Remnants of the legacy of enslavement and segregation in the U.S. still linger in all areas of society. It may not be apparent to look to language as a tool of injustice, but Klein College of Media and Communication Associate Professor Lori Tharps has recognized its oppressive power for years. One of her objections was against the use of "black" rather than "Black" in describing people of the African diaspora. Many publications and guidebooks, including the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, were reluctant to make the change. Last month, the AP released an announcement that "Black" in reference to culture, race or ethnicity would be capitalized in its stylebook. Tharps believes that the change — which was soon enacted at other prominent publications such as The New York Times — is a major victory in the fight against America's disrespect toward Black people.
Ever since the publication of her first book in the early 2000s, Tharps has battled with editors to keep the capitalization of "Black" in her work. In 2014, she wrote a post titled "I Refuse to Remain in the Lower Case" on her blog My American Meltingpot, making plain her commitment to the cause. She was particularly critical of the grammatical discrepancies inherent in the lowercase "b," arguing that while "black" refers to a color, "Black," like the spelling of other cultural groups, uses a capitalized "B" to refer to people. She also pointed out that nearly a century before her post, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois was calling for newspapers across the country to capitalize the "N" in "Negro," which was the standard terminology for Black Americans at the time.
"This has been something that has been an issue that I've cared about for decades," Tharps says. "And that being said, there was really no kind of official decree that would support my beliefs that the 'B' should be capitalized. The AP Stylebook didn't support it, most publishers didn't support it, and so it was kind of my own personal cross to bear."
Later in 2014, she was approached by The New York Times to write a similar piece for their opinion section. The piece begins with a story detailing how she overheard a visiting professor correcting a student for capitalizing the "B" in "Black." She felt sympathetic toward the student, who was trying their best to explain their rationale without the backing of a guidebook. The op-ed was widely circulated, but she was most affected by the lack of action taken after the piece was published. Even her colleagues did not seem to respond directly to the idea and instead, only complimented her on the accomplishment of getting published in The New York Times. One older white colleague, speaking on behalf of his friends of African descent, criticized her use of the term "Black" as he believed it was offensive. But, staying laser-focused on the goal, Tharps decided only to engage with criticism that came from those who were directly involved in making the potential change from "black" to "Black."
"We cannot face America's race problem without fixing America's anti-Black problem," she says. "This country was founded on principles of anti-Blackness. I mean literally, it was founded on an anti-Black mentality." She believes this anti-Blackness is apparent in the diversion tactics that others use to try to skate around the issue of giving Black people respect.
This year, the AP announced their change from "black" to "Black" on Juneteenth in the thick of social justice protests that stemmed from the killing of Black Americans at the hands of police officers. Tharps was not the only Black journalist relieved to hear the news. Bobbi Booker, KLN '85, jazz host at Philadelphia radio station WRTI and the first known Black president of the Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia, found out about the change while on break from recording for WRTI. For years, Booker made it a practice not to allow her work to be published if editors did not capitalize the "B" in "Black," and worked with individual journalists to push them to convince their newsrooms to make the change. However, she found that one of the primary obstacles to transformation was that many media organizations did not seem to think the issue was a big deal. Booker contends that "these words matter," and to her the capital "B" felt like a reinstatement of dignity.
"I don't see me as a Black woman with a lowercase 'b' — I'm a big 'B' all day long, everyday," Booker says. "I've never seen it that way. And I found it very interesting that the people that argued the most about it, of maintaining that standard, did not represent that culture."
Sarah Glover, immediate past president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and manager of social strategy at NBC Owned Television Stations, was instrumental in bringing the issue to changemakers within major news organizations. In 2018, she approached the AP to consider making stylistic changes that better reflect the unique history of Black people. She took the reins in pushing the AP Stylebook to update its entry on race-related coverage by including information about the potentially derogatory nature of the words "boy" and "girl," noting that their usages, particularly the former, are often meant to demean and infantilize Black men and women. She went public with her case to capitalize the "B" in "Black" when she rallied NABJ members around the issue at the 2019 NABJ Convention & Career Fair and member meetings, giving the issue more visibility and support. The tipping point was her recent open letter to the AP and other major news organizations calling for the change, published in the Black-owned and operated New York Amsterdam News.
"If we don't take a stand things won't change," Glover says. "We're at this moment where it's like the breaking point or the breakthrough. And so I want to be a part of breaking through diversity and inclusion and media diversity issues that are going to make our journalism culture and media that we publish better, more inclusive and more fair."
While each of these journalists took different approaches to tackle this issue, they acknowledge that much more progress needs to be made to make media more representative of marginalized communities.
"Media diversity doesn't just benefit Black people and the Black communities and Black journalists," says Glover, who also advocates for newsroom diversity and inclusion. "It is actually an effort for inclusion in general. So certainly you want to remember that, that this helps elevate issues of importance [for] LGBTQ people and women and people of different faiths. So there's a lot that will continue to come out of these conversations because it's vital to the broader conversation of media diversity."
Tharps knows that the capitalization of the "B" in "Black" alone will not solve all problems of representation, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
"One of the things that signifies that Blackness is second-class status or an inferior status is by referring to Black people in a lowercase category," she says. "So...the difference between a shift key and a not shift key is insignificant in the sense of how much work it takes to make that change but it's very significant in changing the perception of a people: that we are a people with our own distinct, unique culture."