John McWhorter

Saint Maya

A Song Flung Up to Heaven by Maya Angelou (Random House, 256 pp., $23.95) Click here to purchase the book. I.When I was in college in the early 1980s, the black folksinger Odetta was invited to campus to perform. Clad in African garb and accompanying herself on the guitar, she weaved together inspirational songs and savory anecdotes garnished with ancient wisdom. She rocked the house, the young and mostly white students delighted to be sitting at the feet of a black Earth goddess "telling it like it is." I thought I had a good time.

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Uses of Ugliness

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy (Pantheon, 226 pp., $22) Click here to purchase the book.No white person calls me "nigger," at least not when I am around. The white people with whom I come into contact seem aware that the word is today "the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language," as Christopher Darden put it during the O.J. Simpson trial. I know "nigger" mainly as an affectionate in-group term favored especially by black men.

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The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks by Randall Robinson (Plume, 262 pp., $13) I can buy a big house in an exclusive neighborhood. I can buy a fancy car or two. I can send my kids to private school. I can work hard and empower myself. Oprah Winfrey pulled herself up by the bootstraps.

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