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The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why Hardcover – March 26, 2007

3.6 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1St Edition edition (March 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618197176
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618197170
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #796,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jean E. Pouliot on May 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
In Mr. Asim's introduction, he clearly states that his little book is selective in his examples and some readers will disagree with his oversights. The author does a fine job of explaining the horrible history of the word and, despite almost 400 years of usage, the 'N' word still has a huge impact. He places such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in proper perspective in their attitudes about blacks. Pseudo-scientific nonsense such as niggerology is also accurately dissected. Other cultural examples hightlighted are Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jim Crow, minstrel shows, Reconstruction, race-baiting, Southern lynchings, Uncle Remus, Huck Finn, Archie Bunker, the OJ Simpson trial, Richard Pryor, Spike Lee and gangsta rap. Mr. Asim's book isn't out to slam whites or excuse African Americans for their verbal indiscretions. It is meant to stimulate discussion about this peculiar word. Speaking as one of two Causcasian parents raising two African-American boys, I am deeply appreciative of this wonderful, thought-provoking book.
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Format: Paperback
This is an interesting read about the history of racism in the United States, but it is mis-titled. It is decidedly not about the history of the "n" word, except in the final chapter, which deals with various efforts to reclaim the word in the same way that "queer" has been claimed by the LBGT community and why they fall short, like the "-er" vs. "-a" ending of the word. Asim writes, "Because much of gangsta rap [which uses the term] turns a blind eye to history, it often abets a white supremacist agenda by keeping alive dangerous stereotypes linking African Americans to laziness, criminal violence, and sexual insatiability. Instead of standing up to 'the Man,' gangsta rappers serve as his henchmen" (p. 222). And that's the crux of Asim's argument, really: that history matters and the "n word" symbolizes the way that "whites from all levels of society worked to keep [blacks] down through a combination of custom, law, myth, and racial insult" (p. 2). If the reader seeks a true and thorough history of the word itself, the African American Registry has an excellent entry, but this is still a worthy read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Good reading for anyone. This provides good information and about the origin of the "N" word, it's usage and why it is so offensive. I consider it a must read purchase. Great Great work.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is more than just the etymology of the "N" word; it is also a historical discourse that talks about the norms and social values of whites and blacks in America, using scholarly references by some of country's most famous patriots.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A Great Eye Opener The Book Gets Straight To The Point Of The Subject Matter A Must Read The Truth Lies Within
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Format: Kindle Edition
I picked up the text of this book on the remainder shelf of a local bookstore while that store was opened a few years back. I live in a black majority area, was a fan of the television serious “The Wire” in which African American characters frequently use “the N word” derisively toward each other. Yet, I confess, I was still someone presumptuous that the book might just rationalize that behavior while condemning when those of us of “the majority” use it.

Then I recollected, when I lived in Asia in the late 1970s, and American friend at the time asked if I’d ever “done a n****.” I blushed, felt terribly uncomfortable at the use of the word (a discomfort that I suspect my parents didn’t feel twenty years before.

So, yes, we probably all have a history with it. (I chuckle too that in the early 1990s, I worked professionally in civil rights law. I was telling a joke to my aunt and my cousin’s stepdaughter heard “the n word”—in the joke the word was quoting a member of the Klan—and she really resented my racism. In context, and in retrospect, I understand her concern).

The author is a columnist for the Washington Post and impressively eloquent. If I were to summarize the text, I could describe it as an overall review of the history of racism in the United States. And I learned little tidbits of which I was unaware. A few years back I was told, for example, that “Jim Crow” was kind of a “made up name” to represent black persons. I learned from this book that it was the character name of a white comedian in I think the early 19th century who played a hopelessly ignorant black character “Jim Crow.” Apparently this act was popular for decades.

We do, alas, have a racist history of which to be not proud, to put it diplomatically.
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