​JENKINS: Black vs. black

A “What’s the Word” column

Ever since I can remember, I was taught proper nouns should be capitalized. I was taught to capitalize my name, to capitalize the United States and even to capitalize ethnic identifiers like Asian or Latino. Naturally when I wrote my first essay with reference to black people I capitalized the word “Black.” Yet, when my paper was returned to me I found a note in the margin. The teacher had written, “Why did you capitalize ‘Black?’” I thought I had made a grammatical mistake, so for a period of time, I stopped capitalizing the word. Today, I am writing to my elementary school teacher to tell her she was wrong. I am writing to tell her it is absurd to posit that an entire people do not deserve the respect of a proper noun. It is absurd to encourage the trivialization of a complex and varied race of people, regarding them as equally simplistic as the color of a shoe. Today I am making it clear that “Black” is distinct from “black.”

I decided to scan for the definition of the lowercase form of “black” in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “thoroughly sinister or evil; very sad, gloomy or calamitous; characterized by hostility or angry discontent.” Immediately I reflected on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words (inspired by Ossie Davis), “maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority.” In the definition applied to my skin color I read one more rendition of a racist country. When a newspaper describes me as a “black” male, it is a euphemism for all of the above definitions. The usage of “black” instead of “Black” is indicative of the media bias chaining my race to the perpetuated negative aspects of the color. America reads “black” and fears me, pities me or hates me because it understands exactly what the word connotes. Yet, we are not a race defined by the degradation another people saw fit to impose upon us. It is inappropriate and it is racist to call us “black” people. We are Black people: unbroken, dynamic, exquisite, prolific, beautiful and soulful freedom fighters.

The Cavalier Daily uses the lowercase form of the word black. When asked why, Executive Editor Dani Bernstein replied that the paper follows the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook, which dictates the rules of newswriting, and is thus in line with other major papers.

Similarly to Bernstein, John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun quoted H.L. Mencken when asked about the issue of capitalizing the word black. According to McIntyre, “I’d have to see a change to ‘Black’ somewhere other than my own newspaper. Not just from minority publications or fringe groups.” The oppressive nature of the quote unsettled me; it denies the authority of a group to establish its own identity. Another major newspaper cannot be lauded as more credible than the affected minority collective in determining its own appellation. As I thought on the idea, I could not rid myself of the image in an episode of Roots in which Kunta Kinte attempts to proclaim his African name in protestation to the white man beating him, demanding that he submit to his given name, Toby.

“Black” is not controversial to the rest of the literary world. Ebony magazine, a popular black magazine my parents have had delivered to their home for years, capitalizes the word. Ebony’s self-designation emphasizes the merit of “Black.” The magazine’s validation should oblige major publications to follow suit. Additionally, American Psychological Association style, which is the most commonly used authority in writing, recognizes that “Black” should be used when referencing an ethnic group. So, I shake my head at any and every newspaper editor who hides behind the excuse that there is no established precedent for the utilization of “Black” when speaking to the entirety of a race.

My argument leads me to believe we should also capitalize the word white. However, we must recognize that white people in America have the privilege to boast of Italian, British or Irish descent. They can be something other than white. I cannot. My history as I know it has its origins in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Somerville, Tennessee and Mobile, Alabama slavery. My cultural heritage was uprooted, torn from any ethnicity that I could claim and replanted to start anew. I am Black because my memory of anything else does not exist. I wish I could be African-American, but the name is a false entitlement to a culture stolen, denied and forgotten. “Black” is tantamount to both my race and ethnicity. You must capitalize Black as a sign of respect for the unified culture my people have created in the face of displacement, abuse and oppression. People’s discomfort with my resilient, bold Blackness is of no concern to me. There are no excuses for avoiding the capitalization of Black. I am Black. Deal with it.

VJ Jenkins is a contributing writer for The Cavalier Daily and Black Student Alliance's bi-weekly “What’s the Word” column.

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