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

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

by Jabari Asim
N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why

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 “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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547053493
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/04/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 278
Sales rank: 1,037,037
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


Founding Fictions

Names have always been a problem for black people in America ... our names bespeak the tangles of American culture — miscegenation, issues of property and ownership, the peculiar violence of our past — in the same way our skins do.

— C. S. Giscombe, Into and Out of Dislocation, 2000

"THE WORD NIGGER to a colored person," Langston Hughes once observed, "is like a red rag to a bull."

Christopher Darden echoed this argument decades later in a Los Angeles courtroom. Working as a prosecutor in the murder trial of the disgraced athlete and celebrity pitchman O. J. Simpson — a legal skirmish the media were fond of calling "the trial of the century" — Darden described the epithet as the "filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language." It was so filthy, he contended, that the African Americans on the jury could not hear it without losing their ability to consider the details of the case fairly.

Johnnie Cochran, the lead defense counsel for Simpson, scoffed at Darden's suggestion and called it demeaning. If centuries of oppression had failed to impair the judgment of African Americans, he argued, how could two little syllables do the job?

The Simpson case was not about the N word, of course, but the epithet did function as the pivotal metaphor for the racial themes that ultimately decided the outcome of the trial, thus demonstrating its enduring potency as an instrument of white supremacy and a symbol of lingering sentiment against blacks. Similarly, the positions staked out by the two black lawyers at the heart of the case conveniently illustrate the opposing views that frame the contemporary use of the N word. In one corner, Christopher Darden argued that the word has no proper place in public settings. In the other, Johnnie Cochran argued that "nigger," while inflammatory, could be heard and encountered without destroying civilization as we know it.

The origin of the pair's famous tussle can be traced all the way back to 1619, when the Jamestown colonist John Rolfe noted in his diary the first time African captives came to live and toil in British North America. "Twenty negars," he wrote, had arrived on a Dutch man-of-war.

Did he mean "niggers" or "Negroes"? Most lexicographers trace both words to "niger," the Latin word for "black." Some of them also contend that "nigger" was intended initially as a neutral term. Citing the presence of "nigers" in the "learned discourse" of the seventeenth-century antislavery activist Samuel Sewall, they suggest that the word acquired a derogatory character over time, picking up various spellings along the way. However, little other than Sewall's discourse is offered as evidence to support this argument. Other usages, while not necessarily hateful, clearly are not sympathetic either. Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), for example, described an "ouglie divell" with "fanges like a dog, a skin like a Niger, and a voice roring like a lion." The merchant Nicholas Crisp, writing in 1637, described one of his ships as equipped to "take nigers and carry them to foreign parts." In 1651 two British traders placed orders with the Guinea Company, each specifically requesting a shipment of "lusty negers."

Some scholars have attributed the modern, all-too-familiar spelling to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose 1786 poem "The Ordination" includes among its scintillating lines:

Come, let a proper text be read,
How graceless Ham leugh at his dad,
Others, most notably J. E. Lighter, have suggested that Burns probably spelled it the same way Sewall did. By the time Burns got around to cranking out his verse, black people had no doubt become accustomed to hearing the N word as an insult—regardless of how it was spelled. Twenty years before "The Ordination," the Afro-British memoirist Ignatius Sancho wrote to a correspondent, "I am one of those whom the vulgar and illiberal call 'Negurs?"

Eleven years before Burns, the British Redcoats concocted their own illiberal doggerel to taunt the black and white patriots who had bravely assembled at such places as Brandywine Creek and Saratoga to fight and die for freedom:

The rebel clowns, oh what a sight Too awkward was their figure Twas yonder stood a pious wight And here and there a nigger.

The Redcoats' spelling can't be confirmed, but their pronunciation seems pretty clear. With the N word appearing in verse (such as it was), could song be far behind? An item in the Virginia Gazette from this period referred to the black militiamen who had joined the British marching to the tune of "Hungry Niger Parch'd Corn." By then it was reasonable for Ignatius Sancho and his dark-skinned fellows to hold in low regard anyone who chose to use the term in any form — nigger, niger, negur, negar — especially since "Negro" (as a term for black Africans) had been part of the English vocabulary as far back as 1555.

Not that "Negro" conferred much more respect. It was, after all, synonymous with "black," which was and continues to be an unmistakably negative term in most English-language contexts. The lamentable tendency of contemporary journalists and others to refer to unfortunate events as "Black September" or "Black Friday" stems from centuries-old connotations. Common definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating back to the 1500s, include "foul," "dirty," "wicked," and "horrible" The sentiments of the British traveler George Best, recorded in 1578, were hardly atypical. He speculated that the Africans' black skins "proceedeth of some natural infection of the first inhabitants of that country, and so all the whole progenie of them descended, are still polluted with the same blot of infection."

