When the pandemic hit, we ordered produce and groceries online, cleaned closets and garages, pulled weeds and sowed gardens. We slowed down. We began meeting via Zoom. The in-person meetings had involved wondering what food to serve and preparing whatever that was. Hibernation was very writer-friendly.
A few weeks into the great indoors, we were intensifying our relation to the land. Trees talked with us and among themselves as root systems and rhizomes spread through our conversation.
Margaret told Hermine about the County Extension agent who could diagnose Hermine’s ailing tree.
We considered the symmetry of branching: large limbs branching into smaller limbs, into smaller limbs and into twigs until we get to a single leaf branching from a tiny twig. And on that leaf: miniature branching — veins into tinier and tinier veins. The tree of life symbolizes how matter is constructed through expanding symmetry.
We remembered the enslaved, unsung gardeners, growers and landscapers of Monticello and Mount Vernon, and wound our way back to recognize writer-gardeners Anne Spencer, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid and Ross Gay, who Toni actually knows. We learned about Booker Whatley, the Tuskegee Institute professor, who invented community supported agriculture. CSAs are now the bases of a movement to promote local, naturally grown foods. These crops can be as safe as organics, without the cost of organic certification, and so lower in cost for the consumer.
Then we talked about our book and what to call it. We had an iffy working title but were pretty sure the subtitle would be African Americans in the Garden. Until we suddenly were not. The Black ID was coming in through the ever-revolving door of colored folks’ naming and renaming. And African American was going out.
One day in late June 2020, Juliette called Hermine with some news:
“The Associated Press announced that they’re capitalizing black — ‘black’ as in ‘people.’ And the New York Times just announced they’re doing the same!”
“That’s dumb!,” Hermine replied without a moment’s reflection. Total gut instinct. When she’d read the announcements, Juliette’s response had been like Hermine’s: swift and visceral: Oh no! The rationales for capping seemed heavy handed. But how to be more exacting in examining the issue? Hmmmmm. Write about it! Juliette told Hermine about the plan and asked for a comment.
As the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Africana Studies at William and Mary, Hermine’s written reply was much more considered than her gut instinct:
I will not be adopting the uppercase usage for black people and I will not encourage my students to do so. Capitalizing "black" suggests a monolithic quality and I do not believe that black people are more ethnically and phenotypically monolithic than white people.
Also, capitalizing "black" does not change the power dynamic between these two groups. The racial designation, "white," has historically signified power. For example, in the 18th century, at least in the New World, “white” correlated with “Christian,” “men with full rights” and “free.”
Hermine also was concerned about the impact of uppercase racial IDs on young readers: “How would you explain to a child the inconsistency of capitalization in a sentence like this: ‘The Black girls showed the white girls how to jump double dutch rope’.”
Juliette: You could explain: “It’s because African Americans were enslaved and lost their original African names but white people could still call themselves English and Italian.”
Hermine: Capitalizing “black” does not compensate for “sins of the past.” Nor would a child necessarily understand a history lesson that consigns white people to lowercase, whatever their ethnic origin.
Hermine typifies our magnanimity in caring for all children despite a memory that haunts us: black women tending to little Miss Ann’s needs while their own children, if not neglected, needed all the support they could get in abject circumstances.
When Margaret heard about the Associated Press decision, she thought: “Making this decision for the AP stylebook and for newsrooms is simpler than asking all writers to conform to this new norm!”
Margaret had just left her position as a literacy specialist for secondary schools to return to her original love: writing. In addition to a masters in English, Margaret has a M.S. in journalism.
Juliette conveyed Hermine’s concern to Margaret: “Would black K-12 students feel more inspired by seeing uppercase Black as opposed to lowercase black?” Here’s Margaret’s reply:
From a cultural literacy perspective using a general term b/Black to refer to diverse populations reduces people to a color and transmits no specific cultural information. School history and geography curricula have embraced more inclusive and diverse treatments of world populations. Using “Black” as an abbreviation for “African American” and other racial terminology denoting nationality and culture undermines this progress and takes us back to the sixteenth century when Europeans first encountered black people in Africa.
