RANDALL KENNEDY EXPLORES THE HISTORY OF THE INFLAMMATORY RACIAL SLUR
CAMBRIDGE – Nigger.
It’s a fightin’ word, a foul provocation, a dehumanizing emblem of 400 years of American racism, intolerance, and stupidity.
It’s a term of endearment, a hip-hop salutation, a word that has been flipped and embraced to signify deep kinship among many young African-Americans.
Regardless of spelling, pronunciation, or intention, arguably no word in the American lexicon conjures more incendiary emotion and history than “nigger.” Considered so barbed and venomous it is widely referred to as “the n-word,” in many corners uttering its two syllables aloud is tantamount to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
Still, it’s the only title Randall Kennedy considered for his latest book.
Both informative and infuriating, “Nigger” is an anatomy of an epithet, which, through four centuries, has lost none of its potency to enrage and fuel fierce debate. That’s why Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, was committed to using it. His is a book designed to provoke discussion, if not outright acrimony, beginning with its inciting yet almost-hypnotic cover – six white 48-point lowercase letters against a dark background. No photos, no illustrations. Just Kennedy’s name and the book’s intriguing subtitle: “The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.”
“It’s the paradigmatic racial slur. There’s a weightiness to ‘nigger’ that just isn’t there in respect to other slurs,” said Kennedy, 47, during a recent interview in his cluttered Harvard Law School office. “At the same time, words are very complex things and can mean many things depending on the circumstances. The word ‘nigger’ is not self-defining; the word ‘nigger’ takes on its meaning from the way in which people use it, their intentions, and the context.”
strange “career” includes its latest incarnation, “nigga,” the hip-hop sobriquet denoting affection between African-Americans. As such, it is the peculiar descendant of “man” in the 1930s and 1940s and “brother” in the 1960s and 1970s. Kennedy is sympathetic to those who believe this refashioning of the word and its meaning has slowly begun to defuse a term that, in American society, has long been akin to a burning stick of dynamite.
His book could well become one of the most talked-about of the year – even though some readers, regardless of race, may be reluctant to pronounce its title out loud.
Published by Pantheon, “Nigger” is Kennedy’s second book – the first was 1997’s well-received “Race, Crime, and the Law.” But nothing he has accomplished thus far in his career, including working as a law clerk in the early 1980s for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, could have prepared him for the controversies swirling around his latest book.
Professors have been among the most ardent dissenters.
Richard Delgado, law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has written extensively about hate speech, including the book “Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment.” Although he hasn’t read Kennedy’s book yet, he says he is greatly disturbed by its title.
“My first thought was, ‘There goes Randy going off again being provocative, which he’s made something of a career of,” Delgado said. “My next thought was, ‘Boy, it’s going to sell a lot of books.’
“But featuring the word simply encourages people who have little love for folks of color to think they can treat them verbally any way they want – uncaringly, dismissively, and in a mean-spirited fashion,” he said. “It just contributes to a climate that I deplore.”
Others have accused Kennedy of resorting to a cheap marketing ploy. Leaning back in an office dominated by books, papers, and family photos, Kennedy smiled at the criticisms
but was unmoved.
“I’m not ashamed. When someone writes a book, a considerable amount of time and thought goes into what the title should be, and if this is a catchy title that will get people’s attention, yes!” he said. “I want people’s attention. I didn’t spend time doing this so people would not read the book.
“If you want to call it marketing, call it marketing. I don’t feel badly about that. And saying it’s beneath me – why? I think it’s a really interesting subject. An exploration of the history of nigger is a useful vehicle with which to explore the terrain of American race relations in all of its horror, ugliness, change, irony, and paradox.”
Still others have complained about Kennedy’s characterization of the word as the “paradigmatic ethnic slur,” but he says he’s not trying to devalue the sting of other epithets. Any derogatory term is psychologically harmful, especially for the targeted group. Still, he says, no other slur generated more “havoc, bloodletting, and menace.” It has derailed careers, sullied reputations, led to heated court battles, and resulted in murder. Kennedy says the n-word is “the mother lode for slurs,” and as such has become a kind of international shorthand for a devastating, universal put-down.
“That’s why Arabs are called sand niggers, and the Irish the niggers of Europe, the Palestinians the niggers of the Middle East,” he said. “It’s the epithet that generates epithets.”
It wasn’t always such a toxic word. When the first Africans were enslaved and brought to Virginia in 1619, they were listed as “negars” – derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger – and the word was not believed to have any pejorative meaning. No one is sure when or how that changed, but, as Kennedy writes, “by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult.”
Almost two centuries later, the word, once confined to the province of bigots, is now part of a popular culture. Both Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor (who stopped using the word after a 1979 trip to Africa) made it a regular part of their stand-up routines in the 1960s and 1970s. Comedians from Chris Rock to Bernie Mac say the word without hestitation, while Quentin Tarantino has written it into his films “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.” It’s also a recurrent term in television shows such as HBO’s hardscrabble prison drama, “Oz.”
But hip-hop culture has exerted the greatest influence in resurrecting the n-word and in attempting to reform its pejorative nature. Some believe making the word commonplace, and even co-opting it as an affectionate greeting, removes its power to harm and wound. It was comedian Bruce’s belief that if the word was said often enough, it wouldn’t “mean anything anymore.”
“On one hand, I’m sympathetic to the theory of Lenny Bruce’s defanging – let’s try to remove the power of the word by removing its taboo status,” Kennedy said. “As soon as you make something taboo, it has a certain power. But I would tell anybody, ‘Be careful.’ It’s a provocative word, it’s a word that can get you into trouble. And, by and large, that’s a good thing. There was a time when a lot of people, even in the Senate and the House of Representatives, didn’t mind using the word. That doesn’t go anymore, and that’s a good thing that the word has been stigmatized.
“At the same time, words and culture are complicated,” he said. “Words change over time, cultural patterns change over time, and I think that’s a great thing, too, when a word can be taken away from bigots and used in an affirmative way.”
For that reason, Kennedy contends that a white person using the n-word isn’t “per se, a bad thing.” Still, even in its most modern use, there’s an unspoken rule that it is a word to be used by blacks, not whites. Even Eminem, the Great White Hope of hip-hop who has never met an offensive word he couldn’t hammer into rhyme, has never uttered the word on his CDs. But Kennedy believes that, depending on context and intention, there are some whites who should feel comfortable using the word.
For his part, the n-word is not a regular part of Kennedy’s vocabulary. A native of South Carolina, Kennedy said that trying to recall when he first heard the word “nigger” is like trying to remember the first time he heard the word “the,” though he recalls hearing it uttered in his own household “in all of its guises.”
Now, with the publication of “Nigger,” he wants readers to better understand this word in all of its ancient and modern guises, as slur and salutation. He expects condemnation and complaint, but he believes his book presents an opportunity for thoughtful consideration of this nation’s unhealed racial wounds.
“I want people to come away with an understanding of the complexity of race relations in our culture. This is a word, like many words, that has a very complicated history, and I want people to develop more of an appreciation of the fact we don’t just move in straight lines,” he said. “And I want people to take away an enriched, more vivid understanding of how deep, ugly, and current American anti-black racism is. I don’t think anyone can read this book and not get that lesson.”