Archive for the ‘words’ Category

eminem-picture-2One commenter said this:

No matter how wrong you are YOU must be right. No English teacher in 2009 would allow you to write in a paper “black” with a small “b” no even in the deep south where Blacks are still made to feel like smal “b”. But must be right, right? Why?  White is right, isn’t it? You should just start from this day to pus the shift key when writing the word Black to denote a people. I will not hurt you and it will make Black folk who read what you write feel better about you, me included. Yes how you make other feel should be important to you.

That kind of got to me. And it got me curious: what do black blogs in my corner of the blogosphere use, “black” or “Black”? Here is what I found (these appear in at least four blog rolls with me):

  • black (16): The field negro, Aunt Jemima’s Revenge, Afrobella, Raw Dawg Buffalo, The Black Snob, Beauty in Baltimore, Siditty, Black Women Blow The Trumpet!, What Would Thembi Do?, What Tami Said, New Black Woman, Make Fetch Happen, Jack & Jill Politics, The Root, The Cocoa Lounge, Acting White.
  • Black (3): What About Our Daughters, Mirror on America, Invisible Woman.
  • Both black and Black (3): The Angry Black Woman, Hello Negro, AverageBro.com.
  • Unknown (1): Gorgeous Black Women.

So out of 23 blogs only 3, about one in eight, use “Black” all the time as the adjective for black people. Most use “black” regularly,  like I do.

So while “Black” might be more politically correct, “black” cannot cause that much offence – though I could be wrong.

But as interesting as that is, it is not how I settle matters like this. Instead what I do is look it up in my dictionary: the Eleventh Edition of the “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006). It uses “black” as its main word for black people, not “Black”, much less “African American”, “Negro” or “coloured”. So that is what I use.

The Oxford dictionary was written mainly by white people. So far as I know there is no dictionary of Black American English. And even if there was, I would use it but not to settle matters like these. My aim in using English is to be understood all over the world, not just in one part of one country (Black America).

I do use “Black” on occasion, but only where I talk about blacks as an ethnicity or a culture. In that sense Eminem might arguably be called “Black” but Lenny Kravitz not, even though Kravitz is “black” and Eminem is “white” – by race.

To me what makes you black is not taking part in a particular culture or being shaped by it, like being French. It is not about music or language or anything like that. To me what makes you black is race, the experience of looking black in a white racist country and everything that follows from that.

– Abagond, 2009.

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jim_crowA black is “a member of a dark-skinned people, especially one of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry.” That is what the Oxford dictionary tells us.

Two words I use that cause the most comment and email are “empire” and “black”. You can go on for ever arguing about such words.

A blog makes it worse because it can be read in any corner of the world, each with its own ideas about these things. And, on top of that, what you write in English is not always read in English. I know my postings have been read in Arabic, French and especially Portuguese.

“Black” is a good example. In Portuguese it becomes preto, but that means something different when applied to people than “black” does in English. Naomi Campbell, for example, is preto, but Halle Berry and Ildi Silva of Brazil are not.

When I am unsure about a word I have a simple way to settle the matter: I look it up in the Oxford dictionary. That is how I chose between Burma and Myanmar. It is not perfect, I know, but if I write in English and use the Oxford dictionary, then more people in more places will understand me than if I use any other language or dictionary. Certainly more than if I follow my own opinions about the meanings of words.

So I use “black” in the Oxford sense. That means both Naomi Campbell and Halle Berry are black, even though Halle Berry in some places would be seen as mixed. That means Ildi Silva too is black even though her own country sees her as mixed.

I am writing in English, not Portuguese, and I must use English words in their English senses.

Does that mean I am applying English ideas to the world? Of course. But it is not just the world “black”: every word in English is like that. And it is not just English, but any language. Even Brazilian Portuguese. For language to work, words have to have particular meanings that are more or less fixed. That means making decisions about how to see the world.

And so what about the word “African American”?

The word “black” does not have a pretty history, but at least it is an honest word. “African American” whitewashes history, it papers over the whole thing about skin colour.

In George Orwell’s book “1984”, the government called its war “peace”, its lies “truth” and knocking in your door at three in the morning to take you away, “love”. Did changing the words make it so? No. Did it make anything better? No. It only cheapened the language, making it harder to think clearly.

After the American slaves were freed, they wanted to be called coloured instead of black. So whites, instead of making signs that said “Blacks Only”, wrote ones that said “Coloreds Only”. The new word did not change their hearts. Nor did Negro, nor will African American.

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