[Editors,note language throughout story.]
WASHINGTON – A diverse crowd gathered at a popular café and bookstore Wednesday night to discuss a controversial word with an even more controversial history.
Washington Post columnist Jabari Asim discussed his new book,”The N Word: Who Can Say It,Who Shouldn't,and Why,” at the Busboys and Poets café in a neighborhood that attracts a multi-ethnic crowd.
The author of the widely debated book explored the background of the word “nigger.” He let the audience in on little-known historical facts,such as Thomas Jefferson's book,”Notes on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson wrote what he called a scientific look at black men. It uses the “N-word,” throughout,which is how Asim referred to the word during most of the evening.
Asim described the book as “one of the most racist books ever written. I carry it around with me,just to prove to people that I am telling the truth. You hear about the Declaration of Independence,but you don't hear about “Notes on the ‘State of Virginia.'”
Vallee Bunting,47,a consultant from Bowie,Md.,went to the cafe for the first time to hear Asim talk.
“I was struck by the diversity of the audience,” she said. “This shows that this is a very negative legacy that everyone carries around,no matter what race they are.”
Asim discussed the word's history,including a poem,”The Ten Little Niggers,” and several songs,”Chopped Up Niggers,” “Nigger Toe Rag” and “Heart of a Nigger.”
With paintings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. looking down on him,Asim said these songs and poems were recited for fun by some Americans.
The discussion soon turned to the word's use in modern society.
“It seems that black men are,in a sense,being defiant when they use this word,” Asim said. “But to me,it would be defiant to do things society doesn't expect you to do. Things like reading or voting.”
After the reading,Asim took questions,some of which generated tension.
An older white man said that,in his experiences,only lower-class,uneducated,young black men used the word. Both Asim and some audience members,including Sean Darling-Hammond,22,a communications consultant from Arlington,Va.,disagreed.
“I went to Harvard University,and the black people there used the word,” he said. “I've been around very rich,very affluent and very educated black people,and they say it just to fit in.”
He said the conversation about a word “that is often used,but seldom understood” was important.
Darling-Hammond,whose father is black and mother is white,said he never uses the word. “I lived in a pretty racist community,so I experienced the word a lot growing up,” he said. “There was just too much hatred.”
A young white schoolteacher said she will soon start a teaching job in a predominantly black neighborhood in the Bronx and did not know how to handle black kids using the word “nigga.”
Asim urged her to tread lightly.
“Most black kids don't take well to people telling them what to do,” he said. “If I were you,I would offer vocabulary-building exercises. This way,they have different ways of expressing themselves.”
Although some people said “nigga” was a positive spin on “nigger,” Asim disagreed. Some audience members yelled it could be grouped with such “bad-turned-good” words as “queer” and “bitch.”
As he does in his book,Asim analyzed the words' histories.
“The difference between those words and ‘nigger' is that this word was made for black people,” Asim said. “Queer did not always refer to homosexual people. It means weird,or strange. Bitch did not always refer to women. It means female dog.”
Asim added,”I would never use the word bitch casually,because there is not a consensus among women that it is OK. I would never use the word queer casually,because there is not a consensus among the homosexual community that it is OK.”
Asim sometimes broke the tension with light humor,even disclosing that the subtitle of the book was a marketing tool.
“I wanted the title to be ‘The N Word: Race,Metaphor and Memory.' My marketing team disagreed,” Asim said. “Obviously,I lost that argument.”
Asim said he is glad he lost,however. “The book has reached a much broader audience.”
As Bunting waited for Asim to sign a copy of his book for her,she said,”The white patrons seemed to have a sense of concern that their ancestors may have uttered this word to other people. So it's important that we talk about it so we can get a positive sense of self in the African-American community.”