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The African American Experience: Black History and Culture Through Speeches Letters Editorials Poems Songs and Stories Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Reprint edition Kai Wright

30th April 2011 History Books 10 Comments

This wide-ranging archive, capturing more than four centuries of African American history and culture in one essential volume, is at once poignant, painful, celebratory, and inspiring.

The African American Experience is a one-of-a-kind and absolutely riveting collection of more than 300 letters, speeches, articles, petitions, poems, songs, and works of fiction tracing the course of black history in America from the first slaves brought over in the 16th century to the events of the present day. All aspects of African American history and daily life are represented here, from the days of abolition and the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and the current times. Organized chronologically, here are writings from the great political leaders including Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Barack Obama; literary giants including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, and bell hooks; scholars such as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; artists including Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Wynton Marsalis, Run-DMC, the Sugar Hill Gang, and Chuck Berry; athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson; and many more.

A new introduction by Kai Wright provides overall context, and introductory material for each document delineates its significance and role in history. This edition features all new and updated material.

Kai Wright is a writer and editor whose work explores the politics of sex, race, and health. He contributes to a variety of independent and community-based publications ranging from Mother Jones to Essence magazine. He is the author of Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York (Beacon Press, January 2008) and Soldiers of Freedom (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2003). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The African American Experience: Black History and Culture Through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Songs, and Stories

  • 10 responses to "The African American Experience: Black History and Culture Through Speeches Letters Editorials Poems Songs and Stories Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Reprint edition Kai Wright"

  • Julia Lynch
    13:54 on April 30th, 2011
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    I saw Mr. Asim in Washington, DC during a discussion in April 2007 regarding this book, its origins and the history of the “N word”. The discussion was lively, surprising and informational. Lively due to the subject matter, and surprising due to the number of black people, particularly black men, that supported the continued use of the word (in a particular context – read more below). Finally, it was informational because it shed some light – unfortunate though it is in my opinion – on why some blacks advocate for the continued use of this term in any way.

    – Now to the book. The book is thorough, well-written, and covers an astonishing period of time in just over 200 pages. Mr. Asim does not advocate the use of the word, but nor does he seek to ban it. Instead he makes a compelling argument that this word – unlike any other in the English language – has had such a significant contribution to the ongoing racism against and degradation and stereotyping of blacks in the US and elsewhere that it is appalling that the casual use of the N word has grown, rather than diminished, over the years. Asim argues that the N word’s inability to disappear from the lexicon is hampered not strictly due to hip-hop artists of today, whom he doesn’t let off the hook for their incessant use of the word, but by the larger society that began referring to blacks as “niggas, niggers and nagurs” etc. several centuries ago when they were sold as sub-human property. The word moved beyond slavery and continued on in popular culture (books, films and music), pseudo-science (including what is referred to as niggerology), politics (with politicians waxing about how they could “outnigger” each other) and even in war. Asim traces these uses – and the related prevailing and parallel views of blacks as sub-human – to well over 400 years ago, the more recent past and the present day. However, reading this book is not merely a history lesson. It is a chilling reminder of why words are the most fantastic weapons we have against one another.

    In addition to the valuable historical context he uses to frame his argument, I think Mr. Asim offers a fresh perspective by dealing with the popular use of the term among black people. He makes a compelling point when he argues that of all of the words in the English language why use this word to supposedly show love or familiarity? As a black person are you okay with another black person saying to you “What’s up my brother?” or “What’s up nigger?” If you respond with both or the latter, your response to that question may change after reading Asim’s book.

  • Satish KC
    18:34 on April 30th, 2011
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    This is the sort of book that one is likely to reach for many times over many years. Across more than 700 pages it presents an emotional and powerful journey through the story of the Africans were brought to America as slaves. It begins with 16th century accounts of Africans being described as ideal for the labor needs of the New World. There are documents related to the slaves who were delivered to Jamestown, and fascinating laws detailing the treatment of slaves how their children are to be classified (“according to the condition of the mother”). The lyrics of the song “Strange Fruit” are no less moving when read as when heard. The book’s last entry is President Barack Obama’s 2008 speech about race.

    The power of this book is in the first-hand accounts and documents it lays out in convenient fashion. It’s a terrible cliché, but “The African American Experience” really is a difficult book to put down once you begin browsing through it. There is so much drama, emotion, and important history that one is likely to feel connected in a new way to the despair and struggle across all those centuries.

