This past August, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones issued her long-awaited 1619 project through the New York Times. In the book, Hannah-Jones outlines America’s capitalistic beginnings in detail, calling out the heinous acts of Transatlantic Slave trade and chattel slavery throughout America’s nascent years.
To sharpen the impact of her work, Hannah-Jones decided to eschew the word “slave” in her writing opting for the more accurate “enslaved people.” Changing the word “slave” from a noun to an adjective seems like a subtle nod to political correctness, but to consider it just that is both reductive and dismissive. For Hannah-Jones and other Black writers such as myself, this recalibration of letters is an act of freedom, authenticity, and emotional preservation.
See, “small” changes to language — even to the simple concept of capitalization — can provoke new discussions about oppression and then extract humanity from these discussions. This humanity, when reclaimed by Black people, is something like a strand of freedom, wispy but substantial in tethering us to this reality that “slaves” were actually people experiencing enslavement rather than objects or property. For Black folks, taking back the power of our narrative has rested heavily on language. Whether we are reclaiming the N-word or enforcing the capitalization of the ‘B’ in Black, it should be our right to own these terms despite standard guidelines used in the media and anywhere else we’re represented or spoken about to the masses.
Hannah-Jones’s work got me thinking about the capitalizing of the ‘b’ in the word “Black” as a racial identifier. It’s not always done, and that capitalization is important because the word is not just describing the color of skin, or of a car or a desk for that matter. It describes a race — one whose existence has historically been plagued by erasure. Formatting the name of a race accurately, in books, on Twitter, in the media, is a glaring demand for our humanity.
Since the very first American census in 1790, Black people’s identity has been left in the hands of white people in power. After that, our identity on the US census changed from “Slaves” (1790) to “black” (1850) to “negro” (1900) to “Negro” (1930) to “Negro or Black” (1970) to “Black or Negro” (1980). The most current iteration is “black, African American or Negro” (1990). Other descriptors have also been used to describe those with Black blood in their body, like “mulatto” (mixed) “quadroon” (1/4th Black), and “octoroon” (1/8th Black). The concept of Blackness has been highly debated and grappled with for centuries as the diaspora spread Africans throughout the Americas and beyond. This Blackness connects all of us, despite our cultural differences based on how we were colonized — so identifying our identity as grand and potent is important.
Not being able to resist this particular anti-Blackness — the denial of cultural identifiers in Black storytelling — makes me wonder: What’s the point of telling our stories? Where’s the joy in reading them?
As a writer, I’ve struggled with editors and publications who are unwilling to push back on “the style guide” they abide by that still uses a lower case ‘b.’ I personally identify as Black and have done so for some time. So when writing about myself, my identity, and those of other Black folx, I own the right to use the accurate descriptor. When an editor isn’t willing to create that space for me, it feels suffocating not just to my creativity, but to my being. The media is a tentacle of the many systems of anti-Blackness people of color have to navigate. Not being able to resist this particular anti-Blackness — the denial of cultural identifiers in Black storytelling — makes me wonder: What’s the point of telling our stories? Where’s the joy in reading them?
Culture writer Kelle Terrell’s work has been featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Essence, among other magazines. She’s often found herself facing scrutiny, amidst the editing process, over her preference to capitalize the ‘b’ in Black in her writing. “Early on in my career, I would push back but now, frankly, I don’t push back,” she tells Mic, clearly worn down by a system based on rank. It’s always executives, then editors, and then freelance writers last. Even as one of the more sought-after freelancers in the industry, Terrell says, “it’s harder to fix a system when you are on the outside.” She points out that with media still being a white-male-dominated space, even when people of color are on staff and technically on the inside, we still may not have the power to enforce change.
In certain instances, Terrell says that we sometimes resort to relying on white and other non-Black allies who hold positions of power to press their newsrooms to change their editorial standards when it comes to capitalizing the ‘b’ in Black, for one. It’s a cause worth uniting for, she adds, because Black people have the right to own how we are referred to, especially in a country where our name and identity has, for far too long, been dictated to us.
Terrell is optimistic, though, as she has seen a slight shift lately, perhaps because the discourse is is finally in the spotlight. In one of her latest pieces for a major publication, she lower-cased all the ‘b's’ in Black — anticipating that her editor would insist on that anyway — and was surprised when she received her draft back with edits, and all the B's were capitalized.
This shift is also being seen in academia, another space where racial erasure can and has historically thrived. The Brookings Institute — a non-profit research and education foundation that makes policy recommendations on public issues — has addressed the issue in what they’re calling “an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’”
‘Black’ is already a word with a negative connotation — note terms such as “black sheep” or “black market,” for example — so the term as an identifier can inherently indicate something bad, says Prudence Layne, associate professor of English at Elon College in NC. Layne’s focus on Black studies delves into how our community has taken ownership of our identity, rather than having it dictated to us. She points out that without taking back the term and its true meaning in the context of identity, “you’re gonna be like damn, I’m not worth anything.”
Layne stresses the importance of Black writers — and people in general — to “turn the tables on the guidelines and standards.” Writing has always been filtered through a white gaze, so capitalizing the ‘b’ in Black is also about how we define the story now, and own our history through our own lens. Layne references Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumously released book “Barracoon,” which wasn’t received well in the 1920s because her intentional focus on Black storytelling outside the white gaze.
“In 1927, Zora was saying we are enough. All the editors passed on it but in 2018 it still got printed, and she claimed our identity. Our responsibility as academics, as writers, and Black journalists for us to dictate the standards of how we get named, how we get counted in the censu,” Payne says.
For me, the lowercase ‘b’ in Black indicates smallness, and our contribution to American culture is anything but small. “Don’t twist yourself to fit other standards,” Layne advises. “That’s not to say there isn’t a price to pay. But you have to ask yourself, early on in your career — what’s most important?”