crime.

And it’s small wonder that Black people in the U.S. have spent so much time resisting the nation’s naming – the historian David Day wrote somewhere that a war only ends when the conquered begin using the nomenclature of the conqueror – but in a world preternaturally conscious of color, a word is necessary.

From the late 19th century onward, Negro activists (as they would proudly call themselves) fought furiously to get newspapers to capitalize “negro” – both as an adjective (“two Negro men”) and as a noun (“two Negroes”). This battle occurred at a time when many of those we would now call Black proudly preferred the term “colored.” Addie Hunton, my great-grandmother, who published popular books and essays, stuck with “colored” long after “Negro” had won the day.

But winning the day was hard, not least because that era too had its share of Grammar Curmudgeons. Wordsmiths maintained that because the lower-case “n” was proper English usage, refusing to capitalize the letter implied no insult. In 1914, the official magazine of the NAACP offered a forceful response: “The mere fact that they can make a certain logical defense of their usage is absolutely worthless when confronted by the undoubted fact that 10,000,000 people consider themselves insulted.”

Still, accomplishment of the project took some while. In the 1940s, the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal was lauding Southerners for coming up with a verbal compromise – a word my editors probably won’t let me write – a term halfway between “Negro” and another, better-known word my editors definitely won’t let me write. The struggle continued. As late as 1955, at the height of the McCarthy era, a witness told the House Un-American Activities Committee that the Communist Party was winning support in the Negro community in large part due to its unstinting support for capitalizing that very adjective.

Skip forward a few years. Nearly four decades ago, I had the great privilege of serving as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. Activists challenged his insistence on using “Negro” rather than “black” in his written opinions. Behind closed doors, Marshall had a stormy answer to his critics, an answer that boiled down to: “I’ve spent my whole life fighting to get people to capitalize Negro. I’m not going to let a bunch of kids” – perhaps he put the point more colorfully – “tell me what I should call myself.”

Of course, Marshall (who toward the end of his career would begin using “Afro-American”) came along at a time when many of those who proudly called themselves Negroes considered “black” an insult. Activists during the 1960s who came up with such slogans as “Black is beautiful” and “I’m black and I’m proud” were trying to take what had once been a term of derision and turn it on its head.

For my own part, I’m not offended by black with a small “b” (to me it’s still just a common adjective), but then I’m also not offended by “Negro” or even “colored” – believe it or not. In my books, fiction and non-fiction alike, I use in the narrative whatever words would have been used in the historical periods I’m referencing. It drives me a little crazy when, for instance, a professional historian, writing about the 19th century, refers to the “Black community” – even though in the period in question, most of the people the historian’s talking about would have been offended by the usage.

Like Marshall, I’m annoyed when people who’ve spent many fewer years pondering this matter than I have presume to tell me which words that describe myself I am required to capitalize. I understand their spirit. I’ve even made my own contribution to the debate, adopting in my fiction, and in nonfiction where my editors permit, the term “darker nation” – inspired by similar but not identical usages by Zora Neale Hurston and W. E. B. DuBois.

Oh, and what about the curmudgeonly part? What am I worried about once Black as an adjective is capitalized?

Two things. First, capitalizing Black as an adjective runs the risk that Black will tumble once more into use as a noun. This was a battle fought twenty or thirty years ago, the effort to get people to stop saying “I saw three blacks” – which still sounds vaguely racist to my ear – as opposed to “I saw three black men.”

Second, and more important, although the capitalization of Black will stand as a mark of pride, it could easily be transformed into an assertion of a particular identity. Once “Black” is upper-case, it’s easier to claim that there’s one correct way to be “Black” and that those who think “wrong” thoughts aren’t really Black in the full upper-case sense. We’ve traveled that road before and it’s a tragic and destructive one.

But let’s be optimists. As long as we’re vigilant, these concerns are unlikely to arise.

The capitalization of Black resolves none of the great social justice issues of the day. Nevertheless, it’s a hint that – just maybe – people are listening.

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Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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