The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why

The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why

by Jabari Asim

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A renowned cultural critic untangles the twisted history and future of racism through its most volatile word.

The N Word reveals how the term "nigger" has both reflected and spread the scourge of bigotry in America over the four hundred years since it was first spoken on our shores. Asim pinpoints Thomas Jefferson as the source of our enduring image of the


A renowned cultural critic untangles the twisted history and future of racism through its most volatile word.

The N Word reveals how the term "nigger" has both reflected and spread the scourge of bigotry in America over the four hundred years since it was first spoken on our shores. Asim pinpoints Thomas Jefferson as the source of our enduring image of the “nigger.” In a seminal but now obscure essay, Jefferson marshaled a welter of pseudoscience to define the stereotype of a shiftless child-man with huge appetites and stunted self control. Asim reveals how nineteenth-century “science” then colluded with popular culture to amplify this slander. What began as false generalizations became institutionalized in every corner of our society: the arts and sciences, sports, the law, and on the streets.

Asim’s conclusion is as original as his premise. He argues that even when uttered with the opposite intent by hipsters and hip-hop icons, the slur helps keep blacks at the bottom of America’s socioeconomic ladder. But Asim also proves there is a place for the word in the mouths and on the pens of those who truly understand its twisted history -- from Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle to Mos Def. Only when we know its legacy can we loosen this slur’s grip on our national psyche.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Midway through Washington Postcolumnist Asim's history of the "N" word in America, readers may conclude it should not be uttered by anyone, anymore, for any reason. Essentially, this 400-year chronology is an exhaustive history of white supremacist ideology, showing that the word niggeris as American as "liberty, freedom, justice and equality." He sweeps over this sensitive and contradictory terrain—including black Americans' use of the word—with practicality, while dispensing gentle provocations. Asim notes, for example, that popular civil rights presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson used the Nword all the time. Bicycling in Africa in 2004, a young black American encounters a black-owned hip-hop clothing store called "Niggers." Children growing up during the latter half of the 19th century sang "The Ten Little Niggers" nursery rhyme. Asim is at his best when offering his opinion—"in the 21st century, to subsist on our former masters' cast-off language... strikes me as... an immense, inscrutable, and bizarre failure of the imagination." Still, he concludes, the word niggeris indispensable in certain endeavors. His analysis of 19th- and 20th-century pop culture phenomena may too fine-toothed for general readers, but clear, engaging writing increases the pleasure. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

The aftermath of radio personality Don Imus's verbal assault on the Rutgers University women's basketball team graphically illustrates the life-altering power of words. Washington Posteditor and syndicated columnist Asim examines one of the most powerful words in the American lexicon. He continues the discussion begun by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in his 2003 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. The author's approach is balanced as he discusses the connotation of the "N" word in both black self-hatred and racist applications. Narrator Mirron E. Willis's smooth, articulate reading complements Asim's text as he chronicles the historical, political, social, and linguistic use of the epithet without being pedantic. Asim's hypothesis on who should and shouldn't use the term will undoubtedly remain a topic for debate, fueled in part by discussions of this book. Recommended for most adult libraries.
—Gwendolyn Osborne

Kirkus Reviews
Washington Post Book World deputy editor Asim rehearses the history of the most noxious word in the English language and dreams of a day when it will disappear from the lexicon. His text unavoidably rounds up some of the usual suspects detained and examined in Randall Kennedy's Nigger (2002). Look here for more on Mark Fuhrman, Malcolm X, Bill Cosby and Quentin Tarantino. Asim also hunts down the actual word, pursues it across the terrain of its birth, speculates about its rise to pervasiveness in the writings of some of America's most revered public figures: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. He convincingly links stereotypes about black stupidity, criminality and shiftlessness with the N word's popularity and closely examines films, novels, TV shows, music and other forms of public discourse to see how negative stereotypes flourished even after the word itself began to disappear. He lays at Jefferson's feet what he calls "niggerology," the production of "scientific" evidence for blacks' inferiority. He looks hard at the depiction of blacks in early American fiction, most notably The Spy (1821) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). He has kind words for Melville's work, especially the 1855 novella "Benito Cereno." Not surprisingly, Asim offers a lengthy commentary on Huckleberry Finn, which he both admires and condemns, arguing that it should not be taught until high school. The author savages Gone with the Wind, likening Margaret Mitchell's novel to Thomas Dixon's vile The Clansman and the film it inspired, The Birth of a Nation. Spike Lee, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle and Paul Mooney emerge as heroes who use the N word to attack racists and racism. But Asim has harsh wordsfor gangsta rappers whose language, he argues, "often abets a white supremacist agenda." Blacks' amiable usage of the word with one another, he believes, will delay its deserved demise. Informed, sensible and impassioned.
From the Publisher

