U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To “B” or Not to “B”: On Capitalizing the Word “Black”

Last fall, I got some pushback from one of my dissertation readers on my capitalization of the word “Black,” with a marginal note along the lines of “Why are you capitalizing ‘Black’ and not ‘white’?”  I’m quite certain the reader in question was not championing the cause of “White Pride” or any similar cause, but was asking me for some scholarly justification for what may have seemed to be a stylistic eccentricity or inconsistency — house styles in major newspapers don’t capitalize “Black,” Chicago doesn’t recommend capitalizing “Black” (though, as I will explain shortly, the style guide allows it), and I don’t believe MLA suggests capitalizing the word either.  (The reader was a lit scholar, not an historian, so curiosity about differences between MLA style and Chicago could have been behind the question.)

As it happens, I saw a really interesting conversation roll across my twitter feed the other day about the question of when/whether to capitalize the term “Black.” I will recap the twitter convo first and then say more about the matter below.

Writer/editor Morgan Jerkins wondered aloud:

Author/journalist Summer Brennan tossed the question out to copyeditor B.C. Dreyer:

Dreyer had this response:

I chimed in, as one does on Twitter:

I should note that among those “people who insist on ‘White,'” I was not including scholars who may have a practical/heuristic reason for capitalizing the term “white” — I was referring to the sorts of newspaper or magazine readers among the general public who might take personal offense at the lower-casing and maybe write a letter to the editor (or leave an angry comment in comment threads) complaining that “White” should be capitalized as well as “Black” — because “heritage,” or “respect,” or “it’s only fair,” or whatever.  And I suppose some readers offended by a capitalization of “Black” and lower-casing of “white” might just be obsessive pedants insisting on stylistic consistency for consistency’s sake (though it’s always good to remember that obsessive pedantry can do a lot of other work as well).

What made the issue of capitalization (or not) especially vexed in the case of my project was that I was writing about the time period when “African-American,” a term/idea favored by Jesse Jackson, came into currency as a self-conscious replacement for the word “Black.”  More generally, my subject matter/time period embraced disputes over questions of racial/ethnic identity versus notions of “universality” in regards to the college curriculum.  So “Black” or “black” or “African-American” were not just abstract descriptors from which I could choose, but terms embedded in the history I was trying to tell.

In the end, as I said above, I stuck with “Black” with a capital “B.”  To address my reader’s concerns, I explained my usage in a footnote in the introduction to my dissertation:

Throughout this dissertation, in my own prose I have capitalized the word “Black” when that term is used to designate ethnicity.  In direct quotes of other sources, though, I have retained the case usage of the original source. Per the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), Section 8.39, “Common designations of ethnic groups by color are usually lower-cased unless a particular publisher or author prefers otherwise” (emphasis mine).  I do prefer otherwise. I prefer to capitalize Black because it functions in my text and in American culture more broadly, both in the period about which I am writing and now, not so much as an adjectival description of skin-tone but as a designation for an ethnic group. See Lori L. Tharps, “The Case for Black with a capital B,” New York Times, Nov. 18, 2014, accessed Oct. 4, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/opinion/the-case-for-black-with-a-capital-b.html?_r=0.

As I gestured toward in my remarks on Twitter, reproduced above, the whole business of “designations of ethnic groups by color” today reflects a history of oppression that depended very much on eliding or erasing the differences and distinctions between enslaved African captives and their enslaved descendants, of deliberately not seeing or acknowledging their particular national or tribal or religious or regional or status identities, and rendering them all “the same,” identifiable by a single monochromatic designator.  So Dreyer is absolutely right that the capitalization of “Black” in some ways does the work of perpetuating this monolithic view — and that’s a valid argument in favor of not using the capital letter.

At the same time, the history of African Americans in the U.S. has been profoundly shaped by the experience of living under and living with and living beyond that homogenizing label first imposed by others.  So while there may not be any such thing as a “black” ethnicity (though of course ethnicities, no less than nationalities, are social constructs), to identify or be identified as “black” has meant belonging to a diverse group that nevertheless has a shared history — being part of “a people” singled out as such, a sort of de facto ethnicity.

Since the notion of a shared experience and a shared (de facto) ethnic identity was a major part of the history I was examining — debates over “the canon” as both a means of reflecting and constituting cultural identities and norms — I chose to capitalize “Black” to underscore how my historical subjects understood themselves and were understood by others.  But I could just as easily have chosen to lowercase “black” to put more analytic distance between my subjects/time period and myself as an historian.

