Black with a capital B

It’s been a long-running debate in edi­to­r­i­al cir­cles: whether to cap­i­tal­ize ‘black’ and ‘white’ in print pub­li­ca­tions when refer­ring to groups of peo­ple. I remem­ber dis­cus­sions about it in the ear­ly 1990s when I worked as a graph­ic design­er at a (large­ly White) pro­gres­sive pub­lish­ing house. My offi­cial, stylesheet-sanctioned answer has been con­sis­tent in every pub­li­ca­tion I’ve worked for since then: low­er­case. But I remain unsat­is­fied.

Cap­i­tal­iza­tion has lots of built-in quirks. In gen­er­al, we cap­i­tal­ize only when names come from prop­er nouns and don’t con­cern our­selves about mis­match­es. We can write about “frogs and sala­man­ders and Fowler’s toads” or “dis­eases such as can­cer or Alzheimer’s.” Reli­gious terms are even trick­i­er: there’s the Gospel of Luke that is part of the gospel of Christ. In my Quak­er work, it’s sur­pris­ing how often I have to go into a exe­ge­sis of intent over whether the writer is talk­ing about a capital-L divine Light or a more gener­ic lower-case light­ness of being. “Black” and “white” are both clear­ly low­er­cased when they refer to col­ors and most style guides have kept it that way for race.

But seri­ous­ly? We’re talk­ing about more than col­or when we use it as a racial des­ig­na­tion. This is also iden­ti­ty. Does it real­ly make sense to write about South Cen­tral L.A. and talk about its “Kore­ans, Lati­nos, and blacks?” The counter-argument says that if cap­i­tal­ize Black, what then with White. Con­sis­ten­cy is good and they should pre­sum­ably match, except for the real­i­ty check: White­ness in Amer­i­ca has his­tor­i­cal­ly been a catch-all for non-coloredness. Dif­fer­ent groups are con­sid­ered white in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances; many of the most-proudly White eth­nic­i­ties now were col­ored a cen­tu­ry ago. Much of the swampi­er side of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has been rein­forc­ing racial iden­ti­ty so that out-of-work Whites (code­name: “work­ing class”) will vote for the inter­ests of White bil­lion­aires rather than out-of-work peo­ple of col­or (code­name: “poor”) who share every­thing but their mela­tonin lev­el. All iden­ti­ties are incom­plete and sur­pris­ing­ly flu­id when applied at the indi­vid­ual lev­el, but few are as non-specific as “White” as a racial des­ig­na­tion.

Back in the 1990s we could dodge the ques­tion a bit. The style guide for my cur­rent pub­li­ca­tion notes “lc, but sub­sti­tute ‘African Amer­i­can’ in most con­texts.” Many pro­gres­sive style sheets back in the day gave sim­i­lar advice. In the ebb and flow of pre­ferred iden­ti­ty nomen­cla­ture, African Amer­i­can was trend­ing as the more polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect des­ig­na­tion, helped along by a strong endorse­ment from Jesse Jack­son. Black wasn’t quite fol­low­ing the way of Negro into obso­les­cence, but the avail­abil­i­ty of an clear­ly cap­i­tal­ized alter­na­tive gave white pro­gres­sives an easy dodge. The terms also per­haps sub­tly dis­tin­guished between those good African Amer­i­cans who worked with­in in the sys­tem from those dan­ger­ous rad­i­cals talk­ing about Black Pow­er and repa­ra­tions.

