Last week The New York Times published "The Case for Black With a Capital B," an op-ed by Professor Lori L. Tharps. As a Black American and a proponent of the capitalization, I congratulate her for opening a conversation that is long overdue, a conversation that goes to the heart of how a large group of Americans with the most difficult of histories has struggled to express itself and gain greater agency in American society.
Tharps opens her critique by showing how The New York Times and the Associated Press style books continue to insist on using the lowercase "b" for "black Americans," specifically those whose genetic lineage is from the African diaspora in America. Yet the AP style book dictates that nationalities, races and cultures be capitalized. This should make one wonder about the proper identifier for Black Americans, because if we are neither a race nor a culture, what should the classification be?
As Tharps mentions in her piece, W.E.B. Du Bois tried countless times to have "Negro" capitalized, but his arguments, regardless of how well thought, repeatedly fell on deaf ears.
Tharps correctly argues that Black people in America deserve to have our cultural identifier capitalized, yet many would argue that "African American" fulfills this requirement, and that if "Black" should be capitalized, then why not "White"?
As a Black American male whose heritage can be traced back to the troubled history of slavery in America, my quest for individual and cultural identity has been more fraught than I could have anticipated. Some years ago I grew frustrated with the self-descriptor "African American," yet my exhaustion did not direct me toward a more appropriate identifier. I existed as a person without a cultural identifier, essentially forced to view my world as a derivative of the white European foundations that formed the underpinnings of my society yet never comfortably embraced me as a person.
Eventually I became more comfortable referring to myself as "Black" or as a "Black American," but when I would ask other Black Americans, especially ones from older generations, about their feelings toward this identifier, I found that often they were not comfortable being referred to as "Black." For older Black Americans the term "Black" brought back painful memories of an unpleasant past that they would prefer not to be reminded of, similarly to how "negro" was at one time considered appropriate but eventually became considered derogatory. Why would you want to embrace a derogatory term? And to a more dramatic degree, you could apply the same logic to "nigger."
The argument regarding self-identity became "Why would you want to embrace a painful, unpleasant past?" The aversion to looking upon the painful past led many Black Americans to want to find a more pleasant past and therefore a better future, and this led more people to embrace "African American."
"Black" became a somewhat derogatory identifier that was not universally respected within my community. Therefore, I stayed relatively identifier-free, except when it came to formal documentation, and did not revert to accepting "African American," which seemed to be more of an aspirational identifier than an accurate one. Eventually I began questioning non-Blacks about the validity of capitalizing "Black," and universally they thought that would be unfair or illogical because "white" is not capitalized.
I began to realize that "African American" fits within a narrative that implies that Blacks in America have a similar level of connection to their ancestral countries as white Americans and other immigrant populations have. Many white Americans can name offhand the countries and even the cities that their ancestors came from, but Black Americans most likely cannot engage in this casual cultural recognition without paying for DNA testing.
By placing "African" before "American" we are implying that we have cultural roots predating the formation of the United States, much like white Americans and other American immigrant groups. We are telling everyone -- including ourselves -- that we have a foreign culture that is a better identifier than our American existence. Despite how badly many Blacks in America may want this to be true, unfortunately it is not the case for many of us, including me.
To me this not only proves the inadequacy of "African American" but should implore Black Americans and all Americans to reacquaint themselves with the history of Black people in America. As a Black man who does not feel that the aspirational narrative of an "African" past adequately defines my or my family's cultural history, I took it upon myself to trace my family's and other Black families' cultural, historical and geographic roots in America.
If "African American" is inadequate, then we cannot settle for a lowercased "black." To validate the need for capitalization, we need to prove the uniqueness of the culture of Black people in America, and the most painful part of this journey is acknowledging that for long stretches of American life, Black people were not even legally considered people.
Black people have fought for a long time to obtain the legal liberty that comes with personhood, but the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have shown to many that this struggle continues. Now the latest struggle is obtaining the cultural respect that comes with the capitalization of our identifier that all groups of people with a shared history deserve.
Tharps' piece brought this discussion to the fore. This topic is far greater and more complex than a couple of opinion pieces, so I hope the conversation continues. Right now I am just glad that it has begun.