Capitalizing the B in Black: How I Got Out of the Habit of Making Myself Small

by Zain Murdock 

Edited by Sarah Desouza

“The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.”  

Toni Morrison, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”

I am trying to get out of the tradition of making myself small. Sometimes I start typing a poem and the “i” just automatically comes out lower case. Sometimes I go back and correct it, like I used to have to do, before the B in Black became a habit. 

Sometimes I capitalize the B in Black in my poetry before I even capitalize the letter “i”. The uppercase B and the lowercase “i” on my screen contradict each other. And I don’t know how to feel. But, once I started with the B, it became a constant in my life, whereas, how I feel about myself, and in the world, is not. 

The last time I remember writing a “b” in a poem was about a year ago. “i watched…/ a black Ant on blacker asphalt— / i, too, am black and small.” 

The first time I typed the B in Black I felt weird—weird as in, it was beyond the scope of my muscle memory, and weird as in, “Will people notice? Is it too much?” I’ve seen the question, and have been asked personally, “Should I capitalize the B in Black? And what about the w in white?” 

Language, to me, is personal. Not only is there power in it, but there is power in wielding it. And what it is to be Black is not to hold our power in the subjugation of others but to hold our power in the love and pride we have for ourselves. Not only is it a habit of white supremacist groups to promote their supremacy (i.e. insecurity) via language, but I can see it dangerously becoming a habit of assuaging white liberal guilt. 

White people need to be held accountable for their whiteness by action, not by a capital “W.” Maybe some would think that means it’s a total and literal reversal of power structures—a “black supremacy” as Terry Crews kindly offered our Twitter feeds some time ago. There’s no such thing. Without Blackness, whiteness would not exist. The concepts of whiteness and Blackness were invented only to subjugate Black people and establish a level of superiority for white people that they will never be able to meet. 

Even the color Black, itself, is the most hated hue on the color wheel—or, rather, not on the wheel at all. I’ve seen some wheels with red, yellow, and blue meeting in the middle —Black, pulling all other pigments in, a force of gravity. Black, living rent free in all these other colors’ heads. 

Yes, Black: dirty, evil, gloomy, grotesque. And white: innocent, fortunate, fair, “free from moral impunity.” —We know what that means. 

So, do I capitalize the “w” in white? No. So much of a no that I didn’t even bother to do it in this example.  “The crisis of leadership in the white community is remarkable—and terrifying—because there is, in fact, no white community,” said James Baldwin (over thirty years ago). He defined identifying with whiteness as a “moral choice”, and identifying with Blackness as “nothing new”—no choice at all. I agree. And I could go on. But, Baldwin gathered the issue in only a few pages, and he is more than worth our read. 

Yes, Blackness is an invented identity. Maybe that’s why it’s been kept small for so long: black. But, for many of us, it’s most of what we have to identify ourselves, the only claim we have to lineage. So many people seem to be afraid of that word. They hide from it by only ever saying African American (goofy—you cannot call a Black Brit for example, an African American). They dilute it with everyone’s favorite new acronym, POC (and now BIPOC!), to group “people of color.” 

But, Black is Black. It is more than the absence of visible light, more than the racial construction that clicked into spiraling action as soon as the first slaves were forced onto foreign soil. It is the people who trudged in solid iron atop it, the drowned families where the ocean opaques, the culture that winds and grows and thrives like a rare plant, constantly being clipped and propagated. Black is all that—whiteness, and I am not being funny here, whiteness is nothing.

Capitalizing the B has never been an incredible ask. W.E.B. DuBois advocated for the N in Negro before that went out of style. There’s been a fight, for a long time, for making the capitalization of the B in Black standard. In fact, The Associated Press just recently made the change on Juneteenth. Black students who have had their capital B’s slashed red by non-Black professors grading their papers deserve an apology, I think. 

I’ve learned, not just since capitalizing the B, but since life, that people don’t owe you things. I don’t make it my ministry to tell other people how to use language, especially other Black people. I don’t see it as reparations, or a vital point to be made. We could all start capitalizing the B in Black today and Black people’s bodies could still paint the #BlackLivesMatter-ed streets red tomorrow. It’s going to take more work than that.

But, maybe non-Black people haven’t done it for the same reason that I did do it. It gives it power. We’ve given language power, so when we use language, sometimes that power speaks for itself. I can’t exactly remember why I started using the B. I probably saw other Black people I looked up to doing it. But, I knew, as soon as I touched that letter on my keyboard, that the B in Black takes up space. It towers. It doesn’t ask, it demands—it simply is. 

I take up space. I tower. I am. 

Readings:

https://bannekerinstitute.fas.harvard.edu/files/bannekerinstitute/files/on_being_white.and_other_lies_baldwin_0.pdf – Baldwin, “On Whiteness and Other Lies” 

https://www.reed.edu/cres/assets/Combahee-River-Collective,-Black-Feminist-Statement,-How-We-Get-Free—Taylor.pdf Combahee River Collective Statement 

Color Connotations and Racial Attitudes by Douglas Longshore 

https://apnews.com/71386b46dbff8190e71493a763e8f45a

Assata by Assata Shakur 

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison 

https://issuu.com/thesandspur/docs/112-17 Article on bell hooks 

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white

the unplug collective

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