Black or black?

This event has passed. You can now watch the recording here:

Presented by Freedom Lab

Friday, December 3rd
Time: 9PM (China Time)
Zoom: 261 330 4845

Speaker: Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw

Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw is a Professor of French Literature at The University of the West Indies (St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago). She is both an award-winning fiction writer as well as widely-known scholar of the French Caribbean. Her fiction books include such titles as Four Taxis Facing North (2007) and Mrs. B (2014). She has edited such books as Border Crossings: A Trilingual Anthology of Caribbean Women Writers (2011), Echoes of the Haitian Revolution (2008), and Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and Its Cultural Aftershocks (2006). In 2021, she published a biography of the poet Aime Cesaire.


I start with a tweet from Jelani Cobbs, Professor of Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and staff writer at The New Yorker:

Does anyone feel strongly about upper-casing the B in black? I’m generally opposed to this because it turns race, a nonexistent category, into a proper noun. It also feels a little like when your job is like “We can’t give you a raise but how about a new title? (7/2/20)

Cobb’s tweet pulls together in a seemingly casual manner several arguments that I explore in this presentation. First, it points to the obvious, the concept of race itself (a non-existent category) but it goes on to question the methodology for dealing with the historical and perpetual problem of racism. His tweet points to a fundamental question: Can transformative change come from an alphabetical upgrade?

Racial categories may be artificial biological creations but racism is not. Still, word usage is critical, words have the power to motivate and influence minds for better or worse. But what brings lasting change? Laws may curb or deter racist actions or discourse in different cultural, political or linguistic spaces but as with the letter “upgrade” they seldom affect deeply embedded racist sentiments. This is not to say that transformative actions through judicial, educational and cultural means should not take place; racism has to be continuously attacked on multiple fronts and language usage is one of these. In this presentation I do not pretend to have the answers so for guidance I turn to many tincisive arguments and finally to the Caribbean region, where writers like Aimé Césaire  inform my choice of Black or black.