    The original Africans brought to America and their descendants suffered far more severely than most people know. Yes, 19th century slavery in America is well known and many know something about the horrors of the Middle Passage but there is so much more. This book is the perfect foundation for gaining a broad perspective on an important story. The information is as varied as it is interesting. There are songs, poems, letters, stories, interview transcripts with former slaves, speeches, and more.

    “The African American Experience” is a goldmine for anyone with an interest in general history or in the specific story of the Africans who were forced into cruel and inhumane conditions in a foreign land but as a people found the strength to endure.

    –Guy P. Harrison, author of

    Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity


  • webdiva
    4:05 on May 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    The genius of Jabari Asim’s book is not it’s exposition of the word “Nigger”, a subject that has been explored in contemporary detail by Randall Kennedy, Cornel West and others. Mr. Asim’s book is really about the poisonous notion of Black inferiority, its pervasiveness in the American societal framework, and, finally, its expression through use of the word “Nigger”. The N Word is destructive because of the vitriolic beliefs and attitudes that are associated with it. Asim teaches us this as straightforwardly as he knows how, and leaves us to make conclusions. I’m sending this book to my closest friends; it is a must for any comprehensive library on American race studies.

  • Obladi Oblada
    9:41 on May 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    Although Mr. Asim does forward an extremely logical point; most of the rest of the tone of this book is really inflammatory in many ways. Yes, he presents a very good reason for using the word “nigger” when he postulates that, by doing so, it will be removed of it’s power to hurt as much. This is so true as is the case with practically anything that receives more exposure. It self extinguishes. As long as it exists in it’s current “forbidden” state, the word will remain like a loaded gun in the pocket of anyone devious enough to use it in the most hurtful ways. A convenient pocket knife to slash through the delicate fabric of race relations in this country by irresponsible people

    On the other hand; Mr. Asim continues the pattern of inflaming the black audience by presenting history in the most one sided nature possible. (Sorry . . . most whites in this country are NO LONGER descended from people that were involved in slavery ! Most, like mine, SLAVED in the sweatshops and slaughterhouses, and mines and were exploited just as horrible. Read “The Jungle” for starters )

    Agitating blacks will result in understandably aggressive behavior which will cause a backlash among whites who ALSO feel justified to due credit for building the country. If Mr. Asim is astute enough to see the pattern that needs to be established to extinguish the potency of the “N word”, he should also be able to recognize that this pattern of fanning the fire must stop too. If it doesn’t than perhaps even the exposure of this word to the maximum may even be insufficient to calm the hates that fester in so many people. I feel confident that there are only a few people who wouldn’t wish to se true healing between all the people in our country !

    George J. Dagis

  • susies
    21:41 on May 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    As the author of this book, I’m naturally disappointed with Ms. Craven’s assessment of my work. Of course, I strenuously disagree. Fortunately, my domestic and international travels on behalf of the book have led to fruitful discussions with thousands of readers who have indeed appreciated my work, and their responses have left me enormously gratified.

  • German Fafian
    10:21 on May 2nd, 2011
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    I saw Jabari Asim speak at our Black Heritage Festival in Savannah. He was so wonderful I had to have the book. I attend with several friends and we ordered as a group. The book was just as we expected. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in race relations and social science.

  • Saner Rijet
    17:16 on May 2nd, 2011
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    The only bad thing to say about “The N Word” is what author Jabari Asim said himself. The subtitle, “Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why” is a marketing invention that missed the point of the book and does injustice to its purpose.

    Asim follows the N word through America history, like a trail of bread crumbs through a dark and dangerous forest. There are times when the trail is rather sparse, and other times when the pile of crumbs is wide and deep. The first crumbs are laid by 1619, with the unloading of 30 Africans into the new world. From the beginning, the word has a brutally negative meaning. Some have attempted to soften the word’s harshness by claiming that it originally meant little more than an observation about the darkness of a slave’s skin. But Asim makes clear by quoting from period documents that pigmentation was considered a radical (and unsavory) deviation from the European standard of lightness. Some even considered it to be literally an infection of the skin. Very quickly, the word took on connotations of inferiority, debased humanity, servility and lack of intelligence. To use the word meant to distance oneself from and to deny another’s personhood. Thus it was, thus it has always been. In fact, one thing I admire about Asim’s approach is that he does not give in to the now-current opinion that one should not judge past generations by this generation’s morality. Asim will have none of this – to capture, sell and own human beings, to separate them from wives and family, and then to ratify that action by creating an enduring culture that belittles and demeans them on account of skin color — has always been and will always be an act of heartless depravity.