The intensity of English neuroses regarding most things black practically ensured that the language they chose to describe Africans and their "progenie" would be anything but neutral. Instead, it reflected their obsessions. In the historian Winthrop Jordan's words, "Blackness had become so thoroughly entangled with the basest status in American society that at least by the beginning of the eighteenth century it was almost indecipherably coded into American language and literature."

From the outset, the British and their colonial counterparts relied on language to maximize the idea of difference between themselves and their African captives.

All Persons Except Negroes

Black people continued to be imported as the British stake in the New World grew. By 1649, about 300 had been "taken and carried to foreign parts"; they had landed in Virginia and formed roughly two percent of the colony's 15,000 residents. They weren't yet officially slaves — and, indeed, a few were free — but they had already become exposed to separate and unequal treatment. Virginia's first census takers listed blacks separately from white men and rarely bothered to note their names. In 1639 the colony's assemblymen passed a statute to establish a militia, declaring, "All persons except Negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at the pleasure of the Governor and Council." All of the colonies would enact similar measures by the end of the century. Such restrictions were inconsistently enforced and presaged the varying degrees of unease with which American patriots regarded armed and trained slaves throughout the Revolutionary War. The wording of the statute is almost whimsical compared to the exclusionary codes of the modern era. In the 1930s, for example, black visitors to Hawthorne, California, encountered a sign at the city limits that warned, "Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set on YOU in Hawthorne." Still, the 1639 legislation was uncharacteristically blunt for its time. In the near future, Virginia lawmakers would turn to genteel, coded language to deny the rights of blacks and whites without property. At the 1776 state convention, for instance, George Mason and his peers preferred limiting equality to men who had "entered into a state of society."

"Official" slavery, confirmed through statute laws that distinguished blacks from indentured whites by establishing lifetime servitude for Negroes and their subsequent generations, was well under way by the late 1660s. In 1680 Virginia passed a law requiring slaves to carry passes when traveling without their masters. Ten years later, South Carolina passed an "Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves," then enacted a stricter, more comprehensive code in 1696. While maintaining the pass system, it required all whites to apprehend slaves and give them "a moderate whipping" if they had no pass. It also provided that a slave who resisted could be beaten, maimed, assaulted, or, if necessary, killed. Slave quarters were subject to biweekly inspections for the purpose of locating stolen items. In 1705 Virginia assembled a systematic code very similar to South Carolina's, and other states eventually followed suit.

Among the most influential factors that influenced the movement to codify the slave laws were (1) the need for free labor to work the tobacco, rice, and indigo fields beginning to flourish in the colonies' expanding plantation economy, (2) the swelling black population, which exacerbated fears of insurrection, and (3) the growing frustration of poor whites, made frighteningly clear by Bacon's rebellion of 1676. That violent multiracial protest against Virginia's landed gentry prompted the elite to create a buffer zone between themselves and their less fortunate white kinsmen. Blackness conveniently became that zone, courtesy of the system of slave codes that both restricted the lives of bondsmen and gave poor whites something to be grateful for. These developments coincided with the colonists growing disillusion with the mother country and their growing sense of independence.

The Roots of Resistance

For the slaveholding class, validation was intimately bound to — in fact, impossible without — the consistent degradation of those they chose to enslave. Such degradation, heard in the court of public opinion and reinforced through daily plantation protocols, led to what might be called the founding fictions of American slave society: (1) whites were superior beings destined to rule over their lesser counterparts, and (2) blacks were unworthy creatures whose very unworthiness made them perfectly suited to a lifetime of forced servitude. "The idea of the superiority of whites was etched into the slave's consciousness by the lash and the ritual respect he was forced to give to every white man," noted John W. Blassingame in The Slave Community. At the same time, masters pretended that slaves were simple-minded and childlike because it helped "to relieve themselves of the anxiety of thinking about slaves as men." In the centuries that followed — long after the official end of slavery — whites of all classes came to rely on language (and especially the use of pejoratives like the N word) in their pursuit of such relief.

These early engagements should not be considered one-sided clashes between all-powerful racists and their cowering victims. Instead of giving in to efforts to dehumanize them, most slaves chose to fight back on the psychological level. Like Ignatius Sancho, they refused to see themselves as whites wished them to be. While some slaves undoubtedly succumbed to the spirit-numbing mind games inflicted upon them, others resisted, asserting themselves through a variety of tactics ranging from work slowdowns and subterfuge to stealthy acts of sabotage. Such responses, along with the nascent folk culture blacks developed in the slave quarters, were among the earliest and most effective forms of resistance. If freedom was not a realistic option for the overwhelming majority of slaves, some degree of self-determination — however fragile and precious — was.

This ongoing battle of wills between planters and their human property resulted in a relationship fraught with uncertainty. As the revolutionary fever slowly enveloped the colonies, this very uncertainty helped expose a vulnerable opening in white society, and some blacks — both free and enslaved — did not hesitate to press their advantage.

