27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Jean E. Pouliot
- Published on Amazon.com
The only bad thing to say about "The N Word" is what author Jabari Asim said himself. The subtitle, "Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why" is a marketing invention that missed the point of the book and does injustice to its purpose.
Asim follows the N word through America history, like a trail of bread crumbs through a dark and dangerous forest. There are times when the trail is rather sparse, and other times when the pile of crumbs is wide and deep. The first crumbs are laid by 1619, with the unloading of 30 Africans into the new world. From the beginning, the word has a brutally negative meaning. Some have attempted to soften the word's harshness by claiming that it originally meant little more than an observation about the darkness of a slave's skin. But Asim makes clear by quoting from period documents that pigmentation was considered a radical (and unsavory) deviation from the European standard of lightness. Some even considered it to be literally an infection of the skin. Very quickly, the word took on connotations of inferiority, debased humanity, servility and lack of intelligence. To use the word meant to distance oneself from and to deny another's personhood. Thus it was, thus it has always been. In fact, one thing I admire about Asim's approach is that he does not give in to the now-current opinion that one should not judge past generations by this generation's morality. Asim will have none of this - to capture, sell and own human beings, to separate them from wives and family, and then to ratify that action by creating an enduring culture that belittles and demeans them on account of skin color -- has always been and will always be an act of heartless depravity.
Asim takes us on a historical tour with stops at Monticello to hear Thomas Jefferson opine (without basis) compare the alleged lust of black men for white women with the lust of orangutans for black women. From there, we travel to the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, in an army where full 20% of the soldiers were black. We tour the racist and intolerant pre-Civil War North where even ardent abolitionists were convinced of Negro inferiority. Coming from Newburyport, MA, proud to be home to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, this was a hard fact to acknowledge. Asim shows why "Uncle Tom's Cabin," intended as an abolitionist text, played on caricatures about blacks that were as offensive as they were inaccurate. Asim touches on the disgust of Union troops over fighting for black emancipation. We tour the Reconstruction Era South, which quickly and viciously shut the door to emancipation via lynchings, Jim Crow laws and propaganda. The propaganda took many forms, including popular music (with its depiction of "authentic" Negro dialect) and romances, which offered a sanitized and sanctified version of the glorious and pacific antebellum South in which beneficent whites and their willing slaves lived in symbiotic harmony. From here, we are treated to Northern race riots, the rise of minstrel shows and the caricatures of blacks in early films. Asim does the expected withering hatchet job on Klan-happy "The Birth of a Nation," but also eviscerates the revisionist tone of "Gone With The Wind," especially Margaret Mitchell's book, on which the film was based.
Asim shows also the quack-scientific and cultural beliefs that maintained whites' base (in both senses of the word) assumptions. Was a black man happy? Then he was born to servility. Was he angry and violent? Well, that's just his natural brutish temperament. Did he write thoughtful accounts of his life? He must have had the secret help of sympathetic whites. Asim also traces the original and development of the mythical "bad" black -- prone to criminality and sexually insatiable - from the 19th century to the present day, where it is firmly ensconced in the violence and misogyny of rap lyrics.
Asim gives us a glimpse into the science of race that used bad science to show that black brains were smaller than white brains. As Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in "The Mis-measure of man," this was accomplished by comparing skulls from large-bodied European males to those of smaller Africans, even women, without accounting for the effect of body size on brain volume, a factor that would have erased nearly all correlations between brain size and racial "worth."
Asim brings us into the 20th century - from the Black Migration and the Harlem Renaissance through Emmett Till -- ending his history with a discussion of Lyndon Johnson, the champion of civil rights, who nonetheless held blacks in extremely low regard.
At this point, Asim falters somewhat as he tries to disentangle the complexities of modern cultural use of the N word. As the Civil Rights movement gained power and acceptability in 1950s and 1960s, whites began to self-regulate, socially punishing use of the word. But starting in the 1960s and 1970s, comics like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor began using the word in their race-aware routines. This led the way to a more nuanced view of the term, but also opened the door to its misuse. It's one thing to listen to Pryor use the word to skewer lingering racial bias. But its use in the mouth of less talented and aware performers only served to reinforce the familiar "bad" black stereotype that both fascinated and repelled white audiences. Asim has the toughest time in this section, as he tries to detach "good" use of the N word (to attack racism) from bad uses (to reinforce stereotypes, to make cash). His heroes may be Pryor, Murphy, Chappelle, Rock and Tupac, but even he can't completely exonerate every use of the word by those he admires.
In the end, "The N Word" did its work. Asim expertly makes the case that the N word has always been associated with expressing the supposed inferiority of blacks, that its use continues to be a curse. For blacks to use it, Asim gingerly notes, is dangerous. Whether it is Chris Rock using it to brand criminally-minded blacks, or Quentin Tarantino (or Spike Lee) using it to sell movies, the word still has power to hurt and to reinforce race myths. Whether used by white racists to denigrate blacks, or by blacks to denigrate each other (and especially their women), the word has the ability to submerge entire populations into the quicksand of inferiority and self doubt. Its use always ends up confirming some of the worst and oldest facets of our culture.
In spite of the volatility of the topic, Asim's writes in cool, measure tones. Though his work is a survey that skims over the surface of his topic, Asim still conveys an enormous amount of information about history and race relations in the US. Though dispassionate in his exposition, he is passionate about the pain endured on account of the word he studies. "The N Word" is a must-read for those who think that racial bias is a thing of the past or that self-limits on language are nothing more than political correctness. Asim may be tentative about condemning those who continue to use the word, but his argument shows that there is no use of the word that will not eventually redound to the detriment of black aspirations. In a world in which talk show hosts regularly use racially-loaded language, we are well served by attending to the deeply-rooted and vicious social program that those words continue to promote.