It’s Capital B ‘Black’ At LEO

Jan 15, 2020 at 10:39 am

LEO has changed its style so now you will find the word “Black” capitalized on these pages when referring to a group of people, culture or ethnicity.

It’s the right and long overdue thing to do. Society and culture evolve, and how we all communicate with each other should, too.

At LEO, the issue first arose in June 2018 while editing Minda Honey’s “A Plantation In Your Town,” a story about how communities reconcile with the pasts of former plantations. I told her uppercase “Black” doesn’t fit LEO’s style, which generally adheres to The Associated Press’ Stylebook. The issue came up, again, in LEO columnist Hannah L. Drake’s columns and then in a column by contributor Cassia Herron. Also, Minda recently sent me a link to The Seattle Times’ style change announcement last month to remind me I’d said LEO would consider it.

For this column, I asked Minda why she thinks the change is needed: “Black writers are not a monolith, and B/b continues to be an ongoing discussion. For me, this is more about my autonomy as a writer, an individual and a Black person. It’s about my views and values not being stripped from my words based on what is dictated by a style guide that upholds rules of grammar and language that often oppress people with my lived experiences. Culture changes. Language changes. And I think alt-weeklies should rise to their reputations and reflect those changes, whether it’s covering news stories mainstream outlets won’t or small, stylistic shifts that speak to a bigger picture.”

Hannah told me that Black denotes a “group of people, culture, etc. You see no one has this problem when you write Jewish people. That issue never comes up like should we capitalize the J? It is a given and understood. I always wonder, why must Black people always have to explain and champion and educate and trailblaze and figure it out for everyone else? Our collective understanding of this is simply never enough. Language and the written word are fluid. It changes and will continue to change. Black is who I am. Before I am anything, I am a Black person. ... Many of these same publications that seem so confused today didn’t mind capitalizing Negro and Colored many years ago.”

In fact, while The AP lowercases black “for a person of the black race,” it calls for uppercasing “Negro” for “organizations or in quotations.”

In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, “The Case for Black With a Capital B,” Lori L. Tharps, an associate journalism professor at Temple University, pushed for the change — although The New York Times still is among papers that lowercase Black. “When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized,” Tharps wrote. “Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”

She pointed out that W. E. B. Du Bois lobbied book publishers, newspapers and magazines in the 1920s to capitalize the N in Negro. The New York Times acquiesced in 1930, but when “Negro” became passé, the Times began using “black” in lowercase. 

 Merriam-Webster dictionary is ambivalent — it defines “black” or “Black” as “of or relating to African American people or their culture.” Of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia weeklies that responded to my survey, four uppercase Black, two don’t and four do it sometimes. 

Only just last month, The Seattle Times adopted the capital B, explaining that, “New guidance on usage of ‘Black’ arose from discussions in the broader culture about what constitutes a people, and the historical use of various words to describe the people and descendants of the African diaspora.”

LEO will follow The Times’ rule by not uppercasing “white,” because it is “a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures.” (Interestingly, Merriam-Webster doesn’t capitalize “white,” either, when referring to “a group or race characterized by light pigmentation of the skin.”)

As Cassia asked: Why does LEO follow AP style at all? Good question. By definition, an alt-weekly shouldn’t hew to the mainstream. But for any publication, following a stylebook fosters clear writing. It ensures consistency: grammar and typography based on deliberation and precedent. Why is that important? Because words should be seamless conduits for ideas they work to convey. Inconsistent typography, unless for effect, can disrupt that flow. 

Minda was right: culture changes and language must, too. Using “Black” instead of “black” has been a long time in coming — too long — including at LEO. •