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An epithet as existential dilemma

The Baltimore Sun

The N Word

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

By Jabari Asim

Houghton Mifflin / 278 pages / $26

What's in a word? When it comes to the N-word, the better question is, what isn't? Whatever one thinks of its usage, the granddaddy of ethnic slurs is much more than a stick or stone that can be deflected with self-esteem and forgotten until the next encounter. The word is not singular and never has been. It is a social orientation, a state of mind so deeply embedded in the collective American unconscious - and the conscious - it's not perceived as a problem; it's part of who we are. It is a 400-year-old storm front that has never blown over, a forked tongue of lightning that can crash overhead without warning or welcome, breaking the fragile continuum of American conversations about race. And for all its obvious negatives, its more controversial appearances serve a useful purpose: to illuminate with sudden, unsparing fluorescence the racial divide on which America stands but is ever ambiguous about acknowledging. In every generation, this word speaks - sharply and loudly - to the multitude of our remaining sins.

Even the modern pervasiveness of the word via hip-hop and hard-core rap has not settled the protean question - indeed, it has only made it larger. African-American artists, scholars, activists, comedians and thinkers have all argued in favor of the N-word's respectability, or at least its viability, and they have failed; those in the opposition who have argued its cultural irrelevance have failed too. The irresolution was driven home to me last year when I was listening to a radio debate among a group of black nationalists who were responding to Michael Richards' now-infamous rant at the Comedy Store. The group was politically progressive and radically Afrocentric, yet it could not agree on what should be done with the N-word, whether to treat it as poisonous or empowering.

It is this kind of existential deadlock that Jabari Asim seeks to break in The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why. Despite the title, this is not a prescriptive - Asim is too smart and has seen too much for that. It is instead a sharp-eyed musing on the history of the word and how it bears, or should bear, on a media-driven culture that is dangerously ahistorical, especially in matters of race. The book is also personal, which makes sense given that Asim (who writes an online column on social and cultural issues for The Washington Post, where he is deputy book editor) is a black man who has had his own encounters with the N-word. The personal, though, is not necessarily a given - Randall Kennedy's 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word was purely academic and came from a legal standpoint, whereas Asim approaches it with the wide-ranging gusto of a cultural critic. The even tone of Kennedy's book suggests that such a charged topic is best served by rational disquisition, but Asim's rejection of a neutral voice suggests the opposite - that neutrality is impossible, especially for blacks.

This is not to say that The N Word is a rant. Asim collects a wide array of facts and significant moments from American history, politics, science, entertainment and literature to marshal his impassioned argument that this word means black folks no good, and never has. Most Americans would agree with that, though few realize the extent to which whites went to keep the social order in place. Asim points out that in the 19th century, for example, "niggerology" was a legitimate field of study rooted in Darwinism that proved the inferiority of the African; its views were supported by Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun. Abolitionists were antislavery but not by any means pro-black. The Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, wanted to route blacks back to Africa after the Civil War ended. Lincoln's 20th-century counterpart, President Lyndon B. Johnson, used the word freely and once browbeat his black valet for aspiring to a higher profession.

Today, nobody uses the word in polite company. Yet, as Asim shows us, the ethos has been institutionalized and commercialized to an alarming and perhaps irreversible degree. This is what Bill Cosby was getting at with his 2004 speech, on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, that certain blacks were not valuing education and speaking standard English. This was not about class, as the media assumed, but aesthetics and character in the context of color. And, by the way, the N-word goes by other names - gangsta, thug, skeezer, ho or (Cosby's choice) these people. None stings like the original, but make no mistake, it is the original they mean.

Not surprisingly, Asim reserves special antipathy for gangsta rap. Unlike such archetypal outlaws as Stagolee and Superfly - who stood against a corrupt white system - gangsta rappers talk tough but have no real rebel qualities and no moral codes. They are black outlaws as performance and nothing else; to Asim, this is the worst transgression of all. "Because much of gangsta rap 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," he writes. "Instead of standing up to 'the Man,' gangsta rappers serve as his henchmen." But Asim is not absolutist on the matter. He finds merit in some of the lyrics of seminal gangsta rappers N.W.A, whose occasional self- and social analysis is "positively Ellisonian" compared with the group's many imitators. Still, Asim feels gangsta rap serves overwhelmingly to reinforce skewed societal norms, not to challenge them. "Like the modern minstrels in [Spike Lee's film] Bamboozled, self-proclaimed 'real niggas' make majority audiences laugh, they make them cry," Asim writes, "they make them feel glad to be Americans."

Asim allows there is a useful aspect to the N-word in that it can denote black authenticity and the utterly unique position blacks hold in American society - historically neither fish nor fowl, immigrant nor citizen, visible nor invisible. What word more effectively captures that state of alienation and drift than one that vacillates between insult and embrace, defiance and defeat, attraction and repulsion? Asim says it's all part of what W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as double consciousness, which holds that black Americans struggle eternally to be both black and American, that they are "two souls, two warring ideals in one dark body." Ultimately, Asim, like Kennedy, does not agree with the N-word eradicationists - he believes that censorship only obscures history and is not the answer to a deeper problem of black identity. Asim's biggest concern is how the word's elastic use by blacks might be stunting their imagination at a time when expanding that imagination is more critical than ever; black survival depends on it. "Our slave ancestors made the most of limited means when they prepared pork entrails deemed inedible by the whites they served," he muses. "Now, in the 21st century, to subsist on our former masters' cast-off language - even in the name of revising it - strikes me as the opposite of resourcefulness."

Asim is right. But the truth is that, in various ways, many African-Americans are still only subsisting, materially as well as psychologically. To finally break the barrier, Asim says, the white majority population must come to terms with its own dual consciousness about American values - equality and justice versus greed, duplicity and intolerance. The more serious question raised is not about a word but about the soul of a country that claims to be a democracy. What kind of a people are we? Despite the divide so accurately described by a single word, we will all have to somehow leap the breach and answer that question together.

Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote this essay for the Los Angeles Times.

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