A Capital Riot

To capitalize Black or not? That is the question. The Platonic angle.

I hear that capitalizing ‘black’ is becoming a thing. John McWhorter wrote about the subject recently. He gave a detailed but ambivalent view. I’m on the side of the adjective, against the proper noun.

Interestingly enough, these days I am working through Karl Popper’s extensive analysis and criticism of Plato’s Republic and several other of his works, with a view to understand how Plato has cheated in his philosophy and what downsides have played out through historical interpretation. Specifically, as basic students know, Plato introduced the idea of Platonic forms, the ideals and perfect models that do not exist in reality, but upon which every real instantiation is an imperfect copy. In Plato’s view, that thing in front of you is not a video screen, but a degenerate version of the ideal video screen. Only a philosopher, according to Plato, can discover and understand the perfect form of X and only a powerful king can keep that understanding alive in society. Plato’s opus can be thought of as a very detailed resume proving himself to be both philosopher and king. Fortunately for all of us, there was Socrates. I agree with Popper that Socrates was the better man. But that’s another story.

So what does Plato have to do with the difference between ‘black’ and ‘Black’? Well it’s very basic. If I call myself a black American, that’s one thing. If I call myself a short, goofy, vegetarian American, that’s a bit more detail. That’s how adjectives work. The more adjectives I use, the more I individualize myself. Nevertheless, so long as I use the capitalized American I am still using something of a Platonic form. There is no actual ideal American, actual Americans would be a degenerate version of the ideal. But if the the Platonic ideal of an American is supposed to be tall, serious and meat-eating, my adjectives create a contradiction. I say that capitalization of ‘black’ moves an adjective to a noun. Not only just a noun but a proper noun, like ‘American’, indeed an ideal Platonic form. So if I declare myself to be a short, goofy, vegetarian Black, is there an inherent contradiction? Well that depends upon who is the Plato of race. Indeed who is trying to be the philosopher-king of race here in America?

You can answer that question in the comments, meaning it is kind of secondary to the thrust of this essay. It doesn’t really matter who is the philosopher-king of race. Black Americans have been working for decades to explode the myth of the singular monolithic ‘black community’. This is the reason that the creation of the term ‘African-American’ in the first place. In other words, to establish some Platonic form of Black, and Blackness is to extend into perpetuity the question: “Are you Black enough?”. Of course people will say that it’s not that complicated and I’m reading too much into this simple change. So what exactly necessitates the change? What problem does it actually solve? That’s an open question. The problem it creates is clear.

I say capitalizing Black does damage to the project of intellectual diversity because in fact the Black Arts, Black Consciousness and Black Nationalist movements have their historical place and each is distinct. It does no one any favors to suggest that all black Americans are orthodox students or devotees to these discrete concepts generated last century by Negro intellectuals. In all of that Black was not created as a racial designation, but as a cultural distinction. People were quite aware that there was strong resistance to those concepts, especially from the Negro Church. Remember when they were the political voice of African America?

The category ‘Black’ is reductionist; ‘black’ is lightly descriptive by comparison. 

I am satisfied being a black American, because that is satisfactorily light. Yet I still can do so, ironically and conditionally despite the categorical forces of the Critical Theorists and their useful idiots. I was born a Negro and lived through a very specific time in American history over which the aforementioned intellectual movements were born and eventually died. There is no clear and present Ujima or Umoja. There is no ideal Black. To establish that and defend it is to voluntarily self-identify into a neo-racial box. No thank you.

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It’s important to note that we don’t practically consider ‘American’ to be a Platonic ideal. Despite the proliferation of Navy SEAL movies, we don’t speak of the ‘perfect American’. That sounds like something Goebbels would say about an Aryan. We do have ‘All-American’ but by that we mean the proven very best of us. Very different. Remember that Bill Cosby used to be America’s Dad and Richard Nixon used to be President. We’re more all about top tens and we are willing to be surprised. When we put America’s sexiest man on the Tonight Show, we ask probing questions. Much more Socratic than Platonic. What we want are good Americans. It’s what we ask of immigrants. It’s what we ask of ourselves. Speak clearly. Obey the law. Be a good neighbor. It’s a big country.

So it stands to reason that even if we were to roll over and capitalize black, the ‘All-Black’ would still only be in the contemporary top ten, like Spike Lee and Chuck D. used to be. Remember the movie was ‘Do the Right Thing’ not ‘Do a Right Thing.’ So I trust that Americans will annoy me even further if they keep at it with their new pronouns and proper nouns but it will only remain skin deep. Those shallow distinctions, even augmented by a crapload of Title IX attorneys, will only impress us so much.

As for me, I kinda miss black history. I miss the freedom of getting to choose my favorite hero from a broad selection of the dead. My first and favorite was Matt Henson. It used to be that way for all of us, when we weren’t confined to martyrs in The Struggle. If you need a little help putting a few more black American names front of mind, I suggest the Compendium of Free Black Thought. I guarantee it will help you get a taste of the variety of flavor. We’re all not just chocolate.