"This important new book sheds light on questions that have long gone unanswered. . .Every home should have it." --E. Lynn Harris, author of I Say A Little Prayer

"In The N Word, we just might have the definitive word on the essence of power and subordination in America." --Christopher Benson, coauthor of Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America

"Jabari Asim persuasively explains why the N word remains a slur and a symbol of inequality." --Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

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Read an Excerpt


I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. . — Abraham Lincoln, 1858

The white man was wrong, I was not a primitive, not even a half-man. I belonged to a race that had already been working in gold and silver two thousand years ago. — Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952

The failure of the Negro race, as a race, to achieve equality cannot be blamed wholly on white oppression. This is the excuse, the crutch, the piteous and finally pathetic defense of Negrophiles unable or willing to face reality. In other times and other places, sturdy, creative, and self-reliant minorities have carved out their own destiny; they have compelled acceptance on their own merit; they have demonstrated those qualities of leadership and resourcefulness and disciplined ambition that in the end cannot ever be denied. But the Negro race, as a race, has done none of this. — James J. Kilpatrick, 1962


W.E.B. Du Bois wasn’t exactly prophetic when he famously observed that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the “Color Line.” It was 1903, after all, and the color line had been a growing problem ever since whites first confronted Native Americans centuries earlier. But Du Bois was indisputably accurate. Few were as aware of history’s long reach as he, and perhaps even fewer felt the sting of the past as acutely. By the time of his writing, the Native American threat to white dominance had been emphatically eliminated, leaving only blacks between the conquerors of the New World and the bountiful destiny they envisioned.
The slaves’ many talents — contributed under threat of death — had once made African Americans crucial to white ambitions in North America. Even then, the white ruling class imagined a day when their captives’ services would no longer be required. George Washington expressed a typical desire in a 1778 letter to his plantation manager. “To be plain,” he wrote, “I wish to get quit of Negroes.” Presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln took Washington’s wish a step further, entertaining fantasies of large-scale black exportation that ultimately went nowhere. In contrast, taking steps to ensure that the blacks in their midst would not become citizens of the Republic proved much easier. Early on, the Founding Fathers removed us from the Declaration of Independence, an act Ralph Ellison called a “failure of nerve.” The Founders committed “the sin of American racial pride,” Ellison wrote. “They designated one section of the American people to be the sacrificial victims for the benefit of the rest . . . Indeed, they [blacks] were thrust beneath the threshold of social hierarchy and expected to stay there.” How whites from all levels of society worked to keep us there — through a combination of custom, law, myth, and racial insult — is the subject of this book.
Reflecting on this potent, destructive blend in 1903, Du Bois condemned whites’ “personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil.” Nearly four decades after his “Color Line” comment, Du Bois attributed the still-yawning divide between whites and blacks to that same white hostility, a virulent contempt that “depended not simply on economic exploitation but on a racial folklore grounded on centuries of instinct, habit and thought and implemented by the conditioned reflex of visible color.” The N Word looks closely at that folklore tracing its path as it sustained the entwined ideas of white supremacy and black inferiority, supplemented the nation’s ever-growing popular culture, and influenced the scope and direction of its legal system. It explores in depth various categories of literature, science, music, theater, and film, the legislative policies and judicial decisions designed to keep blacks in their place, and the language of racial insult that runs like an electric current through them all.