They were quick to call attention to the hypocrisy of would-be patriots who railed against the oppression imposed by the Crown while they were waited on by men and women in chains who fanned their brows and plowed their fields. Just as important, black people, after discovering the value of using the whites' impassioned language against them, launched the ongoing efforts at counter- narrative mentioned earlier. An example of this occurred in 1766, the same year in which Sancho objected to being called a "negur." Whites in Charleston protested the Stamp Act under the slogan "Liberty and stamp'd paper." Slaves in Charleston took note and launched a campaign of their own, parading about the town and chanting, "Liberty! Liberty!"

Four years later on March 5, a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks was the first to fall in the melee known as the Boston Massacre. Although John Adams tried to impugn his reputation, Attucks was celebrated by Paul Revere and other white patriots as a "new symbol of resistance." Perhaps some of his fellow blacks remembered his example when they petitioned the Massachusetts General Court in 1772, once again borrowing the fervent prose of the Revolution. Addressing the legislators as "men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them," the petitioners demanded immediate emancipation. "In common with all other men we have a natural right to our freedoms," they declared. Rebuffed, they returned the following year, asking not only for manumission but also for some portion of uncultivated land on which they might work and live in peace.

In the chapters to come, we will examine the various ways in which modern black Americans have subverted the N word and other forms of racist language to assert their right to define themselves. Although their techniques span a range of widely different approaches, the roots of their methods extend to the earliest days of the Republic. For instance, long before the actor-rapper Mos Def could compose a song called "Mr. Nigga," in which he denounces whites who use racial slurs in private while "livin' off of slave traders' paper" and behaving as if "they think that illegal's a synonym for Negro," there was the black militiaman-poet Lemuel Haynes. His 1776 essay, "Liberty Further Extended," advanced a similar argument. "I think it not hyperbolical to affirm," he wrote, "that even an African, has Equally as good a right to his Liberty in common with Englishmen … consequently, the practice of slave-keeping, which so much abounds in this land is illicit."

Haynes's moving blend of passion and logic not only exemplifies the developing strain of black resistance to the majority cultures' systemic dehumanization of Negroes, it also anticipates the blacks' ongoing struggle to come up with a name for themselves. For Haynes and many of his peers, "African" — a far cry from "nigger" — was sufficient. His essay was just one of many similar efforts that showed how colonial blacks seized on literacy as a liberating tool and cleverly subverted the lofty sentiments and "learned discourse" of their oppressors.

Blacks did considerably more than write pamphlets and present petitions during the Revolution. When the actual fighting ended in 1781, twenty percent of Washington's troops were black, an estimated 5,000 in all.

The presence of such men interfered with the vision of the new nation taking shape in the imaginations of the Founding Fathers. The attainment of that vision required solving a question articulated early on by Patrick Henry: "Our country shall be peopled. Shall it be with Europeans or with Africans?" Benjamin Franklin had posed a similar inquiry in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751): "Why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?" Having so many sons of Africa in their midst was a necessary evil, it seemed, but to have so many wandering around unfettered and full of ideas about freedom and equality forced whites to wrestle with troubling existential puzzles. Seeking solace, some whites yielded to the diabolical temptations of simple race-based hatred. "To despise slaves as Negroes was redundant," wrote Winthrop Jordan, "but when Negroes were no longer slaves they became despicable only as Negroes."

To make matters worse for those who felt threatened by free blacks, the Revolution had "loosened the bonds of government everywhere," according to John Adams. Its ill and unintended effects included "Indians slighting their guardians and negroes growing insolent to their masters." Making the nation safe for white people could be more easily accomplished with the help of a whitewashed tale of its origins. Toward that end, another founding fiction emerged that also has contributed mightily to the enduring stereotype of the dangerous, incorrigible "nigger": a myth that the historian Roger Wilkins called "the story of the Great White Revolution carried out by Great White Men."


Excerpted from "The N word"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Jabari Asim.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents


PART I Birth of a Notion: 1619–1799 1. Founding Fictions 9 2. Niggerology, Part 1 20 PART II The Progress of Prejudice: 1800–1857 3. No Place to Be Somebody 33 4. Niggerology, Part 2 44 5. Life Among the Lowly 55 6. Jim Crow and Company 72 PART III Dreams Deferred: 1858–1896 7. The World the War Made 85 N 8. Nigger Happy 99 PART IV Separate and Unequal: 1897–1954. 9. Different Times 119 10. From House Nigger to Niggerati 128 11. Bad Niggers 150 PART V Progress and Paradox: 1955–Present 12.Violence and Vehemence 163 13. To Slur with Love 172 14. What’s in a Name? 196 15. Nigger vs. Nigga 212

Epilogue 235 Notes 243 Selected Bibliography 258 Index 263

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