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Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
Randall Kennedy
New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
$22.00, 226 pages, ISBN 0-375-42172-6.

Françoise Clary
Université de Rouen

Using the upsetting "nigger-as-insult" concept to make his point, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy approaches America’s 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 African Americans.

What is particularly interesting is that—while focusing on slang and invective—Randall 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 Kennedy’s 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 salutation—he 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 book’s 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" be assuaged?

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 Whites—even in court—as 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 Eminem’s 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 expression—has 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 one’s life. Nigger sensitively addresses that concerns. This book undoubtedly represents an analytical tour de force in the area of race.

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