Nigger: The History of a Troublesome Word

by Randall Kennedy

Published by Pantheon

256 pages, 2002


Buy it online


 

 

 

   

 

Not Just Black and White

Reviewed by Emru Townsend

 

When I was in the fifth grade, one of my favorite parts of English class was when the teacher set aside days for us to bring in any book we wanted for a half-hour of uninterrupted reading. One day I brought Dick Gregory's Nigger. (I was on something of a Gregory kick then, and had Up from Nigger and Dick Gregory's Bible Tales on my to-read pile.) While walking from table to table, the teacher stopped when she saw what I was reading. She asked what it was about, and I explained that it was Gregory's autobiography. "Don't you think that's a little... advanced?" she asked, a little nervously. She and I both knew it was nothing of the kind. "No," I answered honestly. She let the matter drop, but it was clear she was mentally wringing her hands.

That was when I first realized that taking the word nigger out, under even the most innocuous circumstance, is like putting a loaded gun onto a table. It doesn't matter what the intent is; the atmosphere in the room changes, and you just can't ignore it. I also think the biggest realization for me that day was that my teacher, who was white, didn't really understand how an eleven-year-old black child could have absorbed enough experience with the word nigger to be able to handle it as an ironic book title.

Reading the first chapter of Randall Kennedy's similarly titled Nigger: The Strange Case of a Troublesome Word , I suspected that Kennedy had the same understanding that whites generally don't (can't?) truly comprehend everything contained in that six-letter word, no matter how much they try. Maybe that's why he wrote the book. Certainly, it's why he spends just about all of the first chapter's 53 pages on stories about the many ways that blacks in America have experienced the word over the past 150 years or so.

The chapter hits the reader with example after example, relenting just enough to establish context. The stories' focus cuts across a wide section of social strata, emphasizing a hard fact I learned at a young age: no matter who you are or what you've done, to someone you're still just a nigger. But since this is a lesson I'd already learned, I started to find the chapter a little tiring at around the halfway mark; still, I thought, this collection of examples may be revelatory to others.

Kennedy really hits his stride in the second chapter, where he starts examining how nigger has popped up in court. There is, of course, reference to the O.J. Simpson trial (which produced the popular embrace of the infantile euphemism "the N-word"), but there are also documented uses by judges, defendants, bailiffs and lawyers.

You'd be right to assume that Kennedy's background as a Harvard law professor explains the chapter's (and the book's) heavy reliance on the legal system for examples and discussion. Nigger was, in fact, inspired by a series of lectures he gave at Stanford University and the University of Illinois at Champaign School of Law, which might also explain why the book sometimes feels like it's been padded out from more concise source material.

Overall, though, Kennedy accomplishes the fairly difficult goal he's set for himself: to discuss an extremely charged and emotional word dispassionately. And since the word itself covers so much ground -- university speech codes, its use among blacks, freedom of expression, the different faces of racism past and present, etc. -- it's not an easy minefield to cross.

Kennedy's feat partly stems from the way he stacks the deck in his favor. Like any good lawyer, he mostly builds his case with a battery of facts to establish precedent, leaving the reader with little to argue about. Do many blacks use the term nigger in ways they would never allow whites? Certainly. Is there division over how blacks use the word among themselves? Without a doubt. And Kennedy's got the newspaper articles, transcripts, quotes and footnotes to prove it. When you're mostly relaying established information from other sources, it's easy to stay levelheaded.

I'm not entirely sure I like this approach. For instance, when he explores the school of thought that nigger is the "superlative racial epithet," he points out that this necessarily brings up the notion of comparative oppression. Is it valid, he asks, to say that centuries of systematic white enslavement of Africans is better or worse than the deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust? If you take the diplomatic way out and suggest that neither is worse than the other, what does that do to the perceptions of both horrors? It's a subject worth bringing up, and a dangerous one. Blacks and Jews up and down the academic and social ladders have skirmished over this topic -- even over the use of the terms "African holocaust" and "African diaspora" -- for decades. Kennedy probably realized that venturing too deeply into these waters would quickly get him into a situation he couldn't get out of, one that would threaten to diminish the reader's focus on the actual intent of the book. Discretion proves to be the better part of academic valor here. That he brings up the subject at all is a smart move; that he leaves it before things get too hot is smarter.

But there's the flip side: when he does take a stand, it tends to be against easy targets. Thirty-five pages into the third chapter, part way through a lengthy but interesting exploration of how professors, students, administrators and bureaucrats both black and white have dealt with the use of nigger in schools and in public office, Kennedy states that in one case, "[Central Michigan University] authorities capitulated too quickly to the formulaic rage of affronted blacks, the ill-considered sentimentality of well-meaning whites, and their own crass, bureaucratic opportunism."

Well, sure. But taking that stand is pretty easy, in much the same way that it's easy to become exasperated at the black student who objected to the use of the word nigger in a class focusing specifically on taboo words, ultimately causing the teacher to be fired.

Interesting as it is, Nigger falls short because of this lack of risk-taking. It's meticulously researched, astonishingly levelheaded and provides a careful analysis of the different ways that blacks have historically related to the word, exploring how that affects free-speech and other legal issues.

Ultimately, Nigger feels more political than personal. Every black person has had some encounter with the word nigger, and I'd have been interested to see Kennedy's analytical approach applied to his own personal experiences, as a literate, professional black man in America -- one who clerked for Thurgood Marshall, the first black US Supreme Court justice.

I'd have liked to see Kennedy really delve into some of the topics he only barely addresses. For instance, why not explore the use of nigger on television, where it's often used as shorthand to identify the virulently bigoted white antagonist who will get his comeuppance in the last ten minutes of the show? That touches on the "formulaic rage" as well as several other issues about race, media and the culture of victimhood he briefly mentions and then sets aside.

And why not discuss generational differences in perception? If you look at his anecdotes, you can vaguely see a distinction between how blacks in the pre-civil rights-era South dealt with nigger as part of the daily hardships of being black, versus assimilated black students who are hypersensitive enough to take action against a teacher even when the word is used clinically.

How do those who were active during the civil rights movement feel about that? Is there a nigger generation gap? Has the codification of the word's use in popular culture affected our perception of racism and its different guises? That these and other questions are only hinted at keeps Nigger from being truly engaging. At best, Kennedy's book merely provides the Cliffsnotes as to why the issues around the word aren't just black and white. | March 2002

Emru Townsend is black and proud and co-creator of the Black History Pages.