The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has brought Black back as the polit­i­cal­ly bold­er word. Today it feels sharp­er and less coy than African Amer­i­can. It’s the bet­ter punch line for a thou­sand voic­es shout­ing ris­ing up out­side the governor’s man­sion. We’ve arrived at the point where African Amer­i­can feels kind of stilt­ed. It’s as if we’ve been try­ing a bit too hard to nor­mal­ize cen­turies of slav­ery. We’ve got our Irish Amer­i­cans with their green St Paddy’s day beer, the Ital­ian Amer­i­cans with their pas­ta and the African Amer­i­cans with their music and… oh yes, that unfor­tu­nate slav­ery thing, “oh wasn’t that ter­ri­ble but you know there were Irish slaves too”). All of these iden­ti­ties scan the same in the big old melt­ing pot of Amer­i­ca. It’s fine for the broad sweep of his­to­ry of a museum’s name but feels cold­ly inad­e­quate when we’re watch­ing a hash­tag trend for yet anoth­er Black per­son shot on the street. When the mega­phone crack­les out “Whose lives mat­ter?!?” the answer is “Black Lives Mat­ter!” and you know every­one in the crowd is shout­ing the first word with a cap­i­tal B.

Turn­ing to Google: The Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review has a nice piece on the nuances involved in cap­i­tal­iza­tion, “Black and white: why cap­i­tal­iza­tion mat­ters.” This 2000 lec­ture abstract by Robert S. Wachal flat-out states that “the fail­ure to cap­i­tal­ize Black when it is syn­ony­mous with African Amer­i­can is a mat­ter of unin­tend­ed racism,” deli­cious­ly adding “to put the best pos­si­ble face on it.” In 2014, The NYTimes pub­lished Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty prof Lori L. Tharps ’s con­vinc­ing argu­ment, “The Case for Black With a Cap­i­tal B.” If you want to go his­tor­i­cal, this thread on shift­ing terms by Ken Greeen­wald on a 2004 Word­wiz­ard forum is pure gold.

And with that I’ll open up the com­ment thread.

80s Flashback Time

Some of my younger friends are freak­ing out about Trump, won­der­ing how we’ll get through his pres­i­den­cy. For those of us of a cer­tain age though this is déjà vu, a return to the days of Ronald Rea­gan. Though many peo­ple lion­ize him in ret­ro­spect, he was a train wreck through and through.

I was young when he came into office and my only mem­o­ry of his first term is being inter­rupt­ed in gym class to an announce­ment he had been shot in an assas­si­na­tion attempt. My first inkling of him as a politi­cian came from a high school social stud­ies teacher Roy Buri who con­stant­ly made fun of Reagan’s state­ments and poli­cies. I laughed at Buri’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions but I also began to inter­nal­ized them. He was a leg­end at the school and had report­ed­ly pro­vid­ed a safe haven in the 1970s for stu­dents orga­niz­ing against the Viet­nam War. Retro bonus: he even looked a bit like Bernie Sanders!

When I grad­u­at­ed and moved onto a most­ly con­ser­v­a­tive col­lege, I would stay late at nights in a base­ment lounge talk­ing with friends in about how we could deal with the era we were liv­ing. I remem­ber an epiphany that even though the media were telling us to believe cer­tain things because that was the main­stream nation­al dis­course, we didn’t have to. We could be inde­pen­dent in our actions and con­vic­tions. Yes, that seems obvi­ous now but it was a major real­iza­tion then.

So what did we do? We protest­ed. We spoke out. We knew gov­ern­ment wasn’t on our side. For those los­ing friends to AIDS, there was deep mourn­ing and right­eous anger. There was a melan­choly. A lot of my world felt under­ground and grit­ty. I start­ed writ­ing, edit­ing a under­ground week­ly paper on cam­pus (real­ly the start of my career). I fig­ured out that the geog­ra­phy depart­ment was full of left­ies and spent enough time there to earn a minor. Most of all, I worked to de-normalize the Rea­gan and Bush St Admin­is­tra­tions – the deep cor­rup­tion of many of its offi­cials and the heart­less­ness of its poli­cies.

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Delayed readership

A Quak­er edu­ca­tor recent­ly told me he had appre­ci­at­ed some­thing I wrote about the way Quak­er cul­ture plays out in Quak­er schools. It was a 2012 blog post, Were Friends part of Obama’s Evo­lu­tion?

