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Should the B in Black Be Capitalized?

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In The Atlantic, Kwame Anthony Appiah looks at the arguments for and against capitalizing the b in black and argues that if we capitalize one racial identity, we should capitalize them all:

Conventions of capitalization can help signal that races aren’t natural categories, to be discovered in the world, but products of social forces. Giving black a big B could signal that it’s not a generic term for some feature of humanity but a name for a particular human-made entity. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes, black—and the same goes for all of our social identities.

So what about white folks? The style guide of the American Psychological Association declares, as it has for a generation: ‘Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use “Black” and “White” instead of “black” and “white.”’ That seems sensible enough. But for some people, White is the sticking point. As The American Heritage Dictionary (on whose usage panel, now disbanded, I have served) ventured, in its fourth edition: ‘In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.’

If you consider the capital letter to be a conferral of dignity, you may balk at the symmetry. ‘We strongly believe that leaving white in lowercase represents a righting of a long-standing wrong and a demand for dignity and racial equity,’ Price, of the Insight Center, wrote. Until the wrongs against black people have been righted, she continued, ‘we cannot embrace equal treatment in our language.’ The capital letter, in her view, amounts to cultural capital—a benefit that white people should be awarded only after white supremacy has been rolled back.

Luke Visconti, the chairman of the nonprofit DiversityInc and the author of an online column titled ‘Ask the White Guy,’ has offered another perspective: In his opinion, capitalizing black but not white makes sense, because, while black people describe themselves as black, ‘people in the white majority don’t think of themselves in that way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this—it’s just how it is.’

Both perspectives may have informed TheSeattle Times when, counseled by a diversity and inclusion task force, it updated its style guide last year as follows:

Black (adj.): Belonging to people who are part of the African diaspora. Capitalize Black because it is a reflection of shared cultures and experiences (foods, languages, music, religious traditions, etc.) …

white (adj.): Belonging to people with light-colored skin, especially those of European descent. Unlike Black, it is lowercase, as its use is a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures.’

Here, I fear, we start to run into trouble. The Seattle Times style guide takes pains to note that Black may be more inclusive than African American by encompassing recent African immigrants. So what to make of the contrast between the ‘shared cultures’ of Black folks and the ‘many different cultures’ of white folks? Does TheSeattle Times imagine that Africa is less culturally varied than Europe?

I’d be curious to know what Thomas Chatterton Williams or John McWhorter think.

In other news: Will neurobiological data help us to understand “why we care about those to whom we are attached, and why social attachments matter so much”? Patricia Churchland thinks so. Raymond Tallis doesn’t: “She reminds us (though it is she, not we, who need the reminder) that ‘morality is the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behaviour to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group’. This takes us beyond the reach of neurotransmitter and neurohormone regulated interactions between parents and progeny, particularly as ‘the group’ may extend to nations composed of individuals who are largely unknown to one another. To argue that we are ‘wired to care’ tells us nothing about how our sense of good and evil, of right and wrong, is expressed in our daily lives not only as individual agents, but also as members of complex societies, or as citizens of nations. Churchland’s neuro-ethics seems steadfastly to ignore the entirety of human history and prehistory in which the moral codes with which we do and do not comply have been forged. It does not strike her as improbable that all the various views, historical and contemporary, espoused by disparate prophets, clerics, ideologues, teachers, legislators, role models, parents and moral philosophers are determined solely by asocial, ahistorical, tenseless nano-squirts of dopamine and oxytocin.”

A Louisa May Alcott story is published for the first time in The Strand magazine.

Remembering Thebes: “Anyone​ who doubts that Thebes is indeed a ‘forgotten city’ hasn’t spent much time in Greek souvenir shops. In a marketplace shaped by the interests of foreign tourists, there are countless mementos of Athens and Sparta, but barely a trace of a city that was at one time their equal and even, for a brief stretch, the leading power of Hellas. Two years ago, after a diligent search through the Plaka neighbourhood in Athens, I found a single souvenir recalling the glory days of classical Thebes: a tiny replica coin stamped with a figure-of-eight infantry shield, the artless image that appeared on nearly all the currency minted in ancient Boeotia, the region surrounding Thebes. Among dozens of Athenian owls and coins portraying Alexander the Great, it didn’t spark the shopper’s imagination. The high point of Theban achievement, roughly the first four decades of the fourth century BC, came directly after the golden age of Athens. But while Athenian writers, especially Thucydides, give us ready access to the life of Athens in the classical age, the Theban record is much thinner.”