    Asim takes us on a historical tour with stops at Monticello to hear Thomas Jefferson opine (without basis) compare the alleged lust of black men for white women with the lust of orangutans for black women. From there, we travel to the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, in an army where full 20% of the soldiers were black. We tour the racist and intolerant pre-Civil War North where even ardent abolitionists were convinced of Negro inferiority. Coming from Newburyport, MA, proud to be home to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, this was a hard fact to acknowledge. Asim shows why “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” intended as an abolitionist text, played on caricatures about blacks that were as offensive as they were inaccurate. Asim touches on the disgust of Union troops over fighting for black emancipation. We tour the Reconstruction Era South, which quickly and viciously shut the door to emancipation via lynchings, Jim Crow laws and propaganda. The propaganda took many forms, including popular music (with its depiction of “authentic” Negro dialect) and romances, which offered a sanitized and sanctified version of the glorious and pacific antebellum South in which beneficent whites and their willing slaves lived in symbiotic harmony. From here, we are treated to Northern race riots, the rise of minstrel shows and the caricatures of blacks in early films. Asim does the expected withering hatchet job on Klan-happy “The Birth of a Nation,” but also eviscerates the revisionist tone of “Gone With The Wind,” especially Margaret Mitchell’s book, on which the film was based.

    Asim shows also the quack-scientific and cultural beliefs that maintained whites’ base (in both senses of the word) assumptions. Was a black man happy? Then he was born to servility. Was he angry and violent? Well, that’s just his natural brutish temperament. Did he write thoughtful accounts of his life? He must have had the secret help of sympathetic whites. Asim also traces the original and development of the mythical “bad” black — prone to criminality and sexually insatiable – from the 19th century to the present day, where it is firmly ensconced in the violence and misogyny of rap lyrics.

    Asim gives us a glimpse into the science of race that used bad science to show that black brains were smaller than white brains. As Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in “The Mis-measure of man,” this was accomplished by comparing skulls from large-bodied European males to those of smaller Africans, even women, without accounting for the effect of body size on brain volume, a factor that would have erased nearly all correlations between brain size and racial “worth.”

    Asim brings us into the 20th century – from the Black Migration and the Harlem Renaissance through Emmett Till — ending his history with a discussion of Lyndon Johnson, the champion of civil rights, who nonetheless held blacks in extremely low regard.

    At this point, Asim falters somewhat as he tries to disentangle the complexities of modern cultural use of the N word. As the Civil Rights movement gained power and acceptability in 1950s and 1960s, whites began to self-regulate, socially punishing use of the word. But starting in the 1960s and 1970s, comics like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor began using the word in their race-aware routines. This led the way to a more nuanced view of the term, but also opened the door to its misuse. It’s one thing to listen to Pryor use the word to skewer lingering racial bias. But its use in the mouth of less talented and aware performers only served to reinforce the familiar “bad” black stereotype that both fascinated and repelled white audiences. Asim has the toughest time in this section, as he tries to detach “good” use of the N word (to attack racism) from bad uses (to reinforce stereotypes, to make cash). His heroes may be Pryor, Murphy, Chappelle, Rock and Tupac, but even he can’t completely exonerate every use of the word by those he admires.

    In the end, “The N Word” did its work. Asim expertly makes the case that the N word has always been associated with expressing the supposed inferiority of blacks, that its use continues to be a curse. For blacks to use it, Asim gingerly notes, is dangerous. Whether it is Chris Rock using it to brand criminally-minded blacks, or Quentin Tarantino (or Spike Lee) using it to sell movies, the word still has power to hurt and to reinforce race myths. Whether used by white racists to denigrate blacks, or by blacks to denigrate each other (and especially their women), the word has the ability to submerge entire populations into the quicksand of inferiority and self doubt. Its use always ends up confirming some of the worst and oldest facets of our culture.

