Words matter. Words matter, particularly in contemporary society, where misinformation is rampant, and where “facts” are deemed subjective depending on the ideological bent. Words matter to me because I am a creative, specifically a writer, who has paid attention to what is said, how it is said, when it is said, who is saying it, and what is not being said more closely than most people. Words should matter to you too; however, the words that have mattered to me, recently, have been boss (to a lesser degree) and Black.
“Boss” has always been a word that I have never used or liked very much. However, it is a word that white people are more apt to use than Black people in the workplace or in life; and, maybe that is because they have historically been in the position to be the “boss” more often than not. The contemporary origins and usage of “boss” dates back to slavery, typically, to describe the overseers of plantations or the owners of small plantations (“boss man” and other derivatives). As a child, my Dad told me that I only had 4 “bosses:” God, my parents, and my Grandma. In fact, I never heard him describe his employers or supervisors as “boss,” and that has stuck with me as I’ve never referred to my supervisors or employers as “boss.” Also, I have come to believe that the term “boss,” when examined with its historical context, doesn’t just mean a supervisor of work but it also implies a lack of agency or autonomy or consciousness which further reemphasized the view of Blacks as property or a tool. Furthermore, it implies a permanence that’s transcends the boundaries of work and into other facets of life. When considering that most supervisors of Black people are white, that has subconscious resonance on self-worth and self-esteem. Ultimately, that is why you will never hear me say the words “boss.” But, the more troublesome word, and the word that caused me to write this piece, is “Black,” and its capitalization.
Recently, the editor of The East by West, a publication I write for, and I had a respectful disagreement on the use of capitalization in a piece that I had written on Black culture and the beauty are industry. The disagreement was respectful as he understood the cultural and written precedent that I had based the capitalization on; and, likewise, I understood his reason for sticking to tradition and to not show impartiality by insisting on not using a capitalization. However, I wrote the piece with Black capitalized and I will continue to do so because I believe it to be the right thing to do. This debate is important though because I have seen more frequent cases of words carrying increased significance, specific meanings, and evoking empathetic emotions. Simply, words matter! And, words matter even more today as we seek to shape a better future.
Starting from my editor’s perspective, he stated that he wanted to maintain a “stoic and apolitical editorial stance;” and, that by not capitalizing Black serves the “best interest of clarity, brevity or fairness.” The disagreement, for them, stems from the decision to capitalize Black and not white as they believe that it “inadvertently gives priority and cultural heft to one group.” They also stated that they disagreed with the AP’s reasoning of whites having “much less shared history” by stating that Black history traces back to Mesopotamia and reduces Black history to slavery. This is important to note first when examining my argument and critiques. As mentioned, I respect and understand their argument, but I wholeheartedly disagree and here is why.
On July 5, 2020, The New York Times decided to capitalize the word “Black.” It was the first such change in nearly a century when “Negro” was capitalized. At that time, the lowercase “n” was viewed by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois as “a personal insult” to the millions of Black people who chose the term “Negro” as their identity and culture. Now, The New York Times is capitalizing “Black” when referring to people and culture of African origin. And, as Marc Lacey put it, for many Black people — like myself — “the capitalizations of that one letter is the difference between a color and a culture.” Added, Dean Baquet, The New York Times’ Black executive editor said that the capitalization, “conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover.” The important word in that quote is respectful because the fundamental reason and appeal for capitalizing Black is and should be about demonstrating an overdue respect to a people and a culture that, literally and figuratively, built and still lead this country. A respect that has been denied through slavery, race, Jim Crow, lynchings, segregation, incarceration, voter suppression & disenfranchisement, and much more for over 400 years on this continent and in this country. Respect is, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about in his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, one of many figurative (and hopefully actual) checks that America owes Black people as a debt to justice — and we have come to cash them in.
Similarly, I believe and have advocated for the capitalization of Black to refer to people and culture because there is an overdue need for respect of my personhood and my culture. In addition, I believe that there should be a differentiation when recognizing a specific group of people or culture, like DuBois demanded. Every other culture or ethnic group is capitalized — Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous or Native Americans. Even white ethnicities are capitalized because white is the default and most white people identify themselves but their ethnic group (i.e., German, Polish, Italian, etc.). White people only leverage their whiteness when it is dichotomized with any form of non-whiteness, notably blackness. And, unlike with white people, Black subgroups (i.e., Nigerian, Ghanaian, Afro-Latin, etc.) are often lumped together as being “Black” which makes the need for capitalizing “Black” more paramount. To that point, the capitalization is essential because I identify as Black, just like DuBois and his contemporaries identified as Negro. I do not consider myself African-American because, though my ethnic heritage is African, I do not identify with being African in any sense other than through my blackness. I have never been to Africa, and like James Baldwin said, “to be African American is to be African without any memory and American without any privilege.” But, I do identify as being American and I can trace several generations of my family from Ohio to Georgia to West Virginia to Mississippi to Alabama on both sides. Thus, I have only considered myself as a Black American. My race — its history, its culture, its trauma, its power, its past, its present, and its future — are the first things evidenced in my visage; and, so its should be how I am identified and that should be capitalized because it is more than just a color.
When specifically addressing the concerns of my editor, I start by saying that race, identity, and personhood in this country is inherently political. It has been since white people seized Indigenous land or enslaved Blacks. You cannot disregard the politics within the facets of race because they are interwoven, here, in America. In addition, capitalizing “Black” does not provide priority to Blacks over whites because we lack the necessary equity and equality to even be at the same level, let alone be ahead in any sort of way. That is a result of institutional racism, white privilege, and the very same politics that they sought to neutralize earlier. To think that capitalizing “Black” prioritizes us over whites is absurd considering the 400 year headstart whites have had over us in regards to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Lastly, in reference to Black history dating back to Mesopotamia and not being reduced to slavery, our history in fact goes back to the very beginning. The Horn of Africa is recognized as the cradle and birthplace of human civilization through archaeology. The first peoples were Black — period. Consequently, I do agree that we are more than slavery, but slavery is the lynchpin and determinant of our existence in North America and in the United States. Slavery in the United States is the predominant history & origin of our conception and its subsequent survival here as well as being the predominant history and origin of American conception and its subsequent survival. Slavery — its institutions, its beliefs, its history & heritage, its industry, its trauma, and its (white) privilege — is what has shaped our past, is guiding our present, and forecasts our future. Subsequently, it should weigh disproportionately more into how we, Black Americans and descendants of slaves, want to be identified.
Words do matter! Words matter whether it is boss, Black, or anything else. Language is important because, when used properly, it can transcend details and action. The right words can bend time and space while simultaneously be in the past, present, and future. Language shapes laws and rules and organizes societies. The same laws, rules, and societies that have governed the United States, and more specifically have been institutionally racialized to disadvantage Black people. These reasons, and those aforementioned, are why I know it is vital that we capitalize Black. We need to see it, but white people need to know it and its power.