• Susannah Colt

A Capital Conundrum

To capitalize or not to capitalize, that is the question. It has also been the bane of my writing existence for most of my life. Nobody ever really paid attention to how I capitalized words until I started publishing in the Concord Monitor. Dana Wormald, the prior Opinion Editor, routinely corrected my overzealous capitalizations.

Despite having copy editors, proof readers, and spell check on the computer correcting my errors, I continue to be perplexed by the rules around capitalizing. If the noun or adjective is a proper noun or adjective they should be capitalized. I certainly understand that names of people and places should be capitalized, but when does a noun or adjective become “proper?”

I constantly want to capitalize the names of the seasons. Auto correct underlines when I type “Spring” and I reluctantly correct it (in fact it currently has a green underline as I type this). What is the difference between the names of the seasons and the days of the week? We capitalize the days, but not the seasons; it just doesn’t make any sense to me. But if you combine spring with a certain event or time, like Spring Semester 2021 or Spring Break 2021, it is supposed to be capitalized.

As you know I’ve been writing a biography about my father who was a museum director for 40 years. In all of his letters that he wrote in the 30’s and 40’s he capitalized “Museum” and “Director” all the time. I was doing the same thing until my proof reader came along and slashed her red pen through the “M” and “D.” The only time you capitalize those words is if they are in the context of the name of the museum, such as Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, or attached as a title to a person’s name, as in Thomas Colt, Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Then I nearly went ballistic when I started writing about my father’s military career. Did you know that when you are referring to someone’s rank in a sentence you do not capitalize it? You only capitalize it if it is attached to the name. For instance, my father was promoted to the rank of major in 1944, so after that he was referred to as Major Colt.

Was my father wrong when he capitalized those words back then and did I inherit his overzealous tendency to capitalize or did the rules change between then and now?

One example of the rules changing with the times is the recent capitalization of “Black” as it relates to the group of people with a collective history.

I recently finished reading Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson. The first thing I noticed was that the author did not capitalize “black.” I looked at the publication date, which was 2020 and noticed she wrote her Acknowledgements in April, 2020. This date is significant because there was a sea change in the way newspapers and other publications began to treat “Black” after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

On June 1, 2020, I wrote a My Turn about racism after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and the disparate number of black and brown people dying from COVID. I did not capitalize “black.” My next My Turn was published on June 26 and Dana Wormald edited my piece by capitalizing “Black.” I took note of that correction and Googled the seemingly radical change and learned that there was a surge of changes in the newspaper world after George Floyd died. The first paper to change its style was USA Today on June 12, 2020, followed by Columbian Journalism Review on June 16, The Atlantic on June 18, Associated Press on June 19, Chicago Manual of Style on June 22, and The New York Times on July 5.

How society has referred to Black people has evolved over the past century and a half. After the end of slavery, the common usage for Black people was “negro,” “colored,” or “freedmen.” W.E.B. DuBois, when he wrote The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, capitalized “Negro” and started to lobby major media outlets to capitalize the word in their publications. He argued in the 1920’s that “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million human Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.”

Finally, The New York Times updated its stylebook in 1930 noting “that it was an act of recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’”

“Negro” would be the term of art used for over three decades at The New York Times until a young Black reporter, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, would convince the white editors to change the term to “black.” I recently learned about that story when I saw Summer of Soul at the movie theater this summer, a brilliant documentary about the iconic Harlem Music Festival in 1969.

After “black” was adopted, the matter of its capitalization varied depending on who was utilizing it. For example, in the 1960’s Stokely Carmichael wrote about “black power,” while the Black Panthers adopted “Black People.”

The subject of the usage of African American or Afro-American is reserved for another day, but the bottom line is that Black people have been struggling for a very long time to self-define and assert their humanity in the face of racism. If something as simple as capitalizing the word “Black” succeeds in raising the collective identity of a long-oppressed people, I’m all for it and it will be an easy stylistic rule for me to remember so I won’t get that capitalization wrong anymore.

Now when I read a book, I take note whether “Black” is capitalized. If it is, it will probably have been published after June 2020, which serves as the critical touchpoint in history marking the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter movement.

My hope is that someone, in the not too distant future, who is researching the history of the capital “B” will also read that white supremacy went down in flames and racism was a scourge relegated to the history books.

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