Unspeakable History

By Peniel E. Joseph,
an assistant professor of Africana studies at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America"
Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why

By Jabari Asim

Houghton Mifflin. 278 pp. $26

In an era when high-profile rappers, comedians and public intellectuals craft contorted defenses for the use of the word "nigger," Jabari Asim's "The N Word" provides an important, timely and much-needed critical intervention about this enduringly controversial subject. Beyond a simple discussion of the word itself, Asim deftly chronicles the way in which racist ideology went hand-in-hand with racist culture to permanently alter -- and stain -- the character of America's nascent democracy.

Asim's book is an ambitious, sweeping work that surveys four centuries of racist culture and custom in American society. From the outset, the term in question was a convenient, all-purpose condemnation that allowed such architects of American democracy as Thomas Jefferson to claim that blacks lacked the intellectual and emotional capacity to handle full citizenship. In Jefferson's words, blacks were "inferior to the whites in endowments both of body and mind." A veritable industry of scientific and cultural racism would make Jefferson's sentiments seem positively statesmanlike.

At each step of this sprawling, briskly paced history, Asim chronicles the way in which the word not only permeated popular culture through literary classics such as "Huck Finn" but had practical, real-world consequences, especially during the post-Reconstruction period of anti-black lynching, violence and rioting that swept across the nation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Asim, the deputy editor of The Washington Post's Book World section, documents how black Americans countered the dominant narrative perpetuated by "Niggerology"(as one "scholar" of black inferiority labeled it in the 19th century) with nuanced accounts of historical figures such as the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Asim explores how, in the 1940 novel "Native Son," Richard Wright turned the word, and much of the literary world, upside down through his character Bigger Thomas, whose very name seemed to suggest the N-word. Bigger Thomas's unpredictable violence transformed the one-dimensional literary characters of the past (the imagined spooks of a racist literary tradition) into a hauntingly poignant emissary of social misery whose tragic actions illuminated the contours of racial oppression in Depression-era America.

The civil rights movement's heroic decade, between the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, seemed to signal the slow demise of the word in popular culture. No longer could respectable Southern politicians use the blunt, coarse and spectacularly successful language of someone like George Wallace.

But by the late 1960s and early '70s, blacks began openly using the term themselves. At the very moment when civil rights victories meant the word could no longer be spoken in public by whites, black provocateurs started to brandish the word like a sharp sword. The comedian Richard Pryor said it with an easy candor that scandalized white audiences and helped him emerge as a kind of outrageous prophet whose use of the word managed to sting whites more than blacks. The casual, everyday use of the word in black communities that had been a hidden part of a segregated past now became an accepted part of popular culture. The genie, so to speak, had been let out of the bottle, with predictable results. A generation of multi-hued youngsters now eagerly deploys the word in everyday language that betrays no hint of historical understanding of its horrific roots.

Asim tells this story with energy, insight and well-timed flashes of humor. "The N Word" also serves, both implicitly and explicitly, as a brilliant and bracing history lesson for the countless pundits debating the virtues of black popular culture. Unlike many commentators, Asim manages to avoid both facile condemnations and contorted rationalizations. Instead, he offers a passionate survey that places contemporary African American culture in the larger context of American history. Confronted by a generation largely uninterested in the nation's collective racial history but still burdened by its legacy, Asim argues that only by understanding the past can we reacquire the political courage and insights necessary to create new words and envision new worlds. "As long as we embrace the derogatory language that has long accompanied and abetted our systematic dehumanization," Asim writes, "we shackle ourselves to those corrupt white delusions -- and their attendant false story of our struggle in the United States. Throwing off those shackles would at least free us to stake a claim to an independent imagination." And, just perhaps, renew our hope in shaping a better world.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company