On the capital B

Readers of The One-Way Rain may note that the adjective “black” is not capitalized when used to indicate race, even though I now capitalize it on this blog and elsewhere. I don’t capitalize the word “white.” Someone asked me about this recently, and here’s what I wrote in response.

Before publishing The One-Way Rain, I had never been in the habit of capitalizing “Black” in my writing. It actually had never occured to me to do so until someone I really look up to and regard as a mentor asked me about it. What she asked specifically was why a certain character in the book wasn’t using a capital B. As a novelist, I wouldn’t use a typographical distinction in one character’s speech that I didn’t use throughout the whole book. (For instance, when my characters swear they all say “God” with a capital G, even though many are athiests—it just doesn’t look right to me the other way.) That got me thinking about whether I should change my “house style” to the capital B.

The decision I have come to is that I capitalize the word to show my respect for the Black liberation struggle, and to offer a tiny semantic reparation for the centuries of disrespect and dehumanization experienced by Black people. I don’t capitalize “white,” because I don’t consider white people like myself to be in need of the same kind of intentional respect in prose.

For a similar reason, it’s generally my habit to default to female pronouns in a nonspecific sentence (e.g., “The user may find that she . . .”). I started doing that in college, and my feeling was that the male pronoun had been so defaulted to and overused, the female pronoun should be used in its place for a while. I wasn’t interested in giving equal time, if you see what I mean.

I’ve heard the opinion that not capitalizing “white” can feed into the invisibility of white privilege. And I’ve noted some outlets like Ebony which capitalize both, and the Bay State Banner which capitalizes neither. And then there’s the issue of whether to capitalize “brown,” especially if it’s used in in proximity to “Black,” as it is on my Rain web page. For me, Scot Nakagawa’s assertion that “anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy” resonates with my growing consciousness of my own racism, so I choose to capitalize “Black” specifically. In the end, I guess this is what feels right to me. Thanks for asking.

By the way, the mentor I refer to above is my publisher, Letta Neely. When I asked her why she capitalizes “Black,” she replied immediately: “Because my parents taught me to. Because it’s important. Because we are a nation. And it’s a proper noun.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *