Monday, May 28, 2007

The N Word

Pop quiz! Who said...

To be plain, I wish to get quit of Negroes...

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in endowments both of body and mind.

I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race...


George Washington (in a 1778 letter to his plantation manger)
Thomas Jefferson (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785)
Abraham Lincoln (1858)!!

These bon mots and more are revealed in Jabari Asim's new(ish) book, THE N WORD: WHO CAN SAY IT, WHO SHOULDN'T AND WHY. What Asim (syndicated columnist and deputy editor of the WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD) has accomplished in this slender, powerful book, is a concise history of African-Americans... as told BY whites TO other whites.

Through the lens of the "N" word, from first recorded usage through today, Asim makes the persuasive case that whites could not deal with the dichotomy of being good, God-fearing men of noble purpose AND slave owners. Instead of abolishing slavery at the birth of the nation, our glorious founding fathers created a myth around those they had brutally imported from Africa to MORALLY justify the Africans' enslavement. To do this, they created the "N-----", and bent reality to fit their story. It helped the whites sleep at night AND get their cotton picked. Africans were not the same race as whites. They were animalistic in their joys, passions and fears. Because their pleasure was only base sexual gratification and their pain was "transitory", there was no moral imperative to keep families intact, honor their history, allow them to keep their names or grant dignity to them in any way. Because they were "fearful" of freedom, and too stupid to be of use, slavery was, in fact, a COMPASSIONATE alternative to freedom.

Because they were not human, it didn't matter if white men slept with black woman, but it was an affront for any lust-crazed Negro to sleep with a white woman.

Because they were simpleminded, they loved to dance and sing merrily while working 18 hour days.

But, because they were animalistic, they could turn mean and evil and needed to be put down.

W.E.B. Du Bois cleverly called this "racial folklore", and insisted that it's presence made the "color line", as he called it, transcend simple economic exploitation. For example, while other ethnic minorities have been or are being exploited for their labor, it is unique to the black experience to have an identity manufactured by the dominant white society and then brutally and systemically imposed -- even imprinted -- onto them, the "...belief that somewhere between men and cattle, God created a tertium quid, and called it a Negro -- a clownish, simple creature, at times even lovable within its limitations."

In the subsequent pages, Asim traces the implementation of this "racial folklore" through American history, proving his point with devastating detail. Almost like a prosecutor, even if you have known all the facts, seeing them all pulled together in such a cogent way makes it clear to ANYONE that whites have tried to rewrite the reality of black America with the merciless, pernicious efficiency of Orwellian scope. "2+2=5". Winston Smith needed not just repeat it, but BELIEVE it. Internalize it.

Slaves not willing to work in subhuman conditions? They're lazy!
Slaves pretending to like whitefolk to get by? They're jolly darkies!
Slaves try to run away because they don't like being slaves? They're aggressive, violent, predatory animals out to rape white women and kill white men!

Again, a quote by W.E.B. Du Bois sums it up perfectly. "Everything Negroes did was wrong. If they fought for freedom, they were beasts; if they did not fight, they were born slaves. If they cowered on the plantation, they loved slavery; if they ran away, they were loafers. If they sang, they were silly, if they scowled, they were impudent... And they were funny, funny -- ridiculous baboons, aping men!"

Asim walks us through this twisted history, showing how this "folklore" became fact, through pseudo-science (initiated by Jefferson, himself!), white mistrelry, "plantation" literature, up through Michael Richards' onstage tirade.

What is so pernicious about the "n-----ization" of America is the way it self-perpetuates, creating false history, false "experts" and false "eyewitnesses", thus creating an inauthentic basis for the black experience. Asim deals with this explicitly in a chapter about the painful legacy of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. The book (which I have never read), is, in fact, a Christ allegory, written by an ardent, Christian abolitionist. How, then, did it come to be synonymous, in the contemporary lexicon, with "sellout"? Asim explains that Harriet Beecher Stowe, having little first-hand experience with black people, used many of the racist conventions of (white-authored) "plantation literature", in their portrayal of black speech and attitudes. With a foundation of inauthentic "research", even the sympathetic portrayal of blacks in the novel served to perpetuate negative and harmful stereotypes.

