We were colored. The New York Times, the United States Census and others agreed. There was discussion and consternation, and we became negroes.
Once we left being colored behind and became negroes, W.E.B. DuBois said that wasn’t enough. Capitalize that “n,” he said. He made it a big deal. There was a letter-writing campaign. He held the powerful accountable. The Times, and the government, heard him. The change was made—about 100 years ago.
Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent people who used “negro” regularly, including in a famous speech. King was our man. But some of us were done with that negro thing. Malcolm X was direct. He demanded that we stop allowing people to call us negro, a word he associated with enslaved people. Let’s be black, he said. As the civil rights movement gained steam, we became, in the 1968 words of philosopher and cultural affairs commentator James Brown, black and proud.
Bunches of us researched our ancestries. Some of us got kente cloth and dashikis. Some of us observed Kwanzaa. We became more connected to Africa, our Mother Continent. We wanted more of a connection. In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, of Gary, Indiana, and others held a news conference to announce what their constituencies had told them: We want to be called African Americans, with or without a hyphen.
We didn’t leave black behind. We added African American. It’s a source of pride, and it provides a positive ancestral connection. We got so focused on what we were called that not a lot of us focused on lowercase and capitalization of black as we moved to the capitalized African American. Black, or black, we watched some weekly and monthly black publications add African American. Yeah, ya right.
Just recently, there’s been a big capital B move. In June, The New York Times, the Associated Press and quite a number of other local, regional and national journalism and media outlets made the decision to capitalize the “b” in Black. Our news organization made the change, too. Wikipedia has addressed the change, noting “The term ‘black’ may be capitalized, but it was more commonly written in lowercase until 2020.”
One national Black publication, Ebony, has used a capital “b” for decades. We got Ebony at home. I don’t remember anything different. We were always Black, with a capital B. The famous magazine chronicled the lives of Black folks for decades, starting in 1945.
Lynn Norment, a columnist with the Commercial-Appeal in Memphis, started at Ebony in the late 1970s as an assistant editor. She rose in the ranks, becoming associate editor, senior associate editor, senior editor and managing editor before retiring in 2009. “Ebony had long been uppercasing Black when I joined the staff,” said Norment. “I assumed the historic publication had done so from the beginning. The same for Jet magazine, our sister publication that was founded a few years after Ebony.”
Norment said the magazine’s publisher, John H. Johnson, moved from rural Arkansas to Chicago during the Jim Crow era and he got little respect, he was called “boy”—and the N-word. “That’s why he insisted on being called ‘Mr. Johnson,’” said Norment. “It was a matter of respect that many Black men never experience. And that is why we upper-cased Black. It was a matter of respect…I was always very proud that we did. I felt that we were a step ahead.”
The Associated Press Stylebook is pretty much our journalism style Bible. Across the decades and years, the AP has made some important cultural shifts. Just last year, AP changed its style by eliminating hyphens for African American, Asian American. AP even strongly discouraged the use of “racially charged,” a phrase some diplomatic folks like to use rather than calling it what it is—racism. AP announced its style change last month, going with “Black.”
Making style changes like this are important, and we appreciate it. But let’s be clear: It’s not enough. It’s simple respect. It’s not a substantive and systematic overhaul.
Journalism is a noble calling, and it’s a business like no other. The “product” has real, consequential impact. Capitalize Black AND WHAT? Change the business. Change journalism. Change coverage. How? More Black journalism business leaders. More Black journalists. More Black business partners.
James Brown urged us to “Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud.” Two years later he added, “I don’t want nobody/To give me nothing/Open up the door/I’ll get it myself.”
Will Sutton is a columnist and editorial writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and The Advocate. He has been a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) since 1977 and served as NABJ president from 1999-2001. He can be found at nola.com/opinions/will_sutton and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.