Book Review: Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

Randall Kennedy has penned an insightful, thought-provoking, and balanced discussion of what he terms (in a gross understatement) “a troublesome word.” Nigger is perhaps the last surviving language taboo in American discourse. It is a word with tremendous social impact. It has been used as a justification for murder, university professors have been stripped of tenure merely for uttering it, and it is the one word that white rap artist Eminem refuses to utter.

Kennedy opens the book with a discussion of the word’s etymology, pointing out that it is from the Latin for black and that initially it was not derogatory. But by the early 19th century nigger had acquired a distinct offensiveness. Not only was it used to denigrate African-Americans, but it also served as social marker for the whites who uttered it; it is not a word used by the polite classes. Kennedy spends much of the first chapter giving examples of the cruelty and oppression delivered upon African-Americans over the centuries by whites using that term.

Kennedy then rapidly shifts gears and outlines other uses that the word has been put to. He discusses the comedy routines of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, its use in rap music, and how it is often used as a compliment among some African-Americans. These other usages are not without controversy. Some find the word so inherently offensive they cannot bear any use of it. And there is the question whether there are any circumstances where a white person is justified in using it. Kennedy makes the important point that the word is more complex than just a straightforward slur.

The second chapter is devoted to the legal status of the word. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and former clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, outlines four types of cases where the word has come to court. The first is where convicted African-Americans seek relief after it is revealed that prosecutors, judges, and jurors have used the term. In the past, the chances of receiving a new trial based on such evidence were slim to none, but in recent years this has undergone a dramatic reversal.

The second type of case is where an African-American defendant uses a white victim’s use of the word as a mitigating circumstance, usually attempting to get murder charges reduced to manslaughter. Generally such attempts have met with failure due to the “mere words” doctrine, which holds that words alone, no matter how offensive, cannot justify violence.

Kennedy’s third category of cases consists of those where African-Americans seek damages under anti-discrimination statutes and his fourth concerns cases where judges must decide whether juries should hear about the use of the term by witnesses and litigants (most famously in the O.J. Simpson trial, where police officer Mark Fuhrman had frequently used the word in the past). These generally meet with success, although the mere use of the word is usually insufficient in and of itself to justify claims for damages and sometimes judges rule that disclosing the linguistic habits of witnesses is sometimes more prejudicial than probative.

Kennedy concludes that the American legal system today, as a whole, has a rather balanced and fair view of the term. It is treated as a highly offensive term and indicative of racism and prejudice against African-Americans, but mere use of the word is not necessarily justification for reduced sentences or award of damages. Each case must be viewed in its entirety and on its own merits.

The third and substantively final chapter (the fourth chapter is simply a short summary) addresses the dangers of censorship and taking excessive offense at any use of the term.

One of these dangers is hypersensitivity. Many are familiar with the case of David Howard, a Washington, DC city official who, in 1999, used the term niggardly, which is etymologically and semantically unrelated to its offensive sound-alike. In storm of public outcry, Howard resigned and was subsequently rehired to an equivalent position. In another case that happened the same year halfway across the country, an African-American student at the University of Wisconsin stormed out of a classroom in tears when her white, English Literature professor discussed Chaucer’s use of niggard in class. The professor had specifically made the point to the class that the two words were unrelated and that Chaucer was not discussing blacks. The student subsequently sought to have a campus speech code set into place that would prevent any professor from using any word that might possibly cause offense. In the Howard case, no one can deny that his use of the term was shortsighted and bound to be misinterpreted. Howard made a very poor choice among several possible alternatives. But the Wisconsin case is clearly one of unalloyed hypersensitivity.

Kennedy also addresses the 1997 attempt to force Merriam-Webster to change its primary definition of nigger because some judged it to be insulting. The protesters held that the definition, which read “a black person—usu. taken to be offensive,” was a derogatory label for all blacks. While Kennedy has no sympathy for the protesters in this case, believing that they are simply taking offense where there is none to be taken, he does have criticism for Merriam-Webster’s reaction. Some of their arguments in defense are just as ludicrous—although the ones at the core are correct. Merriam-Webster tried to argue that the word was included because their criteria for inclusion were scholarly ones and that it was an important word—certainly true—but also admitted that they left the word out of certain editions based on the recommendations of their marketing department. Kennedy says they can’t have it both ways.

Kennedy’s other cases of hypersensitivity address the use of nigger by whites and in contexts where it is intended to be heard by white audiences. It is one thing for Chris Rock to use the term to address his African-American audience, but can Quentin Tarantino, a white, use it in his movie Pulp Fiction to address an African-American friend? Kennedy again comes through with a very balanced conclusion. While any use of the word by whites is suspect and should not be undertaken likely, the word is not the property of African-Americans. Tarantino’s use of the word should be judged by how it is used in the movie. His work should be judged by the standards of art criticism, not by his race.

A second danger that Kennedy points out relates to Huckleberry Finn and other words of literature that use the term. It is not as if these works are sacrosanct and should be immune from criticism, but most of the criticism leveled against them isn’t critical. It comes from people who count the number of times the word is used and then declare offense. Instead they should consider how the word is used), and consider the entire book in context. Twain invariably uses the word in criticism of slavery and discrimination and as a mark of the prejudice of the whites who use it, not than as a slur against the intended African-American targets. The book, however, can offend and teachers should take care in their instruction, but that doesn’t mean that it should be stripped from the curriculum.

The final danger that Kennedy addresses has to do with excessive punishments for people who use the word. He features the case of a white, university basketball coach who used the term in front of his players in a complimentary fashion to mean a hard-charging player who performed at the highest levels on the court. Prior to using the word, he asked his black players if they would be offended. To a man they said no. When word of the coach’s use of the term leaked out, he lost his job.

Kennedy doesn’t defend the coach’s use of the term. It was in questionable taste and shortsighted. But he does object to the punishment. A reprimand would have been appropriate; firing was excessive. Interestingly, this contrasts with an earlier discussion of a district attorney who was removed when he was overheard using the word in a bar. Kennedy applauds this dismissal. Again, Kennedy comes through with a balanced and reasonable argument. The district attorney has tremendous discretion and power. He decides what criminal charges to bring. He decides whether or not to seek the death penalty for certain crimes. A district attorney must be beyond reproach, without a hint of racism or bias. The same does not apply to a college basketball coach. Again, context is vital.

Kennedy’s book is an excellent monograph on the word and its use and place in American society today.

Hardcover; 256 pages; Pantheon Books; ISBN: 0375421726; 8 Jan 2002; $22.00.

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