The decision to exclude blacks from the Declaration enabled race to emerge as “a new principle or motive in the drama of American democracy,” Ellison persuasively observed. Race, in his view, “was to radiate a qualifying influence upon all of the nation’s principles and become the source of a war of words that has continued to this day.” The battle of wills, initially between planters and their human property, has gradually and painfully evolved into an increasingly harmonious albeit fitful coexistence between white aand black Americans. At no time has it been a one-sided conflict: The N Word also takes note of the acts of defiance that I and many others regard as a form of counternarrative challenging the majority culture’s myth of conquest and superiority. That myth, in effect, attempts to erase the real history of blacks in America and replace it with a fictional tale of futility and mediocrity. Blacks who have actively campaigned against the majority narrative have been, as it were, writing themselves into existence.
Although the fusillades traded over the years have diminished considerably, language continues to convey formidable and occasionally savage force. For much of the history of our fair Republic, the N word has been at the center of our most volatile exchanges. Because no discussion of American race relations — and no consideration of white supremacy — can be complete without it, “nigger” appears early and often in these pages.
If it is true, as Henry Demarest Lloyd has noted, that “history is condensed in the catchwords of the people,” then “nigger” properly belongs in the company of such all-American terms as liberty, freedom, justice, and equality. As Randall Kennedy and others have shown, the N word is certain to provoke strong reactions whenever it is encountered. Its remarkable durability, coupled with Americans’ historical willingness to find uses for this epithet in nearly every facet of their everyday lives — from the geographical to the philosophical to the culinary — may also illustrate the extent to which racial unease continues to permeate our culture.
As part of my examination, I will heed Ellison’s observation that black American consciousness does not reflect a will to historical forgetfulness but derives instead from our memory, “sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting.” If Ellison is right, how does our attitude toward past wrongs and struggles affect our conduct in the ever- changing present? I will also attempt to show that the word “nigger” serves primarily — even in its contemporary “friendlier” usage — as a linguistic extension of white supremacy, the most potent part of a language of oppression that has changed over time from overt to coded. While “jigaboo,” “coon,” “pickaninny,” and “buck” have been largely replaced by such ostensibly innocuous terms as “inner-city,” “urban,” and “culturally disadvantaged,” “nigger” endures, helping to perpetuate and reinforce the durable, insidious taint of presumed African-American inferiority. Within this context, The N Word also discusses blacks’ adoption of the epithet to describe themselves, an increasingly popular habit among younger African Americans. Are they in fact removing the word’s power to harm or merely succumbing to an immense, inscrutable, and bizarre failure of the imagination?


The N Word is divided into five sections. Part I, “Birth of a Notion,” begins in 1619, when African captives first set foot on British North American territory. It extends to the end of 1799 with Thomas Jefferson, the new nation’s foremost promoter of Negro inferiority, poised to occupy the White House. Part II, “The Progress of Prejudice,” begins in Jefferson’s first term and ends in 1857. That year, blacks’ dehumanized status was dramatically emphasized by Dred Scott v. Sanford, which determined that they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Part III, “Dreams Deferred,” picks up immediately after Scott and continues until 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson formalized the Jim Crow restrictions that circumscribed life for most African Americans. Part IV, “Separate and Unequal,” covers the period from 1897 until 1954, the year of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down racial segregation. Part V, “Progress and Paradox,” spans the dramatic changes that took place between 1955 and the present.
Thus far in this nation’s development, it has been the long, sick, and twisted history of tangled relations between blacks and whites that has both defined and propelled America’s unique status on the planet. If the United States remains a noteworthy international symbol as a melting pot and laboratory of interracial experiment, then the persistence of white supremacist strains in the national culture is an especially useful gauge by which progress (or the lack of it) is measured. With that in mind, this book is an extended inquiry into the wages and consequences of our peculiarly American saga of racial conflict.
Because I wanted to prevent The N Word from being a multi- volume project certain to exhaust both its author and its audience, I have in various instances limited my focus to particular examples, discarding or bypassing others in the interest of brevity. Inevitably, some of my choices will strike others as unwise or arbitrary. To them I can only humbly plead forbearance and offer encouragement to await other examinations of this topic, which will undoubtedly and deservedly follow.

Copyright © 2007 by Jabari Asim. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

JABARI ASIM is the editor in chief of The Crisis, the NAACP’s flagship publication. For the previous eleven years he was an editor at the Washington Post Book World. His writing has appeared in Essence, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the Hungry Mind Review, Emerge, and elsewhere. He lives in Maryland.

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