From Publishers Weekly
Midway through Washington Post columnist Asim's history of the "N" word in America, readers may conclude it should not be uttered by anyone, anymore, for any reason. Essentially, this 400-year chronology is an exhaustive history of white supremacist ideology, showing that the word nigger is as American as "liberty, freedom, justice and equality." He sweeps over this sensitive and contradictory terrain—including black Americans' use of the word—with practicality, while dispensing gentle provocations. Asim notes, for example, that popular civil rights presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson used the N word all the time. Bicycling in Africa in 2004, a young black American encounters a black-owned hip-hop clothing store called "Niggers." Children growing up during the latter half of the 19th century sang "The Ten Little Niggers" nursery rhyme. Asim is at his best when offering his opinion—"in the 21st century, to subsist on our former masters' cast-off language... strikes me as... an immense, inscrutable, and bizarre failure of the imagination." Still, he concludes, the word nigger is indispensable in certain endeavors. His analysis of 19th- and 20th-century pop culture phenomena may too fine-toothed for general readers, but clear, engaging writing increases the pleasure. (Mar.)
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Asim addresses the root of this controversial word in American rhetoric and contemporary experience. Just as our founding fathers tried to dodge the issue of race and slavery by only hinting around it, the current debate often suggests that by not using the "N word," the race issues will remain dormant. Asim looks back at Thomas Jefferson's essays on slavery, his justification of the misuse of slaves on pseudoscientific bases, and continued denigration of blacks in word and deed. He traces the use of the word through popular entertainment from minstrel shows to films (notably Birth of a Nation) to current comedy routines and rap music. Despite attempts by hip-hop culture to reverse the impact of the word, and remove the sting of racial hurt, the result has been to maintain socioeconomic distance among the races, Asim maintains. Still, he argues that the word has had a long history of powerful impact in more responsible hands as a reminder of the troubled legacy of race relations in the U.S. Vernon Ford
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