Adding insult to injury, the rights to dramatize the book fell away from Stowe's control, allowing the masses to see play versions of the book, in which the character of Tom was altered from a robust young man to a dodering, simpering old man, sometimes nominally in keeping with Stowe's rhetorical point, but often, perverted to serve explicitly racist motives.

The racist stereotypes are even internalized by blacks. After generations of blacks being forcably corralled into a small sphere of possibility, after generations being told that they are base and less than human, or, certainly, less than whites, many blacks begin to live out the very grotesque "fables" of black life, as concocted by whites. From this, stems the smiling, dancing, "coon", a role still required of many African Americans on sit-coms and lame comedies, and the "bad N-----", the provocative, raping, stealing, killing machine that eventually became the "thug" or "gangsta", celebrated in film, in rap music and on the streets of America.

The most horrendous problem is the circle of unbroken white power, modern white politicians and authority figures using the self-comforting lies of their ancestors about the nature of the black race to justify the curtailment of blacks' rights. By using this "folklore" to decide that "urban blight" is a foregone conclusion, based on the nature of the black community, contemporary politicians are able to perpetuate their ancestors' racist policies, all while avoiding admitting that racist hiring practices, racist college admission policies, failing public schools and difficulty accessing financial services are NOT the result of failures within the black community, but the result of centuries-old racist, self-serving beliefs. Believing in these "truths" also allows contemporary whites to view any attempt to correct historical injustices to be "reverse" racism.

In the concluding chapters, Asim describes a black community caught between a desire to "own" the "n" word and those who wish to bury the "n" word, along with all of attendant white lies about the limits of black genius. Asim points out how, by perpetuating the use of the word, blacks may be reinforcing this "folklore" of black inferiority... to young blacks and, worse, to a new generation of whites, such as Quentin Tarantino, all of whom feel the liberty to play in the "n-----" sandbox". Using examples such as "Archie Bunker" and Dave Chappelle, he points out the limit of even intentional satire -- that those most in need of understanding the joke may be those most likely to dangerously misinterpret it. (In fact, on THE ACTOR'S STUDIO, Chappelle, himself, admitted that seeing too many white kids use his show as permission to use the "n" word was part of the reason he so publicly pulled the plug on production. This isn't mentioned in the book, but lends tremendous credibility to Asim's point.)

Asim feels that artists and historians should have permission to work within the poisonous world the "n" word created, but that for all others, the use and it's legacy should be ended, in favor of a more uplifting vision for black (and white) America, saying:

When Lemuel Haynes composed LIBERTY FURTHER EXTENDED in 1776, he wrote: 'I think it not hyperbolical to affirm, that even an African, has Equally as good a right to his Liberty in common with Englishmen.' He made no mention of "n-----s." When David Walker published his remarkable APPEAL in 1829, he addressed it to 'my dearly beloved Brethren and Fellow Citizens.' He did not mention "n-----s." When W.E.B. Du Bois published his landmark collection of essays in 1903, he called it THE SOUL OF BLACK FOLK -- not "n-----s." When Marcus Garvey formed his organization in 1916, he called it the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He made no mention of "n-----s." In his speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "America has given the Negro people a bad check"; he did not say America has given "n-----s" a bad check. A year later, when Malcolm X began his "Ballot or the Bullet" speech with a greeting to "Brothers and Sisters and Friends", not "n-----s" and friends. In her 1971 lecture at Tougaloo College, Fannie Lou Hamer urged, "Stand up, black men, this nation needs you." She did not say "Stand up, n-----s."

"Africans." "Negroes." "Black men." "Brothers." "Sisters." "Fellow Citizens." Each falls off the tongue with ease. None is hard to pronounce.

I for one can still visualize the "n-----," and perhaps because I'm a man, I usually see him as a man, odious and shiftless, violent and stupid, contemptuous of black women and obsessed with white ones -- a self-hating, devilish phantom whose footsteps can still be heard as we tread through the tentative early years of the twenty-first century... As long as we (meaning African-Americans) embrace the derogatory language that has long accompanies and abetted our systemic dehumanization, we shackle ourselves to those corrupt white delusions -- and their attendant false story of our struggle in the United States. Throwing off those shackles would at least free us to stake acclaim to an independent imagination.... I dream of a world where "n-----" no longer roams, confined instead to the fetid white fantasy land where he was born.

