Rethinking Schools began as a newspaper—a tabloid. Most newspapers followed the Associated Press Stylebook, so we did, too. That included a lowercase b when referring to Black culture or individuals. Over the years, that made various writers and editors uncomfortable, but we pointed to the problems with inconsistency in our archives as a reason not to change.
Prompted in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, we decided to revisit our usage at a recent editorial board meeting. We based our discussion on a 2014 op-ed piece by Lori L. Tharps in the New York Times, “The Case for Black with a Capital B.” She builds a strong historical and political case:
Ever since African people arrived in this country, we have had to fight for the right to a proper name. Upon arrival in the “New World,” we were all collectively deemed Africans, even though we came from different countries, cultures, and tribes. Very soon after, British colonists borrowed the Spanish term for black, and we became negros, negars, nigras and blacks—anything oppositional to the supposed purity of whiteness.
After emancipation, as many individuals replaced their slave surnames with ones of their own devising, like Freedman or Freeman, they still bore the painful legacy of the labels they’d been given: black, negro, and colored. . . .
In the mid-1900s, W. E. B. Du Bois began a letter-writing campaign, demanding that book publishers, newspaper editors, and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people. . . . The New York Timesrefused his request, as did most other newspapers. In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopedia Britannicainformed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of 12 million Americans and 200 million human beings a personal insult.”
Tharps says that editor changed his mind, as did many other mainstream publications, including the New York Times. She then notes the changes that the Black Power Movement of the 1960s had on how African Americans see and name themselves. She concludes: “If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?”
We found her arguments convincing. Editorial board member Jesse Hagopian explained it well: “Black with a capital B was won through political struggle. If we lowercase the b, we’re minimizing the importance of that collective, historical struggle.” In this issue of the magazine, and henceforth, we will write Black with a capital B. As always, we’re interested in your comments.
From Rethinking Schools latest summer issue.