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Not so (B/b)lack or (W/w)hite

play on words

As applause from the previous monologue died down, the next actor took center stage. He clapped his hands together and began confidently, commanding the attention of every single person. “Black is…”

His voice trailed off and he gave us a puzzled look—the look of someone stumped by a question that had never occurred to him. He tossed out a couple possibilities, shaking his head as each attempt to fill in the blank proved too simple or too convoluted or too political. “Black is,” he finally declared, “a color.” The audience laughed.

The monologue writer’s struggle to define his racial identity resonated with me, despite the fact that I am a white girl from suburban New Jersey. It matters how everyone defines “black” or “white” or “Latino” because we all use personal conceptions of race to interpret and respond to the world around us—for better or worse.

In this final week of the 40th Black History Month, I would like to address the monologue writer’s question from a broader perspective. We cannot escape the fact that (like all words in our language) racial terms have been defined by their use. Taking a closer look at the word “black” can deepen our understanding of controversial questions about race, including the perennial debate over the value of Black History Month. Actors Morgan Freeman and Stacey Dash recently reinvigorated that particular debate with their statements that Black History Month does a disservice to those who it intends to celebrate.

Beginning my investigation, it felt as weird for me to look up black in the dictionary as it felt for the monologue writer to ponder its meaning aloud. But I needed an isolated, academic perspective and the dictionary, however quaint, would treat black simply as the word between blabbish (“of the nature of a blab, given to blabbing”) and black-acre (“to litigate about landed property”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Black—with a capital “B”—as “designating a member of any dark-skinned group of peoples, esp. a person of sub-Saharan African origin or descent.” This seems almost absurdly straightforward for a word that is such a cultural lightning rod. The entry accountsfor the word’s controversial history in a small-type note. The note—which comments on the connotations of Black and discusses details of its use—is possibly the blandest paragraph ever written about race. It tries so hard to prove that it is above the fray (as a dictionary should be) that it ends up sounding altogether foreign—especially when juxtaposed with typical emotionally-charged racial discourse.

The note begins with a bland clarification of use: “The term black is also often applied to persons of mixed black and other ancestry. It is often closely tied to perceptions of ethnicity and of social and cultural identity. In various places at various times it has been used in a broader sense of any person who is not readily classifiable as ‘white.’” The equivocation eventually reaches a crescendo in the final sentence, which reads, “The capitalized form can have connotations of either respect or disrespect depending on the context and writer, and for this reason is sometimes avoided.” Despite its blandness, this statement about the capitalization of Black actually has a wealth of history behind it—a history that raises interesting questions about race relations today.

Originally, W.E.B. DuBois campaigned tirelessly for the term negro to be capitalized. In 1930, theNew York Timesannounced that it would, from then on, capitalize Negro “not merely a typographical change” but as “an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’” Capital-N Negro quickly became the preferred inoffensive term of black and white communities alike.

Then, in 1966, Stokely Carmichael and the “black power” movement dismissed the term Negro as a symbol of submissiveness to white authority—an accommodation of whites’ “own inability to deal with ‘blackness.’" “It is the word ‘Black,’” said Carmichael, “that bothers people in this country, and that's their problem, not mine.” He framed Black Power, and the term Black, as a battle for blacks to "define themselves as they see fit, and organize themselves as they see it." The shift happened almost overnight (in linguistic terms); the Timesabandoned Negro in favor of Black in the 1970s and Negro History Week, begun in 1926, was changed to Black History Month in 1976. The enduring question is whether or not to capitalize Black, and why. The OED note seems to advocate throwing one’s hands up and avoiding the term altogether, but this is both unrealistic and misguided.

What should we make of the fact that, in keeping with the usage patterns of most white supremacist groups, Charleston shooter Dylan Roof capitalized “White” but not “black” on his personal website? Or the fact that many (completely non-militant) publications aimed at black readers capitalize “Black” but not “white”?

Unlike Hispanic, Asian, Native American and Caucasian, neither black nor white are derived from proper nouns, which seems to be a vote againstcapitalization. But ultimately, the fact that we capitalize proper nouns at all could itself be considered arbitrary, so the purely grammatical argument is less than satisfying.

I argue for thoughtful, active application of Black or black as context warrants. As Lori L. Tharps, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, declared in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, “Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.” The reality is that White does not have the same cultural connotations of identity as Black—though that may be changing as popular culture (often ironically) focuses more on the shared experiences and idiosyncrasies of white people. For instance, there is increasing recognition, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of country music as a genre inspired largely by the experiences and culture of (rural) white people. By contrast, jazz has long been recognized and even defined by its relationship to Black culture—and never in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

We should recognize this semantic reality by capitalizing Black when using it to label or describe aspects of culture or society (such as music, poetry, food, etc.) and to identify the Black community as a people—as in “a victory for the Black people,” used in the same way we might say, “Rice has long been a staple food for the Chinese people,” or “The government confiscated the land of the Navajo people.” When we use black to make a purely racial (i.e. aesthetic) distinction, we should keep the lowercase “b”. We may also find that having to actively make this distinction prompts productive reflection on our own personal preconceptions about race.

Armed with this understanding of the distinction between Black and black, I appreciate Black History Month as a positive celebration of the history and contributions of a people. These are distinctcontributions that deserve recognition—recognition that is not (as Stacey Dash said) another form of segregation. Celebrating Black culture in everyday life—365 days a year—and having a few weeks where we are especially aware and appreciative of it are not mutually exclusive. Celebrating Thanksgiving does not mean relegating all expressions of gratitude to a single day and neglecting to express gratitude the whole rest of the year.

Nor do we need a “White History Month” to celebrate a “White” people fashioned from many distinct European identities (which themselves were once called “ethnic”) for the purpose of maintaining hegemonic racial power. We must come to terms with the world we live in rather than construct our own fictions about race, and Black History Month is as good a time as any to start.

Lauren Forman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. To suggest a word for a future column, please email Lauren at lauren.forman@duke.edu or tweet her at @lauren_forman.

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