The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
$22.00, 226 pages, ISBN 0-375-42172-6.
Université de Rouen
Using the upsetting "nigger-as-insult" concept to make his
point, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy approaches Americas
race relations in a captivating book-length study where he demonstrates
remarkable knowledge of American socio-political context. The book
falls into four chapters: "The Protean N-Word" comes
first, followed by "'Nigger' in Court", then "Pitfalls
in Fighting 'Nigger': Perils of Deception, Censoriousness, and Excessive
Anger" and finally "How Are We Doing with 'Nigger'?"
Under these four headings, Professor Randall Kennedy is concerned
with a structured study of the psychological aspects of race relations
and racism in the United States including the social conditions of
What is particularly interesting is thatwhile focusing on slang
and invectiveRandall Kennedy analyzes the problem of race identity,
together with the psychological, social and historical symbol systems
of English language, carrying on his study within a sociological framework.
As he lays the emphasis on a historical examination of social alienation,
professor Randall Kennedy gives an account of correspondence theories
that are thoroughly dealt with. In all the anecdotes he narrates,
certain basic uses of language are seen as part of the nature of American
society, that is, as part of its essential definition as a structure
governed by dialectical laws. Indeed, the various uses that are made
of the word "nigger" are seen as providing empirical representations
of certain fundamental sociological concepts including the most vexing
questions of race and justice.
No doubt Randall Kennedys major offering is the sensitive exploration
of racial animus embodied in language that is achieved through a close
analysis of the way "nigger" has seeped into practically
every aspect of American culture, from literature to political debates,
from cartoons to song, from the 1800s' lyrics lampooning Blacks to
the sites devoted to "nigger jokes" on the Internet. "Nigger",
as professor Randall Kennedy shows brilliantly, has been a familiar
part of the vocabulary of Whites high and low. With unprecedented
insight, Randall Kennedy puts a tracer on "nigger". Opposing
it to "nigga"a term capable of signaling friendly
salutationhe reports on the use of a word that did not originate
as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time until it
became arguably the most consequential social insult in American
language but also a key-word in the lexicon of race relations, an
important term in American politics highly reminiscent of the dilemmas,
tragedies and ironies of the African-American experience.
This books merit rests first with the emphasis that Randall
Kennedy has laid upon the etymology of the word "nigger",
then with its exploration of the following questions: How should "nigger"
be defined? Is "nigger" a part of the American cultural
inheritance that warrants preservation? Is it a more hurtful insult
than other racial epithets? Should Blacks be able to use "nigger" in
ways forbidden to others? Should the law view "nigger" as
a provocation that reduces the culpability of a person who responds
to it violently? Should a person be fired from his or her job for
saying "nigger"? How might the destructiveness of "nigger"
Professor Randall Kennedy achieves a tour de force in identifying
how "nigger" has been used and by whom because he is just
as convincing when he deplores that derogatory references to Blacks
as "niggers" have been a safe indulgence for Whiteseven
in courtas when he evokes African Americans use of "nigger"
as an ironic, shorthand spoof on the absurdity of American race relations,
or else when he analyzes "nigger" litigation in American
legal history. Not only does Kennedy capture the difficulty of understanding
why Blacks have a right to use "nigger" even as others do
not, mainly by focusing on the white rapper Eminems refusal
to use the "N word", but he also undertakes to lead a precise
analysis of the controversies to which the use of the word "nigger"that
is viewed as commercially valuable in the context of black cultural
expressionhas given rise. In a carefully documented study of
American history, Kennedy emphasizes the social, political and cultural
functions of a term that was put to a variety of uses and radiates
a wide array of meanings if one takes into account a rich panoply
of contexts and a wide variety of intonations.
This book offers a captivating account of the ubiquitous stories featuring
"nigger" that appeared in literature by and about black
Americans. Adding anecdotes, Kennedy provides a fascinating analysis
of what lies behind African Americans anger and anguish when
"nigger" is deployed and meant as a racial insult that has
evolved into the paradigmatic slur of American language. Challenging
the readers to go beyond the exploration of historical racial hostility,
Randall Kennedy, through a selection of signifying anecdotes where
most of the emblematic figures of American history are involved, sensitively
shows how "nigger" was used by African Americans as a cultural
and political weapon. To be ignorant of the meanings and effects of
the "N word", says Kennedy most talentedly, is to make oneself
vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a
reputation, a friend, even ones life. Nigger sensitively
addresses that concerns. This book undoubtedly represents an analytical
tour de force in the area of race.
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