Kenneth L. Brewer surveys the field of Byron biographies in his review of one of the latest—Anthony Peattie’s The Private Life of Lord Byron: “The first full-length biography, Thomas Moore’s Life of Lord Byron, was published in two volumes, one in 1830 (six years after Byron’s death), with the second volume arriving in 1832. Leslie Marchand’s 1957 Byron: A Biography, aptly characterized by Douglass as an ‘exhaustive recounting of the poet’s day-to-day existence,’ is three volumes, while Benita Eisler’s outstanding 2000 biography, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, consists of 880 pages of small font. Some recent biographers, perhaps taking their cue from Marchand’s 1970 Byron: A Portrait, an updated and condensed version of his earlier biography (but still weighing in at 518 pages), have even engaged in product differentiation in their titles: thus Edna O’Brien’s 2010 Byron in Love: A Short, Daring Life, referring both to Byron’s thirty-six year life and the relatively modest 228 pages of the book itself. Anthony Peattie is emphatically of the maximalist school of Byron biography—the book is massive, and so is the research that went into it‑—even though his study is specialized, as the title suggests, and not a comprehensive biography. It would be intellectually tidy if the history of Byron biography were an upside-down pyramid, in which generalized biographies in time gave way to more specialized ones, but this in fact is not the case. Even before Moore’s biography was published, there were already narrowly focused memoirs of Byron published by friends and colleagues, some of them highly specific, such as Pietro Gamba’s 1824 A Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece. And while much of the interesting work on Byron’s life in recent years has focused on particular issues such as his sexuality, there continue to be compelling generalized biographies as well, as the example of Eisler’s biography indicates. It is tempting to claim that we live in a golden age of Byron biography, but it has pretty much always been a golden age of Byron biography since his death.”

The democracy of reading: “There is a great democracy to reading. You can pick up a history of porcelain or of Railroads and the Transformation of China, a truly massive account of ‘the Pacific War,’ a translation of poems by a long-dead Japanese practitioner of Zen, a book about the home-run boom in Major League Baseball, or anything else you want to investigate without having to show any certificate of expertise. By the same token, of course, you are free NOT to read this, that, or the other. Time Travelers: Victorian Encounters with Time & History is a book written by academics who have in mind as their primary audience other academics (of whom there are quite a few, though their ranks are presently suffering great attrition). But this doesn’t mean that you and I and the very old man with white hair and bright blue eyes whose path I sometimes cross while walking in Wheaton are precluded from taking an interest in it.”

Damian Barr is trying to get the vice president of the Booker Foundation, Emma Nicholson, removed from her post because she voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013: “Barr, a novelist, memoirist and host of the Literary Salon, learned of her association with the prize earlier this week, after Munroe Bergdorf, the model and transgender activist, said she was referring Nicholson to the Parliamentary Standards Conduct Commissioner over Nicholson’s posts on social media about the trans community. The peer also drew fire earlier this month over her views on same-sex marriage. Barr immediately challenged the Booker on Twitter, writing that ‘as a gay writer I feel very concerned that a person who is actively and publicly propagating homophobic views holds a position of such power & prestige in your rightly esteemed organisation’.” The position Nicholson holds is honorary, but that doesn’t matter to Barr, who apparently thinks that anyone who disagrees with him about sex and sexual identity is evil: “Barr, who is calling for the Booker to remove Nicholson from her post and conduct an immediate diversity review, told the Guardian it was ‘shocking’ that the prize had released a statement ‘which doesn’t address any of the points I made to them about her very public and very powerful homophobia’. ‘How can we have any faith in a prize that has a person like this at the top of their organisation?’ he asked.” Ah, yes, a question for the ages. What a petty man.

Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull statue will stay where it is.

A short history of the potato: “Potatoes were so hyped as the key to a well-nourished populace by the European intelligentsia in the 1700s that Earle calls them an “enlightenment superfood” — the kale of its time. ‘For several years newspapers discussed practically nothing but potatoes,’ claimed French historian Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy in 1782. Adam Smith was a big fan, claiming that ‘the strongest men and the most beautiful women’ ate potatoes.”

Photo: Batanes Island

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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