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.

The January issue of +Friends Journal will include an interview with +Robin Mohr.…

The Jan­u­ary issue of +Friends Jour­nal will include an inter­view with +Robin Mohr. One of the clas­sic Quak­er tracts that’s inspired her is a 1944 speech that Rufus M Jones gave to young Friends in Bal­ti­more Year­ly Meet­ing. We couldn’t locate a copy online so we scanned, copied and typed it in and will use it as a sup­ple­men­tal link to Robin’s piece. #blog

Embed­ded Link

What Will Get Us Ready | Friends Journal
By Rufus M Jones Web-only fea­ture Rufus M. Jones’ 1944 lec­ture for Bal­ti­more Young Friends Year­ly Meeting. 

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Unpresenting workshop style

Non­prof­it blog­ger Beth Kan­tor often finds gems about pre­sen­ta­tion. Yes­ter­day she shared a “unpre­sent­ing” style of work­shop. She writes:

I do a lot of pre­sent­ing and am spend­ing to much time writ­ing bul­let points, cre­at­ing slides, and prac­tic­ing what I’m going to say. I think that this puts a stop to cre­at­ing con­ver­sa­tion in the room. I want­ed to learn some con­ver­sa­tion­al mechan­ics — so I could stop talk­ing at peo­ple and begin talk­ing with them.

Beth’s main link is to a Google Tech Talk “unpre­sen­ta­tion” by Heather Gold. Might be good back­ground lis­ten­ing today. I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in this for two rea­sons: first, obvi­ous­ly, is that pre­sen­ta­tions are often very bor­ing and it’s nice to think about more inter­ac­tive ways of engag­ing with an audience.

But sec­ond, many mod­ern Friends have default­ed to a lec­ture style in their reli­gious edu­ca­tion. I’m not sure it works. I’ve met peo­ple who have par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Quak­erism 101 class­es and still don’t know basic facts. I myself have rebelled against pow­er point pre­sen­ta­tions and pre-set cur­ric­u­la to be more engag­ing but I’m not con­vinced that this has made me a great pre­sen­ter. It’s always worth find­ing new ways to present in a clear and direct and engages them with the issues they expe­ri­ence day to day.

I imag­ine this would be of inter­est not only to lib­er­al Friends who give work­shops, but pas­toral Friends with a con­cern to stay open to imme­di­ate rev­e­la­tion dur­ing wor­ship–Cherice B has a great post about this yes­ter­day , a response to part four of Brent Bill’s Mod­est Pro­pos­al series.

Some inter­est­ing points from Heather Gold’s pre­sen­ta­tion on “tumm­ling”

  • The best way to tumm­le is to be a very big ver­sion of your­self. Tumm­le means to make noise.
  • If you’re hap­py, i’m hap­py. The num­ber one way to do that is to care and to notice them — espe­cial­ly the peo­ple who don’t seem that involved.
  • I’m notic­ing [the dis­en­gaged per­son in the back]. if i can involve him a lit­tle bit i’m much more like­ly to involve more of you faster than if i pick the per­son in the front row with their arm up. a tech­nique to pull every­one in is to go to the fringes. go to the peo­ple who seem on the end, who seem like they have low­er sta­tus in what­ev­er com­mu­ni­ty you’re in (speak less, more nervi­ous, know few­er peo­ple) and go up to them.
  • Some peo­ple will be mad at you. Some peo­ple will be schmucks. Some peo­ple will want to talk a lot. You have to let all that be okay. Tools and rules will nev­er ever do as good a job as your con­fi­dence that you can han­dle any­thing. It’s time con­sum­ing to run through fifty rules in your mind; it’s not so time con­sum­ing to just be there.

What makes a Quaker meeting house?