Margaret sent Juliette a link to the local paper’s decision to cap black because black is an ethnicity. The publisher invited comments. So Margaret wrote back:
I appreciate the good intentions behind capitalizing the “B” in black. However, the thinking behind the change limits ethnicity to color.
According to National Geographic, the term ethnicities is more broadly defined as “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”
Black people have many races, nationalities, “tribes,” religions, languages and cultural origins: the Malagasy, a mixture of East African and Austronesian peoples; the black-Portuguese people of the Canary Islands, the Shona of Zimbabwe, the Fulani of northern Nigeria, African Canadian, all of the African-Caribbean subgroups and we haven’t even gotten to Central and South America.
African American is the preferred term for black people living in the United States.
At that point, Margaret was not aware that the blanket “African American” designation was being questioned by black Americans whose parents or grandparents immigrated to the U.S. They interpret “African American” to mean descendants of enslaved people in this country.
Jacqui (Jacquelyn) is Professor Emerita of English at William and Mary.
In deciding the title for her book, Building on the Legacy: African Americans at William & Mary, An Illustrated History of 50 Years and Beyond (2019), Jacqui said:
I labored for a time over whether to use “African Americans” or “Blacks,” knowing that every person of African descent was not necessarily American by birth. Desiring not to offend or omit anyone, I decided to interview various black people at the university on the subject of individual preference.
Based on those interviews, I finally decided to use African Americans in the title, and as one of the interviewees suggested, I explained my choice for the title and use throughout the book in this “Note on the Text”:
I use African American to refer to anyone of African descent who lives in America, and I use African American and black interchangeably except in rare instances when making distinctions among nationalities becomes necessary for clarity.
In 2018-19, Jacqui’s interpretation of “African American” was largely unquestioned. The use of "Blacks" would not have conformed to AP style which recommends that the Black identifier be used as an adjective, as in "Black people," not a noun.
The experience of black journalists and black scholars, and both sides of the b/Black issue, are bridged by Kendra, a former journalist who is now associate professor of English and director of southern studies at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.
After college she became accustomed to using lowercase black as full-time reporter for white-owned newspapers, starting at Greenville (SC) Piedmont and the Greenville News, followed by the Houston Chronicle for five years. During grad school at LSU, she copyedited for the Baton Rouge (LA) Advocate. When Hamilton moved to Charlottesville for Ph.D study in English, she wrote freelance articles for publication. Throughout, she changed-up case style between writing as a journalist (lowercase black) and writing for herself (uppercase black).
Now Kendra is questioning her use of capped black. "I'm struggling," she says. She wants to "think more broadly and deeply" about the nuances and ramifications of what black people in the U.S. call themselves. And in that struggle, she is seeing new possibilities:
Why don't black people just call ourselves Americans?
I am A-OK with African American. I consider the "African" to be a historical and an intellectual and even spiritual reference point for our people going all the way back — the AME church, Martin Delaney, Alain Locke and the Harlem Renaissance poets, Aaron Douglas, the Black Arts Movements. We are in that lineage when we use it.
Also, in South Carolina, many of us have family stories of the slave ship or the plantation where we were enslaved. I do!
I disagree with the rationale for Black American: that for black people in this country with African ancestry, Black American is more contemporary and accurate than African American.
I think the renaming is getting out of control. Black people are the truest of what Du Bois and Toomer called "true American stock" — excuse me Daughters of the Revolution including those descended from the Mayflower. If we become anything it should be "American." We are as close to the original people as any other group, closer than most.
We are a creole nation but terrified to admit it. Creole is a word that means both “native” and “other”— so it indicates people indigenous to a place while also conveying the sense of all those populations who came to the place, in this case, from Europe and Africa.
