The N-Word


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 words for 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.