Jabari Asim is an author, journalist, poet, and playwright born in St. Louis, Missouri. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of The Crisis, the NAACP’s flagship publication. Previously, he was deputy editor at the Washington Post Book World, a post he held for nearly a decade. His most recent book is The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (2007), which The Los Angeles Times calls “a sharp-eyed musing on the history of the word and how it bears, or should bear, on a media-driven culture that is dangerously ahistorical, especially in matters of race.” Asim also edited the collection of essays, Not Guilty: Twelve Black Men Speak Out on Law, Justice, and Life (2002). His writing has appeared in Essence, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, The International Herald Tribune, Emerge, and many other publications, and his poems, essays, and plays have been anthologized widely in collections including Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of New Black Literature (2000), The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature (2000), and Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the 21st Century (2002), edited by E. Ethelbert Miller. Called “perhaps the most influential African-American literary critic of his generation” by The Washington Post, Asim has also written for local theater companies and is author of several books for children and young adults. Asim lives in Maryland with his wife and five children.
From The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why
W.E.B. Du Bois wasnt exactly prophetic when he famously observed that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the “Color Line.” It was 1903, after all, and the color line had been a growing problem ever since whites first confronted Native Americans centuries earlier. But Du Bois was indisputably accurate. Few were as aware of historys long reach as he, and perhaps even fewer felt the sting of the past as acutely. By the time of his writing, the Native American threat to white dominance had been emphatically eliminated, leaving only blacks between the conquerors of the New World and the bountiful destiny they envisioned.
The slaves many talents — contributed under threat of death — had once made African Americans crucial to white ambitions in North America. Even then, the white ruling class imagined a day when their captives services would no longer be required. George Washington expressed a typical desire in a 1778 letter to his plantation manager. “To be plain,” he wrote, “I wish to get quit of Negroes.” Presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln took Washingtons wish a step further, entertaining fantasies of large-scale black exportation that ultimately went nowhere. In contrast, taking steps to ensure that the blacks in their midst would not become citizens of the Republic proved much easier. Early on, the Founding Fathers removed us from the Declaration of Independence, an act Ralph Ellison called a “failure of nerve.” The Founders committed “the sin of American racial pride,” Ellison wrote. “They designated one section of the American people to be the sacrificial victims for the benefit of the rest . . . Indeed, they [blacks] were thrust beneath the threshold of social hierarchy and expected to stay there.” How whites from all levels of society worked to keep us there — through a combination of custom, law, myth, and racial insult — is the subject of this book.
- Interview by Stephen Colbert. The Colbert Report. 20 January 2009.
- “Preaching Incivility.” The Washington Post. 18 April 2005.
Let Freedom Ring | April 16, 2008
SYMPOSIUM I | Art and Democracy in the King Years and Beyond: Scholarly Assessments