How Black writers and journalists have wielded punctuation in their activism

Playing with syntax, capitalization and punctuation marks can upend narratives put forth by the mainstream media.
Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Eurie Dahn, The College of Saint Rose

Using punctuation and capitalization as a form of protest doesn’t exactly scream radicalism.

But in debates over racial justice, punctuation can carry a lot of weight.

During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, mainstream news organizations grappled with whether to capitalize the first letter of “black” when referring to Black people. Of course, writing “Black” was already common practice in activist circles. Eventually The Associated Press, The New York Times, USA Today and many other outlets declared that they, too, would capitalize that first letter.

It turns out the push to capitalize “black” is only the most recent way Black writers and activists have pushed back against entrenched power through ostensibly bland elements of writing.

As I discuss in my recent book, “Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures,” Black activism in the media can take a variety of forms – some more subtle than others.

Seemingly unimportant elements of writing have long been adapted as tools of Black activism. Much like the recent drive to capitalize “black,” activists have deployed punctuation to question the legitimacy of confessions, criticize justifications made for lynchings and highlight the undervaluing of Black expertise and knowledge.

The power of punctuation

Punctuation was developed in the 3rd century B.C. to visually separate sentences and improve comprehension. But punctuation can do more than clarify. It can extend, contradict and play with meaning.

Think of the difference between ending a sentence with an exclamation point and with an ellipsis, or the way emoticons made of repurposed punctuation can be used to denote sarcasm or add playfulness and emotion.

This makes it a useful tool for activists who seek to upend dominant narratives.

Quotation marks convey suspicion

A push to capitalize has actually happened before.

In the 1920s, influential Black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote to The New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica to argue that the word “negro” ought to have its first letter capitalized.

A decade later, to counter racism in the white press, the Black press used quotation marks when reporting on the case of a young man named Robert Nixon, who was convicted of murder.

In 1938, the white-owned Chicago Tribune notoriously described Nixon – who would serve as the basis for protagonist Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son” – as an “animal” whose “physical characteristics suggest an earlier link in the species.”

A black and white portrait of author Richard Wright, pictured seated.
Richard Wright.
Library of Congress

However, the city’s influential Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, covered the case differently, reporting Nixon’s claim that his confession was the result of police coercion. In a 1938 article, the Defender included a subheading that declared, “Nixon Also Refutes ‘Confession’.”

These simple quotation marks signaled doubt over the legitimacy of this confession, while teaching newspaper readers to be suspicious of so-called legal facts.

As sociologist Mary Pattillo notes in her book “Black on the Block,” the Defender’s strategic use of quotation marks called into question official accounts of Nixon as a murderer. In doing so, the paper highlighted the unfair treatment of Black people by the media, police and court system.

The code of the question mark

Similarly, Black activists used question marks to criticize mainstream accounts of events during the Jim Crow era.

In her 1892 pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells used question marks in parentheses on four occasions to interrogate descriptions of crimes supposedly committed by Black Americans.

For example, she wrote, “So great is Southern hate and prejudice, they legally(?) hung poor little thirteen year old Mildrey Brown at Columbia, S. C., Oct. 7th, on the circumstantial evidence that she poisoned a white infant.”

She also quoted from one of her earlier newspaper editorials in which she discussed the lynchings of eight Black men by saying that, in each case, “citizens broke(?) into the penitentiary and got their man.” The question mark casts doubt on this “break-in” and suggests that the perpetrators were, in fact, aided and abetted by law enforcement in murdering these men.

These simple question marks subtly undermined a legal system that sought to cast the murders of a young girl and eight men as just responses. Wells indicted not only the legal system but also the white press, which was often an accomplice to racial violence.

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Afrofuturist questions

Pauline Hopkins poses for a portrait wearing a hat.
Pauline Hopkins.
Wikimedia Commons

The writer, editor and activist Pauline E. Hopkins similarly used question marks within parentheses in her early Afrofuturist novel “Of One Blood.”

The novel – which contains depictions of a leopard attack, a lost African city and a ghost – was serialized in the pages of the Colored American Magazine from 1902 to 1903. At one point, the protagonist, a Black doctor, brings a patient back to life. Yet the responses to this miracle display ambivalence:

“The scientific journals of the next month contained wonderful and wondering (?) accounts of the now celebrated case, – re-animation after seeming death.”

Much as Wells used the question mark to dismiss the official accounts of lynchings, Hopkins deploys it to undermine the scientific establishment and cast doubt on the journals for their stunned and disbelieving responses to the medical marvel.