It was a bit of a ran­dom post at the time. I had read a wide­ly shared inter­view that after­noon and was mulling over the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a behind-the-scenes Quak­er influ­ence. This sort of ran­dom­ness hap­pens fre­quent­ly but in the rush of work and fam­i­ly I don’t always take the time to blog it. That day I did and a few years lat­er it influ­ence spline on some small way. 

It reminds me of an old obser­va­tion: the imme­di­ate boost we get when friends com­ment in our blog posts or like a Face­book update is an imme­di­ate hit of dopamine — excit­ing and ego grat­i­fy­ing. But the greater effect often comes months and years lat­er when some­one finds some­thing of yours that they’re search­ing for. This delayed read­er­ship may be one of the great­est dif­fer­ences between blog­ging and Face­book­ing. 

The birth of soul

Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

I recent­ly lis­tened to Solomon Burke’s 196 album Rock ‘n’ Soul. Def­i­nite­ly worth a lis­ten if like me he’s been off your musi­cal radar. I espe­cial­ly like Wikipedia’s account of how con­flicts over brand­ing and church pro­pri­ety led Burke and his record label Atlantic to coin the term “soul music.”

Almost imme­di­ate­ly after sign­ing to Atlantic, Wexler and Burke clashed over his brand­ing and the songs that he would record. Accord­ing to Burke, “Their idea was, we have anoth­er young kid to sing gospel, and we’re going to put him in the blues bag.“As Burke had strug­gled from an ear­ly age with “his attrac­tion to sec­u­lar music on the one hand and his alle­giance to the church on the oth­er,” when he was signed to Atlantic Records he “refused to be clas­si­fied as a rhythm-and-blues singer” due to a per­ceived “stig­ma of pro­fan­i­ty” by the church, and R&B’s rep­u­ta­tion as “the devil’s music.”

Burke indi­cat­ed in 2005: “I told them about my spir­i­tu­al back­ground, and what I felt was nec­es­sary, and that I was con­cerned about being labeled rhythm & blues. What kind of songs would they be giv­ing me to sing? Because of my age, and my posi­tion in the church, I was con­cerned about say­ing things that were not prop­er, or that sent the wrong mes­sage. That angered Jer­ry Wexler a lit­tle bit. He said, ‘We’re the great­est blues label in the world! You should be hon­ored to be on this label, and we’ll do every­thing we can – but you have to work with us.’”

To mol­li­fy Burke, it was decid­ed to mar­ket him as a singer of “soul music” after he had con­sult­ed his church brethren and won approval for the term. When a Philadel­phia DJ said to Burke, “You’re singing from your soul and you don’t want to be an R&B singer, so what kind of singer are you going to be?”, Burke shot back: “I want to be a soul singer.” Burke’s sound, which was espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar in the South, was described there as “riv­er deep coun­try fried but­ter­cream soul.” Burke is cred­it­ed with coin­ing the term “soul music,” which he con­firmed in a 1996 inter­view.

Maple sugaring at Howell Living History Farm

photo_25126572241_oYes­ter­day the fam­i­ly trav­eled north of Tren­ton to a liv­ing his­to­ry farm to learn about maple sugaring.The kids col­lect­ed buck­ets of sap, prac­ticed drilling a tap, watched the boil­ing off process in a “sug­ar shack,” cut fire­wood, and then — yes! — ate some pan­cakes with farm-made maple syrup.

Reg­u­lar read­ers might remem­ber a trip to How­ell Farm last Feb­ru­ary, when the weath­er was cold enough for ice har­vest­ing on the lake.

Yesterday’s vis­it was a mud­dy, sog­gy day and the lake was clear. But I think every­one had just as much fun. See more pics on our Flickr set:

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Distant signals from the future

radioI was in ear­ly high school when I got my first alarm clock radio. My par­ents were a bit old­er when I was born, so the LPs in the back of our hall clos­et were a generation-and-a-half out-of date: I remem­ber most­ly musi­cal sound­tracks like South Pacif­ic and West Side Sto­ry. My old­er broth­er had brought the Bea­t­les into our house but he had moved away for col­lege and adult­hood years before and the only trace of his musi­cal influ­ence was a Simon & Gar­funkel great­est hits 8-track tape my mom had bought for a pen­ny from the Time-Life record club.