An Atlantic County Methodist Episcopal Meetinghouse. Picture from NJChurschape
An Atlantic Coun­ty Methodist Epis­co­pal Meet­ing­house. Pic­ture from NJChurschape

One of my favorite sites is the amaz­ing NJChurch​scape​.com—that’s New Jer­sey Church­scapes, put togeth­er large­ly through the efforts of Frank L. Greenagel. It’s a true labor of love, a cat­a­loging of church and meet­ing archi­tec­ture in New Jer­sey. It has beau­ti­ful pho­tos, great sto­ries, read­able essays on archi­tec­ture. In a state where every­thing below Cher­ry Hill often gets ignored, South Jer­sey gets good cov­er­age and there’s a lot from the old Quak­er colony of West Jer­sey. This month’s fea­ture is on the meet­ing­house, a build­ing of endear­ing sim­plic­i­ty and it rais­es a lot of ques­tions for me of how we relate to our church buildings.

We modern-day Friends tend to think of the term meet­ing­house as unique­ly ours, but go back in his­to­ry and you’ll find just about every­one using the term to describe the non-showy build­ings they erect­ed for reli­gious ser­vices and town life. Dri­ve around South Jer­sey and you’ll see old Methodist church­es that start­ed out life as meet­ing­hous­es and look sur­pris­ing­ly Quak­er. Greenagel looks at the style and then asks:

At what point does a struc­ture cease being a meet­ing­house and become a church?.. With the ris­ing afflu­ence and increased mobil­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion came a demand for more spe­cial­ized places to meet, as well as more of the basic com­forts and style which hereto­fore were dis­missed as too world­ly, so many church­es added small­er lec­ture rooms, class­rooms for Sun­day school, and oth­er assem­bly rooms dis­tinct from the main auditorium.

By this mea­sure, how many of our beloved East Coast Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es should real­ly just be called “church­es?” In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the Protes­tant “Sun­day School Move­ment” was picked up by Gur­neyite and Pro­gres­sive Hick­site Friends, with the class­es sim­ply renamed “First Day School” in def­er­ence to Quak­er sen­si­bil­i­ties (I’ve always won­dered if the name switch actu­al­ly fooled any­one, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry). By the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the new mod­ern lib­er­al Friends had picked up the lec­ture for­mat, which like the First Day School move­ment had been adopt­ed from edu­ca­tion­al mod­els via oth­er reli­gious groups. Many of our larg­er month­ly meet­ings have fel­low­ship halls, class­rooms, kitchens, etc. These build­ings have become spe­cial­ized reli­gious wor­ship build­ings and many of them sit emp­ty for most of the week. But not all.

Nowa­days many Quak­er meet­ings with build­ings open them mid-week for use by com­mu­ni­ty groups. Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es host peace groups, bat­tered women hot­lines, yoga class­es, reli­gious con­gre­ga­tions in need of a tem­po­rary home and sim­i­lar caus­es. There’s often an ele­ment of good works in the group’s charter.

Per­haps this will­ing­ness to open our build­ings up earns us the right to con­tin­ue using the meet­ing­house name. If so, we should be care­ful to resist the pres­sure of the insur­ance indus­try to close our­selves up in the name of lia­bil­i­ty. One unique­ness to our wor­ship spaces is that they are not con­se­crat­ed and there should be no spe­cial rules for their use. They are over­sized barns and we should cher­ish that. We should remem­ber not to get fetishis­tic about their his­to­ry and we shouldn’t tie up our busi­ness meet­ings in end­less dis­cus­sions over the col­or of the new seat cush­ions. When we turn our build­ings over for oth­ers’ use, we shouldn’t wor­ry over­ly much if a chair or clock gets damanged or stolen. Friends know that our reli­gion is not our build­ings and that the mea­sure of our spir­it is sim­ply how far we’ll fol­low God, togeth­er as a people.

Related Reading:

  • There’s a very hand­some book about the HABS work on Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es in the greater Philadel­phia area called Silent Wit­ness: Quak­er Meet­ing Hous­es In The Delaware Val­ley, 1695 To The Present. (only $10!).
  • My friend Bob Bar­nett has been putting a lot of great work into a new West Jer­sey website.