The debate over the N word touches almost every aspect of American popular culture: Does it ever have an appropriate place in the media? Are rappers justified in using it? Should Huckleberry Finn, which repeats it 215 times, be taught in high school?
As the cultural critic Jabari Asim explains, none of these questions can be pondered effectively without a clear knowledge of the word’s bitter legacy. Here he draws on a wide range of examples from science, politics, the arts, and more to reveal how the slur has both reflected and spread the scourge of bigotry in America over the past four hundred years. He ponders the contributions of cultural figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain, W.E.B. Du Bois and Margaret Mitchell, Dave Chappelle and NWA. Through this history, Asim shows how completely our national psyche is affected by the use of the word, and why it’s such a flashpoint today.
JABARI ASIM is the editor in chief of The Crisis, the NAACP’s flagship publication. For the previous eleven years he was an editor at the Washington Post Book World. His writing has appeared in Essence, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the Hungry Mind Review, Emerge, and elsewhere. He lives in Maryland.