THE N WORD is ESSENTIAL to any parent adopting transracially. It provides the Rosetta Stone for the iconography of African-Americans in the mainstream (white) culture. Better than any other book I've read, explains WHY racism exists and HOW racism came to take the form it did. Are there better histories of African-Americans? Undoubtedly. Better books about the effects of racism? Sure. But no other book I've found articulates the psychosis of racism and it's origins as completely and powerfully as this one. This book explains, for example, that weird opinions about blacks my grandmother held actually date back to Jefferson, directly.

Through this book, a white parent is empowered to deconstruct contemporary examples of the "n-----ization" of black culture and politics -- by white and blacks (or, more specifically, by blacks serving the vision of -- and financially renumerated by -- whites). When a white college frat dons blackface, pull this book off the shelf and explain the history of minstrelry. When blacks are viewed as oversexualized -- either as predatory men or eager, available women, this book will be invaluable in explaining the root causes of that portrayal. Conversely, when blacks are the sexless facilitators of white nobility, allowing the white hero to save the day and get the girl, that, too can be explained through the prism conveyed in this book.

One last use for this book I wish to convey. This book could even lift the veil from the eyes of white racists, explaining that they have bought into a wholly fictional worldview. This is a personal issue for many, as I know a handful of you have family members who disapprove of your adoption. This book may help them understand their own unexamined racism and, hopefully, see their grandchild (for example) as the possessor of no less genius than any white grandchild.


cathy said...

Okay--I want to comment, but you'll need to give me a day or two just to digest all you wrote. I don't even know where to start. There goes a good night's sleep tonight. My mind will be racing.

Swerl said...

I read the chapter about Jefferson a day before enrolling our oldest son in kindergarten. They had the pictures of the founding fathers, including Jefferson, on the wall over the main office's desk at his school. I spent an hour waiting to enroll my kid, wondering how I was going to explain to my daughter-to-be the reverence afforded Jefferson in light of what I had just read about NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA. I feel your pain... my mind was racing, too! Looking forward to your thoughts.

cathy said...

I look forward to getting a chance to read this book sometime this summer. Your post was excellent, and I still feel like I need to read it several more times to take it all in. As the mother of 2 black boys, not one of my white friends understands some of the conversations I will have to have with my sons. The "you WILL be stopped by police even though you've done nothing wrong" talk. Racism, as we all know, never goes away. It morphs and hides and takes on pretty faces. The fact that the N word itself has morphed from label to slur to rap lyric just shows that we, as a culture, won't let it go. And if whites feel like they can cover or explain away how racisim has affected so many, we are doomed to repeat history. I believe we already are with the "illegal alien" issue. People who want basic human rights and the white government telling them, essentially, we want your labor but we don't want to grant you freedom. Another can of worms, though.

Swerl said...

Thanks for your input. What I find so invaluable, so necessary about this particular book is the fact that it does not START with the assumption that racism exists. So much of black political nonfiction begins with a "baseline" of understanding based on the common experience of most black people in America.

If the reader is a white person who does not believe in pernicious racism in our contemporary culture, you will begin arguing with the book from the first page. Non-racially aware white readers will reject the book on the basis of these assumptions. Of course, many of these books are not WRITTEN for whites, so the authors have no responsibility to convince white readers to accept black experience.

While I totally understand that, it leaves relatively few books that can compellingly CONVINCE whites that the "civil rights era" is not over. Instead, the vast majority of blacks and the vast majority of whites remain within their own "echo chambers", neither convincing the other of their version of the "truth".

My "truth", what I've seen within my own life and experience, is that racism exists. I don't need a black daughter to know that.

By NOT taking the existence of racism as an assumption, Asim has written a very special tome that, I feel, in a readable way, can take a white who is of the "racism ended in the sixties" mentality, or even a "blacks are lazy SOBs who benefit from reverse racism" mentality and CONVINCE them that we are ALL still struggling under the weight of a racist history.

Thanks for your thoughtful response.