    In spite of the volatility of the topic, Asim’s writes in cool, measure tones. Though his work is a survey that skims over the surface of his topic, Asim still conveys an enormous amount of information about history and race relations in the US. Though dispassionate in his exposition, he is passionate about the pain endured on account of the word he studies. “The N Word” is a must-read for those who think that racial bias is a thing of the past or that self-limits on language are nothing more than political correctness. Asim may be tentative about condemning those who continue to use the word, but his argument shows that there is no use of the word that will not eventually redound to the detriment of black aspirations. In a world in which talk show hosts regularly use racially-loaded language, we are well served by attending to the deeply-rooted and vicious social program that those words continue to promote.

  • Satish KC
    21:57 on May 2nd, 2011
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    Nowadays, any time a hot-button issue garners a lot of chatter in the media a hot-button book can’t be far behind. Enter The N-Word by Jabari Asim. Of course, the “Nigger issue” isn’t exactly a new one. When I was 12 I had a badly designed button that was supposed to say “Stop using the word Nigger” but read as “Stop using Nigger the word” with a big circle-strike through the offending term. I’m a bit older than 12 now. We didn’t abolish Nigger back then (in fact, its use has increased) and I’m pretty sure we’re not going to abolish it now. Not without a history lesson, anyway.

    Though it’s tempting to write this book off as an insta-title put out to cash in on the discussion, I find that I cannot do so. Even if the author didn’t think to write it until recently, it’s a book that someone should have already written. What Asim tries to do is put the discussion and the word in context. What is this word? Where did it come from? Who first used it and what did they intend?

    Does this stuff matter? Hell yes, it matters.

    Asim does a good job of pointing out that the word Nigger never had anything but a negative connotation. That it’s one of the tools white supremacists use to exert control over black people. Language is power. The highest placed black person in business, government, or education can be taken down in the eyes of others with just one label: Nigger.

    That’s why it’s important to keep these things in context.

    I do have problems with this book, but none of them have to do with the subject matter. As I said, Asim has an excellent grasp on the issue and provides a compelling argument against both the casual use of the N-Word and against banning the word all together. (More on that later.) As I read, I kept thinking that Asim could have benefited from a stronger editorial hand. It may be true that this book was put together quickly. It’s not as focused as it could be. It’s obvious he did a lot of research – there’s a lot of history in here. But it isn’t always clear how this history connects with the central point of the book. A stronger, less linear structure might have served the subject better.

    Still, everyone could use a history lesson every now and then. Count me amongst the kind of people who couldn’t stand history class but love a book that provides historical context surrounding something we’re already interested in. And the stuff Asim offers up about the Founding Fathers, past presidents, and Charles Darwin won’t make it into your typical high school history book.

    In the last chapter or so — by far the most moving and compelling part of the book — Asim makes a forceful case for erasing the word from public discourse, but he is explicit in affirming people’s rights to speak in whatever way they want in private.

    The N-Word is definitely a worthy book, even with its flaws. I defy anyone to read it with an open mind and not come away feeling that the word Nigger ought to be retired. Hopefully its publication will keep the issue in front of the media in a meaningful way.

  • Nathan Davies
    13:04 on May 3rd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    In Mr. Asim’s introducing, he clearly states that his little book is selective in his examples and some readers will disagree with his oversights. The author does a fine job of explaining the horrible history of the word and, despite almost 400 years of usage, the ‘N’ word still has a huge impact. He places such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in proper perspective in their attitudes about blacks. Pseudo-scientific nonsense such as niggerology is also accurately dissected. Other cultural examples hightlighted are Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jim Crow, minstrel shows, Reconstruction, race-baiting, Southern lynchings, Uncle Remus, Huck Finn, Archie Bunker, the OJ Simpson trial, Richard Pryor, Spike Lee and gangsta rap. Mr. Asim’s book isn’t out to slam whites or excuse African Americans for their verbal indiscretions. It is meant to stimulate discussion about this peculiar word. Speaking as one of two Causcasian parents raising two African-American boys, I am deeply appreciative of this wonderful, thought-provoking book.

  • bgetch
    18:10 on May 4th, 2011
    Reply to comment

    It’s a good read but it’s nothing you haven’t heard or read before. It’s wasn’t really an eye-opener.

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