FIGHTING FOR BLACK PEOPLE’S RIGHTS TAKES MUCH MORE THAN A CAPITAL LETTER. News organisations capitalising Black is a starting point. But how about challenging the veracity of police reports?
The changing of names for Black people in the US, from Colored through Negro to African American, has always been intertwined with politics. This is true today with regard to the decision of several US publications to capitalise the b in Black when referring to Black people. But to understand why people have advocated for this orthographic change today, it’s necessary to turn to history.
The traditional account of these transitions suggests that Black people seek a change in name as a means of seeking political recognition. According to such a history, the term Colored was associated with slavery, which led Black people to seek to be called Negroes, a change the US census accepted in 1900. From the 1890s on, WEB Du Bois and others campaigned for publications to capitalise the n in Negro to represent Negroes as a proper noun and hence as people.
In the mid-century, a new generation associated the term Negro with the politics of those who sought success within America’s racial hierarchy rather than those trying to transform it. That generation proffered several terms – including Afro-American, African American and Black – to represent Black people as a people deserving political equality. In the 1980s, as Jesse Jackson campaigned for president, he and others fought for the capitalisation of African American. They wanted, in other words, to represent Black people as a distinct people within the US who deserved all the rights of American citizens, including the presidency. According to the traditional history, changes in names have been, simultaneously, political demands for equity from US institutions.
Yet this traditional history obscures the broader spectrum of political demands of those periods. In the same time in which Du Bois fought for the capitalisation of Negro, he also fought to end lynching and Jim Crow. During the middle of the century, Black Americans in the New Afrikan Independence Movement dubbed themselves New Afrikans, demanded territory owned by the United States, and tried to create a New Afrikan nation. And in the 1980s, groupsincluding the Black Panthers and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement sought political autonomy from the United States. While the name changes succeeded, many of the more radical demands were denied and forgotten.
Today, the move to capitalise Black emerges from a similarly wide field of political demands. As protesters across the nation responded to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, Sarah Glover, penned an open letter calling for publications to capitalise Black: “There is momentous change across America that we are bearing witness to … Journalism and media companies must have a reckoning with themselves, reflect upon their own practices and also shatter systemic racism that exists within the mighty bowels of the free press.” (The Guardian’s style guide notes that “there is ongoing debate about the capitalisation of black” and that while generally lower-case is to be employed, “if a writer, editor or subject of a story prefers to use Black then that choice should be respected”.) …