Harvard Educational Review
  1. Nigger

    The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

    By Randall Kennedy

    New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. 226 pp. $22.00.

    In his provocative book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy explores various meanings of this contentious and ambiguous word. Kennedy claims that the term "nigger is fascinating precisely because it has been put to a variety of uses and can radiate a wide array of meanings" (p. 34). He notes that words like honky, kike, wetback, and gook do not seem to capture the same attention or create the uneasiness that nigger does. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, delves into the history of the word nigger as well as the countless ways and contexts in which the term is now being used by Americans of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

    Kennedy approaches the analysis of this highly controversial word in four detailed chapters. He begins chapter one, "The Protean N-Word," by retracing the origin of nigger, the various ways Americans tend to use the word and why it "generate[s] such powerful reactions" (p. 3). Nigger, Kennedy asserts, is derived from the Latin word niger for the color black, and has become part of the vocabulary of all types of people, including those Kennedy describes as "whites high and low" (p. 8). For example, Kennedy cites Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds’ reference to Howard University as the "nigger university" and President Harry S. Truman’s reference to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell as "that damned nigger preacher" (p. 11). In this same chapter, Kennedy includes personal accounts of prominent Black Americans, such as Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, who have been targets of this epithet. Interestingly, Kennedy points out that many Black Americans have actually embraced the word nigger and shifted its meaning to a more positive connotation that they use among themselves. For example, Kennedy documents Black American rap artist Ice Cube as saying, "When we call each other ‘nigger’ it means no harm. . . . But if a white person uses it, it’s something different, it’s a racist word" (p. 52). In contrast, Kennedy cites University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson, a Black American, who believes that "there is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying, ‘nigger,’ just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it. What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken — the speaker’s aims, effects, alternatives" (pp. 51–52).

    Kennedy also draws on a powerful comment made by journalist Jarvis Deberry, which describes the word nigger as "beautiful in its multiplicity of functions . . . capable of expressing so many contradictory emotions" (p. 37). To illustrate some of these "multiple functions," Kennedy cites sociologist John Hartigan’s research, which describes how nigger can refer to anyone of any color or shade. For example, Hartigan’s research documents how poor Whites in Detroit refer to their White neighbors as niggers, and in some cases as wiggers, which signifies a White nigger.

    Having set a broad context for interpreting the word, Kennedy devotes the second chapter, "Nigger in Court," to discussing how the use of nigger has been debated over many years in court cases in the United States. He divides "Nigger in Court" into four sections that underscore Kennedy’s assertion that the use of nigger is extremely complicated, and that court decisions dealing with this term reflect this complexity, as they are usually decided on contextual factors that differ from case to case.

    Also in chapter two, Kennedy includes the various definitions of nigger in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and acknowledges that some Black Americans are not pleased with the way the term is defined. However, Kennedy is adamant that decisions "whether to note or how to define a deeply controversial word is an inescapably ‘political’ act, and claims to the contrary are either naïve or disingenuous" (p. 136). Kennedy also incorporates the ideas of eradicationists (i.e., people who believe that any use of nigger is always inappropriate). Because he primarily sets out to describe various meanings of the term, such a view from eradicationists appears valid at best, but somewhat limited and uninformed for Kennedy’s taste.

    In chapter three, "Pitfalls in Fighting Nigger: Perils of Deception, Censoriousness, and Excessive Anger," Kennedy looks at how the word nigger has received much publicity when used in the media or in contexts other than the courts. To illustrate this point, Kennedy explores some White Americans’ artistic use of nigger as well as Black Americans’ perceptions about the word and White Americans’ use of it. For instance, he mentions filmmaker’s Spike Lee’s belief that African American filmmakers have more of a right to use nigger than do White Americans. This chapter also addresses some people’s concerns with Mark Twain’s use of nigger in Huckleberry Finn. Kennedy claims that although Twain was once "inculcated with white-supremacist beliefs and sentiments," he eventually "underwent a dramatic metamorphosis" that radically changed his beliefs (p. 139). This change in Twain’s perspective is actually reflected in Huckleberry Finn, which depicts the ignorance of White Americans who use the term.

    Kennedy ends his third chapter with a proclamation that current Black comedians are liberally and appropriately "eschew[ing] boring conventions . . . that nigger can mean only one thing" (p. 171). Kennedy’s briefest and final chapter, "How Are We Doing with Nigger?" suggests that "public opinion has effectively stigmatized nigger-as-insult," regardless of the context in which people use the term, and predicts that "as nigger is more widely disseminated and its complexity is more widely appreciated, censuring its use — even its use as an insult — will become more difficult" (p. 175).

    With so many accounts of the use of nigger in various contexts, Kennedy appropriately concludes that "for bad and for good, nigger is . . . destined to remain with us for many years to come — a reminder of the ironies and dilemma, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience" (p. 176). Kennedy’s provocative piece is a powerful illustration of how one term can have an array of meanings for those who use it, for those who interpret it, and in the specific situations in which the word is spoken and heard, written and read.

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