Complicating all this — or, perhaps, in light of Morgan Jerkins’s interesting remarks above, simplifying all this — is the fact that I am a white person.  So in one sense capitalizing or not capitalizing “Black” is not about my own identity or sense of self.  But “white” only came to have any significance as a contrast to “black” (perhaps, again, another argument for lowercasing both).  So it’s not like this stylistic choice is one from which I (as the “unmarked” ethnicity) am personally removed.  Indeed, as one of my friends on Facebook pointed out, there’s a “politics” to deciding on whether or not to capitalize “Black.”  I think that’s absolutely right.  Moreover, as I replied to him, it’s not that “Black” is political and “black” is not.  Both are political, in different ways. And I preferred the politics — not to mention the descriptive serviceability — of the capitalized term.

In any case, I chose to capitalize “Black” in my dissertation when referring to Black students, Black scholars, Black activists, etc. For my book (which I am hoping/praying will just appear by magic, springing fully formed out of my forehead! right? please?), I will follow whatever the house style of UNC Press is — though if they give me the leeway, I’ll probably plan capitalizing “Black,” unless my editor or my readers or someone else convinces me that there’s a good scholarly reason not to. I’m very open to discussion on the matter and would be grateful to hear how other scholars handle this issue and others like it.


This post is adapted from a post of the same title published earlier this past week on my personal blog.

And for those who saw the title and were perhaps expecting something pertinent to Shakespeare on this, the 400th anniversary of his death, you could do worse than to read this sonnet.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I envy your sticktoitivity. Points like this are important. But because of student loans and other pressures, I was in “get it done” mode while dissertating—which causes me to give less thought, or curtail my thoughts, on subjects like this. Also, I am by nature highly deferential to style guides when writing (worshiping at the Chicago altar)—not always thinking about the unsolved mysteries behind some of their choices. In sum, thanks for putting this up. – TL

  2. Thanks, Tim. I was in “get it done” mode as well, believe you me. Somewhere in the writing of the chapter in question, I decided that “Black” really needed to be capitalized, but I didn’t think through in any very systematic way my reasons for doing so. It just seemed like the right choice. That reader comment forced me to think through my reasons – a very good intervention. On “sticktoitivity,” my approach was to defer to my readers when possible unless I had a soundly defensible reason not to. Since this reader’s comments were pretty much exclusively on questions of prose style, it was not a big deal to make most requested/suggested changes — the placement of a comma or the use of an auxiliary verb are not hills worth dying on. (They’re not hills worth slaughtering defending doctoral candidates on, either — I have heard some horror stories about dissertation defenses that were torpedoed for less.) But for all my readers, for any change I chose not to make, however minor, I was prepared to give a reason for sticking with my text as written. This capitalization issue was one of the few instances where I gave my reasons in the body of the manuscript itself. I was glad that the reader flagged this issue for me, because this “stylistic” choice – and, as you point out in your comment, even the most mundane rules in a style guide reflect someone’s choice/judgment – touches on some pretty substantive and historically significant matters.

  3. Is someone who is “black” also “Black” and vice versa? Is there some square and rectangle stuff going on? I’m also curious if the capitalization convention, which I’m going to guess remains the minority (sorry) position, is starting to become more prevalent because of Black Lives Matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

  4. LD,

    Your post reminded me that the capitalization question was much debated when I was editing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago around The Freedom Principle (https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2015/The-Freedom-Principle-Experiments-In-Art-And-Music-1965-To-Now) and Kerry James Marshall (https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2016/Kerry-James-Marshall) exhibitions.

    I’m struck that the most powerful result of the debate is precisely that *neither* lowercase nor uppercase capitalization quite “solves” the problem, which is the problem of a history of oppression and injustice as well as one of recovery, survival, and, sometimes, triumph surfacing in language use. In a way, it’s precisely the awareness raised by the uncertainty over this one letter’s big or small form that is the most productive aspect. Maybe it’s most important that we aren’t sure whether to capitalize the b or w in black or white until the deeper structural issues truly change?

    Also: “de facto ethnicity”! Did you join that phrasing? That’s a really intriguing term, and I think possibly quite analytically and conceptually useful.


  5. Thanks all for the comments.

    Michael, I believe you’re exactly right — neither the uppercase nor the lowercase resolves the issues at stake, and what’s most valuable is thinking them through. So this is my approach to the issue, but it doesn’t cover every base.

    As to “de facto ethnicity,” I hadn’t encountered the term before, so that was off the top of my head — but I did a quick google search and it looks like others have used it. I just thought it was a quick, shorthand way to get at how the term “black” has functioned. Glad you liked it.

    • And sorry about the typo: obviously did you “coin” that phrasing, not “join” that phrasing. Though I suppose your Google search revealed that you did join it more than coin it. I think it resonates with legal language’s efforts to register racial injustice (de facto, de jure, etc.). Michael

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