In my bed­room late at night in the ear­ly 80s, I explored the sounds inside my new radio. I would bury myself under­neath my Star Trek sheets, pull the radio inside, and lis­ten with vol­ume bare­ly per­cep­ti­ble. Three was no real rea­son for the secre­cy. I’m sure my par­ents wouldn’t have par­tic­u­lar­ly cared. But I was a pri­vate kid. I didn’t want to let on that I was curi­ous about the adult world. Pop radio and MASH reruns were my secret.

I had had a short­wave radio in mid­dle school and brought the thrill of long-distance dis­cov­ery to my radio explo­rations. Geog­ra­phy and sound had more mys­tery in those days before the inter­net. On a cold, clear night, I could tune in AM pow­er­hous­es half a con­ti­nent away.

One par­tic­u­lar­ly cold night, one of these dis­tant sig­nals played a song I had nev­er heard or even imag­ined. It was half-drowned out by sta­t­ic. The sig­nal drift­ed in and out in waves but I lis­tened mes­mer­ized. To a intro­vert­ed kid in a sleep Philly sub­urb, this song was a key to a yearned-for future. I was instant­ly cer­tain that that no one around me had ever heard this song. If only I could make out some words, maybe I could spend the next year scan­ning the dis­tant radio bands to hear it again. As I got old­er, I could go into the city to scour bins in the seed­i­est of indie record stores. This song no one knew would be a touch­stones to a new adult­hood I was con­struct­ing in the secret of my bed­room.

As the fade came, I bare­ly caught the DJ’s words through the sta­t­ic. “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia.” I vowed to myself that some­day, some­how, I would find this song and hear it again.

RIP Glenn Frey.

Hammonton Food Trucks

From the first Ham­mon­ton Food Truck Fes­ti­val. Cool stuff but the lines are way too long for a sin­gle par­ent with four antsy kids.

One of our friends said the line waits were up to 1.5 hrs. I could just about have jumped on the express­way to Philly, got­ten some Fed­er­al Donuts, and made it back in that time. I like that Ham­mon­ton has made then edges of a hip­ster map but this is a bit sil­ly. We end­ed up get­ting frozen treats at the Wawa around the cor­ner.

Remembering Juanita Nelson

juanita04One of the coolest activists of her (or any) gen­er­a­tion is gone. Juani­ta Nelson’s obit­u­ary is up on the nation­al war tax coalition’s site. My favorite Juani­ta sto­ry was when some agents came to arrest her at home and found her dressed only in a bathrobe. They told her it was okay to go into her bed­room to change but she refused. She told them that any shame was theirs. She forced them to car­ry her out as her clothes fell off. Talk about rad­i­cal non-coöperation!

Update

Pam McAl­lis­ter point­ed out on her Glob­al Non­vi­o­lence: Sto­ries of Cre­ative Action Face­book page that this sto­ry is online. Here’s a bit more of Juani­ta her­self telling that bit:

Sev­en law enforce­ment offi­cers had stalked in. I sat on the stool beneath the tele­phone, my back lit­er­al­ly to the wall, the sev­en hem­ming me about in a semi­cir­cle. All of them appeared over six feet tall, and all of them were annoyed.

“Look,” said one, “you’re gonna go any­way. You might as well come peace­ful.”

There they stood, ready and able to take me at any moment. But no move was made. The rea­son was obvi­ous.

“Why don’t you put your clothes on, Mrs. Nel­son?” This was a soft spo­ken plea from the more benign deputy. “You’re not hurt­ing any­body but your­self.” His pained expres­sion belied the asser­tion.

The essay where that came from is much longer and well worth read­ing.