THE N WORD:Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why.By Jabari Asim.Houghton Mifflin.278 pp. $26
The N Word is not an easy read. That’s hardly surprising, given that the history of the word “nigger” is so brutal and violent. What is surprising, though, is how seamlessly Jabari Asim threads a history through his story of the “n word”: a history not only of the African-American experience but of the American republic itself. His title harkens back to Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002). Asim’s polite title may land a softer blow, but the substance of The N Word delivers a serious pummeling.
Asim, deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World, begins by disputing lexicographers’ claims that the first recorded usage of “nigger” was neutral. Jamestown colonist John Rolfe described the arrival in 1619 of “twenty negars” in his diary. In fact, Asim writes, none of the terms—among them “nigger,” “niger,” “negur,” and “negar”—used to refer to black Africans was devoid of negative connotations. Long before the Revolutionary War, black people fought against efforts to dehumanize them through language, but “the notion of black inferiority spread as rapidly as the spirit of independence that enlivened the new nation.”