Black is the New Black: Raising the Capital on the “B” Wordcsudhbulletin April 30, 2019 0 COMMENTS
- Civil rights icon Angela Davis.
- Professional golfer Tiger Woods.
- CSUDH President Dr. Thomas A. Parham.
- Nobel laureate (and song-and-dance-man) Bob Dylan
What do these four notable cultural and California higher-education figures have in common? And why are they at the beginning of a staff editorial in the CSUDH Bulletin?
Simply put: They all played their own parts in the decision of the Spring, 2019 CSUDH Bulletin staff to deviate from the conventions of grammar, punctuation and mainstream journalistic style and to begin capitalizing the letter “B” in the word black when it refers to a person or an organization using the word to define a fundamental part of their identity, particularly in political, cultural and historical terms.
In other words, the Mervyn Dymally American Political & Economic Institute will no longer be called a public policy center concerned with issues affecting the black community; it’s the Black community. No longer will we write that 47 percent of Hispanic students report food insecurity at this campus, along with 34 percent of Asians and nearly 60 percent of black students. It’s Hispanic, Asian and Black students.
The issue first surfaced after a reporter attended a speech by Civil Rights icon Davis earlier this semester and wrote the story. When Davis was quoted, black was Black, but outside of her quotes, black was black.
That sparked a conversation among several of us. Why capitalize in a direct quote, and not capitalize elsewhere? It seemed odd, unbalanced. And we came to realize that the reason we did that, why so many newspapers wouldn’t have capitalized Black even in direct quotes when a person is distinctly talking about their ethnicity in a political and cultural context boiled down to this:
“It’s just the way it’s done.”
In this case, that is done by AP Style, the Bible of most newsrooms. Associated Press style is the glue that bonds the word usage of journalistic organizations together. It is why numbers one through nine are generally spelled out and 10 and above are numerals. It’s why it’s a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree instead of B.A. or Master’s of Arts degree. It is all about consistency, which is part of what should be embedded in every journalist’s DNA: Accuracy.
So, while the Black press has capitalized the word Black for years, and while we are seeing more and more individuals and organizations capitalizing it, AP Style, adhering to the conventional rules, continues to lowercase. Unlike African American, or Mexican American or Arab American, which are proper nouns and refer to a specific geographic place or nationality, black refers solely to skin color, so it not a proper noun—even if the people using the word to describe themselves are using it as one.
There has long been a debate in the media, and the Associated Press, about whether to capitalize black. Generally, AP has defended the lowercasing of the word because it does not set the language “rules,” is merely follows them. And even though AP did decide just recently to drop the hyphens in phrases like Asian American and African American, it did not decide to capitalize the b in black.
“It’s just the way it’s done.”
But if doing things the way they are done is the only way to do things, we would never see any change, right?
That’s where Tiger Woods comes in. Last weekend, he won his fifth green jacket at the Master’s. It was an incredible and inspiring story—16 years after his last win at the golf course where that tournament is played, Augusta National, in Augusta Georgia,–and after a long period where the body of the dominant golfer of his time fell apart and where his personal indiscretions were made so brutally public, he once again stood triumphant. But while Tiger’s road to athletic redemption was a stirring story, it also reminded of us something: 44 years ago, he couldn’t have even played at that tournament, and 29 years ago, a Black man (Tiger’s dad was African-American) couldn’t be a member at the club (It wasn’t until 2012 that a woman could say the same thing).
Why? Because that was “how it was done,” at Augusta. Well, 200 miles west of Augusta is Stone Mountain, the site where the second installment of the Ku Klux Klan announced itself in 1915. It has the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, a massive stone sculpture of the faces of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy. It is also the most visited tourist destination in the state of Georgia.
Why bring up this history? Because, as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
And that got us thinking even more.
What about Dr. Parham’s inclusion on the list? In the first issue of this semester, in an interview with our editor Kelsey Reichmann, Dr. Parham was quoted, in the context of CSUDH not receiving sorely needed funding from the CSU to, among other things, fix some deteriorating facilities that “the institution had this culture where it was used to tolerating things like that, like well that was just us here at Dominguez. No, that is not the kind of Dominguez I’m coming to lead.”
It’s easy to deduce from that quote that Dr. Parham wasn’t content with “how things were done,” at this campus.
And neither are we. To continue to lowercase black at a time when so many are choosing it to capitalize it is an insult to the history of CSUDH and a slap in the face of its present. This university has the largest percentage of African American students in the CSU, 12.3 percent in fall, 2017. Outside of Cal State East Bay (9.8 percent) no other CSU has more than 6 percent. Even in raw numbers, our 1,873 Black students are the most in the CSU, Cal State Northridge’s 1,841 ranking second—a school with 20,000 more students.
Additionally, our campus is inextricably linked to Black history. We wouldn’t even be in Carson had it not been for the 1965 Watts Insurrection and it prompting the move from our originally planned location in Palos Verdes to one that gave disadvantaged people youths a closer opportunity to pursue a higher education. And when you consider that since 1999 this university has had a Black president (not counting the five years we had our only woman and Latina, Mildred Garcia) , four of our six past and current ASI presidents were, or are, Black, and organizations such as the Black Student Union, the Male Success Alliance, the Black Rose Resource Center and others are such a prominent part of this campus community , the importance of Black voices in the shaping of its past, present and future is self-evident.
And this newspaper is part of that community. Yes, we are an independent voice of students Yes. Part of any journalist’s higher calling is to speak truth to power, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But it’s also to accurately represent the community that it is a part of.
So, we took a vote on black and Black, and no one raised a hand to keep it lowercase.
We don’t know how many newspapers, particularly college newspapers, do this and it’s quite possible that some will not be pleased What’s next? Capitalizing white, brown, trans, queer?
That is up to future Bulletin staffers.
All we know is that this feels right at this time, on this campus. We are not just another CSU. Nor are we the CSU where “those” students go. We are California State University, Dominguez Hills; every one of our students, faculty members, administrators, and employees is part of that identity. We all count. We all matter. And words also matter and count. And to use words that marginalize the identity of one of the most important groups of people on this campus, by continuing to lowercase it and sending the subliminal message that they are not as important as others, is just bowing to the “way things are done,” a surrender to the status quo.
And that brings us to Mr. Dylan. In 1965, at the height of his creative powers, Dylan wrote the song, “Maggie’s Farm,” a defiant cry of individualism against someone or something named Maggie, which was clearly the system, or “the man,” or the “way things were done.” Who knows what he really meant by it, hopped up on pills, pot and whatever else he needed to fuel his frenetic songwriting and exhausting schedule. Some have even theorized that he was giving the middle finger to the people in the protest movement who anointed him as their voice, when all he wanted was to follow his own path, to speak with own voice.
Regardless, the words of individual choice, of throwing off the yoke of the accepted way of doing things, still resonates, as the last verse shows:
Well I done my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave
And I just get bored
No, I ain’t gonna work
On Maggie’s farm no more
The reality is that unless we live off the grid, grow our own crops, hunt our own meat, and don’t rely on Google for all the answers, we’re all stuck somewhere on Maggie’s Farm. But at least on this small patch, Black is Black.