The word “nigger” continues to spark fierce debate and outrage with its use in mainstream culture. Jabari Asim’s The N Word answers the questions of why and how the word is used. Unlike Randell Kennedy’s well-known book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Asim wisely puts the discussion within a larger historical context. Most importantly, the book addresses why this word remains.
Asim’s argument lies in overwhelming historical knowledge. The author claims that the word will never lose its original meaning as a racial slur but, when used in the proper hands, can be used to critique racism. His meticulous backtracking through the past gives Asim the evidence for the complicated political and social reasons why certain people can and cannot use the N word.
The author uses the history of the word to explain the history of African-Americans and race relations beginning with slavery and ending with a critique on rap music. Asim traces the first use of the N word to 1619, when the first African slaves were documented in America. Surprisingly, over 350 years of history is adequately covered with the N word sticking around at every major societal shift. Musical lyrics contained the N word, literature used the N word to refer to blacks, and actors in minstrel shows used the N word. Even prominent political figures from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson had no trouble speaking the word. This authoritative history on white and black America’s historical usage of the word gives overwhelming evidence on how “nigger” will always remain within the category of a racial slur. Casual readers may find the historical analysis a bit daunting, but it is necessary in understanding why the N word continues to be controversial.
And yet, Asim makes a convincing case for social commentary while using the word. Comedians and political activists since the 1960s have used the word to critique race relations in America. Malcolm X used the word in his famous autobiography but acknowledged its power to remain potent to the black psyche. Richard Pryor’s comedic performances while using the N word in the 1970s are explained as a brilliant artist using the word, “not as a liability but a weapon.” His famous routine called “Bicentennial Nigger,” which goes through the plight of blacks throughout American history, showcases how the word can be masterfully used for provoking discussions on race. From the 1980s onward, the word has been used in film and TV both as a racial slur and a term of endearment within the black community, which continues to cause controversy.
The book gives no conclusion on how the word should be used but does offer the reader some options for interpretation. After a thoughtful analysis on why blacks continue use the N word, Asim isn’t completely convinced that the racial slur will lose any of its potency. Instead, the argument for the use of the word leads to confusion about what it means to be a “nigger” and more importantly, who should be using it.