Recently, we published a commentary piece by columnist Ken Makin. In it, he offers this observation: “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 spirit of this sentiment has been expressed in the United States for nearly 150 years. Mr. Makin traces the efforts of African American leaders to persuade the white establishment to capitalize “Black” back to 1878. Ferdinand Lee Barnett, editor of The (Chicago) Conservator, said the failure of white people to capitalize “Negro” was to “show disrespect, to indicate a stigma, and to fasten on a badge of inferiority.”
Needless to say, white newspapers did not listen. To many in white America then and more recently, “black” with a lowercase “b” seems a grammatical consistency – simply a modifier, a description of color. But it is also safe to say that then, and more recently, many in white America were not truly listening to what Barnett was saying. And in that way, they were proving his point.
The phrase “white supremacy” can conjure up an image of pointed hoods and burning crosses. Its usage has long been synonymous with the most outrageous forms of racism. But today it has taken on a subtler yet in many ways more profound meaning: Can one race set the rules largely without reference to any other race? That has characterized the American experience. America, as a predominantly white-run nation, has made progress against the more aggressive forms of white supremacy; it is only now beginning to come to terms with how deep its more insidious forms run, and how thoroughly they have shaped what we have become.
The denial of a single capital letter is a small part of this reckoning, but an important one. To many African Americans, Mr. Makin notes, Black with a capital “B” is an insistence on the humanity and value of a community that too often has been made to feel like strangers in their own country. Contributions to arts and culture, to literature, to music and film, to education and science – all achieved despite the crushing weight of prejudice. Do these not speak to the contributions of a unique community?
Taylor Branch, a biographer best known for writing about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the social justice movement, calls civil rights activists “our second Founding Fathers” for showing the world the radical truth of America’s founding ideals. But “the lessons of the King legacy are still not taken seriously enough,” the biographer told Smithsonian Magazine. Has the nation truly listened to Dr. King’s admonitions about nonviolence and poverty?
The demand in recent weeks has been to listen humbly – the Monitor included.
So the Monitor is now capitalizing Black. The goal is not to value one race more than another, but the opposite. In better cherishing the Black experience in America, we recognize its unique role and seek a firmer footing for genuine equality and freedom.