For Hopkins, the question mark worked to demand respect for Black expertise and knowledge.

Punctuation’s possibilities

Punctuation activism can be an important companion to on-the-ground activism. It reveals language’s capacity to transform the world. At the same time, it exposes language’s often hidden role in maintaining structures of power.

Certainly, punctuation – like language overall – is typically used in less radical ways. But these examples of early 20th century Black writers, activists and journalists point to punctuation’s possibilities in questioning entrenched power structures and laying claim to alternative futures.The Conversation

Eurie Dahn, Associate Professor of English, The College of Saint Rose

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Cinderella lost its original feminist edge in the hands of men

Alexander Sergeant, University of Portsmouth

In the words of its publicity department, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of Cinderella offers audiences nothing less than “a complete reinvention of the classic fairy-tale”. Written by Emerald Fennell (Oscar-nominated for Promising Young Women), the production promises a feminist revision of the classic fairy tale, updating the well-known story to reflect contemporary attitudes towards gender.

But Cinderella has always been a feminist text. You might have heard of figures like Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney, each playing a key role in popularising the folk story for a new generation. But behind their versions of the classic fairytale lies an untold story of female storytellers like Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy and the Comtesse de Murat.

Before the Grimms, these pioneering women were drawn to Cinderella not because they felt the story needed updating or revising, but because they were attracted by the culture that birthed it – a storytelling network created by and for women.

Cinderella’s origins

Cinderella began its life as a folk tale, passed orally from household to household. The earliest recorded copy dates back to China in 850-860. This version of the story probably entered into European society by the women working on the great Silk Road.

At a time when only men could be writers or artists, women used folk tales as a means of expressing their creativity. Female labourers and housewives passed the stories onto one another to dispense shared wisdom, or else to break up the boredom of another working day as they toiled away from the prying eyes of men.

These storytelling traditions echo to this day. It is where we get the notion of the old wives’ tale. According to feminist writers like Marina Warner, it is also why we have to come to associate gossip with women. Cinderella reflects these customs. It is a story about domestic labour, female violence and friendship, and the oppression of servitude. Perhaps most significantly, it is a story about female desire in a world where women were denied any role in society.

The precise story of Cinderella has always been in flux. In some, she still has a mother. In others, the stepsisters resort to slicing off their heels to win the heart of the prince. But whatever incarnation, Cinderella has historically been a story about women and for women. So what happened to poor Cinders to make her so powerless?

Well, men. As the story became increasing popular, male writers and artists became interested in adapting the tale. But in doing so, they found in Cinderella not a story of female wish-fulfilment but a more general sense of escapism.

It was Perrault who introduced the famous pumpkin and the glass slipper, giving the tale its two most iconic features. The Grimms turned the stepsisters ugly, as well as removed the fairy godmother in favour of a magical wishing tree. These adaptations reflected unconscious misogyny, stripping the story of much of its feminist potential and making it instead about enchantment over representation.

Cinderella goes to the cinema

These traditions continue in Cinderella’s cinematic adaptations. The first person to adapt Cinderella for the big screen was the French magician turned film director Georges Méliès. In his hands, the character became little more than a passive, frightened waif, her job seemingly to stand in the corners of the shots and look amazed at the latest special effect appearing on screen.

Decades later, Walt Disney used Cinderella as part of the studio’s strategy of mining European folk tales for popular entertainment, a tradition begun with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Released in 1950, Disney’s Cinderella reflected the conservative values of US society at the time. The figure of the wicked stepmother took on a supervillainesque quality in the form of Lady Tremaine. While the figure of the stepmother had been the antagonist in most versions of the folk story, Disney’s Tremaine was a villain to rank among the studio’s many infamous examples of monstrous women. In Disney’s hands, an often nuanced character within the original tale was turned into a vivid caricature of feminine power and greed.

The most recent live-action remake starring Cate Blanchett as Tremaine did little to change these preconceptions of the folk tale, as Cinderella became a nostalgic symbol not only for childhood storytelling but for Disney as its most popular storyteller. The role of women in the creation of Cinderella as we know it was lost to animation and special effects.

So what is the moral of the story of this particular fairy tale? If anything, it’s that Cinderella is not a story that needs a complete reinvention. Instead, the story needs reclaiming from the hands of those who would dismiss it as just a fairy story or would use it as a vehicle for spectacle at the expense of the story buried beneath.The Conversation

Alexander Sergeant, Lecturer in Film & Media Studies, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.