The case for uppercase: Commentary on style, dignity, and Black culture

Why We Wrote This

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but for Black Americans, the rendering of their cultural identity matters. Columnist Ken Makin explores the historical fight for a capital “B.”

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After the removal of most protest signs from the security fence, Tee Wright, from Washington, raises a fist in front of a Black Lives Matter banner across from the White House in Washington, June 10, 2020.

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One of the first lessons I learned when I joined a Black publication was the importance of the word “Black.”

I learned the distinction between “Black” in terms of race and “black” in terms of the color of an item. The capitalization of the “B” in Black when it comes to race is a cultural, political, and spiritual act.

The case for uppercase has roots in African American history and specifically in Black journalism.

Ferdinand Lee Barnett, the founding editor of The (Chicago) Conservator monthly newspaper, championed the cause of capitalizing the word “Negro” in an editorial that charged that the failure of white people to capitalize “Negro” was to “show disrespect, to indicate a stigma, and to fasten on a badge of inferiority.”

Civil rights activist and famed sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois made a powerful declaration through a modest footnote to “The Philadelphia Negro”: “I shall, moreover, capitalize the word (Negro), because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.”

The capitalization of the “N” in Negro, of the “B” in Black, isn’t just an act of anger or audacity – it’s an act of advocacy.

I spent the first five years of my journalism career as a sportswriter, in a newsroom that sorely lacked diversity. Looking back on my tenure, I can count the number of Black journalists, including myself, on one hand. I left that particular publication to start my career at an African American newspaper. The change was profound. It was a smaller newspaper, yet a more soulful newspaper. 

One of the first lessons I learned at that Black publication was the importance of the word “Black.” I learned the distinction between “Black” in terms of race and “black” in terms of the color of an item. The capitalization of the “B” in Black when it comes to race is a cultural, political, and spiritual act. It gives power to the idea of being Black in opposition to and defiance of white supremacy and a white-dominated society.

The case for uppercase has roots in African American history and specifically in Black journalism. The discussion dates back to an 1878 editorial from Ferdinand Lee Barnett, the founding editor of The (Chicago) Conservator monthly newspaper. Barnett, who championed the cause of capitalizing the word “Negro,” expressed in his “Spell It With A Capital” editorial that the failure of white people to capitalize “Negro” was to “show disrespect, to indicate a stigma, and to fasten on a badge of inferiority.”

Fifteen years later, a Black female journalist, educator, and anti-lynching activist began to write for The Conservator – Ida B. Wells. She and Barnett married in 1895, after which she became the owner and editor of the publication. After being denigrated during her lifetime by The New York Times and other press, Wells was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize just last month, almost 90 years after her death. 

Another noted civil rights activist took up the capitalization cause near the turn of the century – W.E.B. Du Bois. The famous sociologist, and Harvard University’s first Black doctorate recipient, wrote a social study titled “The Philadelphia Negro,” in which he made a powerful declaration through a modest footnote:

“I shall, moreover, capitalize the word (Negro), because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.”

Du Bois’ footnote, however modest, may be the most important in Black literature, by virtue of its dedication to humanity. That was also the purpose of Du Bois’ 15-month study, which sought to “present the results of an inquiry undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania into the condition of the forty thousand or more people of Negro blood now living in the city of Philadelphia.” The study was a revelatory look into the lives of Black people: 

Their occupations and daily life, their homes, their organizations, and, above all, their relation to their million white fellow-citizens.

Jean-Jacques Levy/AP/File
Actor-singer Paul Robeson (center) introduces Peter Blackman of the West Indies to W.E.B. Du Bois at the World Peace Conference in Paris on April 20, 1949. Du Bois was a vocal defender of capitalization of the word Negro.

In short, it was a look at despair and disparity. The end goal was to “lay before the public such a body of information as may be a safe guide for all efforts toward the solution of the many Negro problems of a great American city.”

The capitalization of the “N” in Negro, of the “B” in Black, isn’t just an act of anger or audacity – it’s an act of advocacy.

Du Bois later established Phylon, a semiannual peer-reviewed academic journal that covered race and culture from a Black perspective, at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) in 1940. Close to 35 years after Phylon was founded, Donald L. Grant and Mildred Bricker Grant published a journal article titled “Some Notes on the Capital ‘N.’” It was a nine-page article that captured the highlights of the case for capitalization, all the way up to the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

The article’s opening paragraph outlines the tireless battle for respect and dignity:

Although Juliet asked, “What’s in a name?” and maintained that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” black people in the United States have been much concerned with the terms used in their identification as a distinct group. Stripped by the slave system of their tribal or national designations, the people of African descent in the United States have accepted a variety of designations while rejecting those they have considered derogatory or degrading. Men of color, Colored, Negro, Afro-American, and Freedmen are but a few of the terms that have been acceptable to various Black Americans at various times. From the age of Booker T. Washington to the post-World War II Freedom Movement, the term Negro, the Spanish word for black, was the one most widely accepted. During this period blacks waged a campaign to win acceptance of the practice of spelling Negro with a capital “N,” rather than with the belittling small “n.” Since all other racial and ethnic designations were capitalized, the small “n” was just one more form of discrimination.

These notes, in a journal literally birthed from one of the original champions of the case for uppercase, went on to highlight how cultural pride turned into power:

The increased militancy among blacks which developed from the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and World War I experiences was reflected in increased pressures from blacks to capitalize Negro. When Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association met for its great convention in New York City in 1920, the eleventh of fifty-four statements in its “Declaration of Rights” was: “We deprecate the use of the term ‘ni—er’ as applied to Negroes and demand that the word “Negro” be written with a capital ‘N.’”

This debate – and historical oppression of style – is ironic. Black people have contributed so much to American culture, from fashion and dance to art and literature. It’s very difficult to experience a commercial on TV today without a catchy, hip-hop tune or posturing. This appropriation and exploitation of Black culture – sans Black people – reminds me of a lament seen on social media: “They want our rhythm, but not our blues.”

White supremacy has capitalized off of Black style – and struggle – for generations. It has no place to tell me whether I can capitalize the name of my race. It’s not enough for Black – with a capital “B” – to be a right. It should be a universal rule.

Ken Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the “Makin’ A Difference” podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @differencemakin.

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