History, Amnesia, and the N Word

History, Amnesia, and the N Word

The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why by Jabari Asim, and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy.

The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why 
by Jabari Asim
Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 239 pp., $26.00

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
by Randall Kennedy
Vintage, 2003, 208 pp., $12.95

The subject is small—a word. Yet the subject contained within the subject is immeasurable: racism American-style. It isn’t always a good idea to reduce vast social dimensions to a pithy cognomen—all the great “isms” are finally irreducible—but there are special cases, and when Jabari Asim asks us to examine American racism (particularly racism against black Americans) through the lens of a single word, it’s remarkable how much history he squeezes into the text.

For truly the N word (as it has been known for several decades now) is the privileged American racial epithet. It sits at the heart of the American consciousness like the evil twin of “liberty” or “justice.” Its familiarity has outlived that of other racial epithets once commonplace. It so sums up the essence of the racial stereotype that it can be used as a slur against any group being portrayed as lazy, shiftless, and stupid—including, by the way, white Americans. “For much of the history of our fair republic, the N word has been at the center of our most volatile exchanges [to the degree that] no discussion of American race relations can be complete without it,” writes Asim.

The N word’s story is tortuous, but not always predictable. Its first written usage on New World soil may have been in the diary of John Rolfe in 1619, noting the arrival of the first African slaves in British North America. “Twenty negars,” wrote Rolfe. Charting the 1700s, Asim pays special attention to Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes from the State of Virginia, a text that, coming from a man of Jefferson’s renown, “established a model of rationalized racism.” The N word itself may not appear in the section in which Jefferson discourses on race, but the word has at its foundation an image, and Jefferson’s sexually tempestuous, uncreative, and genetically inferior American Negro “conveniently codified truths held to be self-evident by most white Americans at the end of the eighteenth century.” The (pseudo) scientific racism that marked the 1800s—harebrained theories of human intelligence as determined by cranium dimensions—was occasionally dubbed by its practitioners “niggerology.”

I will spare readers a blow-by-blow account of the N word’s maleficence. Asim’s book is also an account of social anomalies: use of the word within the black community, which Asim shows is nothing new. He quotes an editorial in the Freedman’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper, circa the mid-1800s, lamenting “the adoption of racist epithets by blacks themselves.” “Negroes o...

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