For practically my entire career, when I’ve written about the experiences of Black people I’ve had to do so using a lower case “b.”
It never felt right.
It may not seem like a big deal, but it is.
Black journalists, activists and academics around the country have been calling for this small but significant tweak since just after slavery ended.
“We’re just talking about a small piece of respect,” explained Bobbi I. Booker, president of the Pen and Pencil Club and a radio personality at WRTI, who was among those agitating for the style change.
Decades later, W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent intellectuals engaged in a letter-writing campaign to persuade publications to do the same. The New York Times refused until 1930, when it relented, calling the move an act of recognition for those who’d spent generations in “the lower case.”
Even after Negro fell out of favor as Black and later African American became our preferred racial designations, the standard at the Associated Press — which many news outlets see as the arbiter of accepted style — was to use a lowercase letter when referring to Black people.
Over the years, various crusaders picked up the call for change, almost like relay runners passing a baton. Lori L. Tharps, a Philadelphia-based author, did her part in 2014 by publishing a widely cited op-ed in the Times calling for the B in Black to be capitalized.
“I really thought that people just didn’t know” that it had long been a source of contention, said Tharps, who teaches journalism at Temple University. “And so the fact that it took this long for the change to be made is beyond irritating. It’s actually kind of depressing, because it wasn’t that people didn’t know.”
“They were choosing not to take a stand,” she added. “They were choosing not to look at what my argument pointed out, that Blacks referred to a culture, not a color.”
Earlier this month, Sarah J. Glover, a former Inquirer journalist and the immediate past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, grabbed the proverbial baton when she published an open letter to the AP and other news media in the Amsterdam News. She wrote: “Capitalizing the ‘B’ in Black should become standard use to describe people, culture, art and communities. We already capitalize Asian, Hispanic, African American and Native American.”
Meanwhile, discussions around race increased as journalists grappled with massive protests and other changes in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Instead of blindly following along with the AP, newspapers started breaking ranks. USA Today and its affiliated Gannett newspapers updated their policy earlier this month. Other outlets that made the change include the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, and MSNBC.
Then, late Friday came word that the AP had finally changed its style to align with Latino, Asian American, and Native American. The Inquirer sent out an internal memo announcing that it would follow suit.
And just like that, a decades-long stalemate ended.