Black people are just as invested in racial purity as white people are. But black folks' concept of purity is more political and idealistic than actual and aesthetic — gotta call it out: colorism. In that unfortunate respect but in other ways too, whiteness is deep in the souls of black people. Du Bois peeped it: double consciousness.
And blackness is deep in the souls of white Americans, from those who can get down on the dance floor to those who wear MAGA hats and eat rice.
Eating rice is an African survival. White people in Louisiana and Georgia and South Carolina eat rice because Africans from the Senegambia ate rice and in fact brought rice cultivation to the United States and in fact changed the cuisine.
In August 2021, Kendra completed Romancing the Gullah: The Rage for Authenticity in the Age of Porgy and Bess for the University of Georgia Press. About case style in the book, she said: “I waffled but I settled on lc 'black.' Of course historical terms were used throughout — Negro, darky when referencing Ellison’s ‘darky act,’ even colored — along with African American and Gullah/Geechee. At one point I used uc Black, but then it felt like I should do the same with White, and that didn’t feel right. It all got kind of crazy but our conversation (for this article) helped add clarification."
At a meeting when the group discussed what black people should call ourselves, Toni, a writer and principal of Word-Burning Stove, piped up, “I like ‘black folks’!”
The group loved it!
Yes, black folks! “Folks” can be family, can be tribe, can be any and all. People who are ‘for real’ as in ‘down.’ Down like the ground.
And the working title for our book became: Ground of Being: Black Folks in the Garden.
Toni had declined to respond when Juliette invited the group’s comments for this article. She said she did not have strong feelings about the capping question.
Juliette was concerned about writing with conviction about her views on the question — is the approach too divisive? Toni advised her to stand firm and be emphatic.
Juliette wrung an even stronger meaning out of the advice: be emphatic in writing about her convictions and empathetic in writing about opposing views. Empathy is the soul of the wisdom she seeks.
As a professor emerita, Jacqui’s teaching part time for another university. On January 19, 2021, she told us that she’s seeing increasing use of uppercase white in her students’ papers. Jacqui told her students, “while the issue is still being debated, I would prefer that you not capitalize white and black in reference to race.”
By “debate,” Jacqui was referring to the main piece for this article. At that time the writer group members' comments were a part of that piece. But that piece continued to grow so Juliette created a separate article for the group’s commentary.
Juliette was concerned about the rippling racializing effects of the capping standard being adopted by college students.
With people routinely labelled (uppercase) White and (uppercase) Black in the same article, including in influential media such as the Washington Post and the CBS News and Fox News platforms, the U.S. looks like an eerie, progressive retrograde version of apartheid-era South Africa.
On May 4, 2021, Jacqui updated the group. “I've noticed that more and more of my students are capitalizing white,” she said. “Although I've told them not to capitalize black or white just to be consistent, it hasn't done much good.”
“Are the students who cap ‘white,’ themselves white?,” Juliette asked.
Jacqui: Not always, although I don't always know their race.
Juliette: What about the black students? Are they tending to cap black and white? Or just black? Or do they tend to retain lowercase style for black and white?
Jacqui: This is a mixed bag; some black students cap black but not white but some of them cap both. In the class I have now of 16 students (13 actively participating) most of the students cap both, some consistently. Others seem to do it on occasion because they aren't as careful in the weekly discussions as in the paper assignments.
Juliette: Sorry to belabor this, Jacqui, but could you clarify this sentence: "Others seem to do it on occasion because they aren't as careful in the weekly discussions as in the paper assignments."
Jacqui: I'm sorry I wasn't clearer. The students have to turn in weekly discussion posts to an online learning platform. Because these discussions are relatively informal, they aren't always as careful with proofreading for typos, etc. So they may or may not consistently cap white and black even in the same document. Hope it makes more sense, but let me know if you need more clarification.
Race is a form of bounded being.
Like a garden, our book is intended to be visited often, not read just once. Also like a garden, the book should evoke quiet reflection and offer nourishment, wonder, beauty and delight, sanctuary and connection with Source.
The garden is a refuge from all forms of bounded being.