Randall Kennedy's Word Play
A Harvard law professor attempts to define, deconstruct, and demystify the N-word.
This weekend, White House officials said that President Bush meant no disrespect when he referred to the Pakistani people as ‘Pakis.’ But just to be safe, White House staffers canceled his trip to Nigeria.”
So joked Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live‘s Jan. 12 Weekend Update. The line drew a low Oooh from the studio audience, the chiding nonlaugh of a nervous crowd. Retold to Randall Kennedy two days later, it yields dead silence. Then a crescendoing chuckle. Kennedy is black, 47 years old, and a legal scholar. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Pantheon, $22) is his new history of arguably the foulest word in our language and, thus, now arrives in stores in a blaze of…controversy? Yes, sort of: Pantheon ditched the original subtitle, A Problem in American Culture, to avoid a potentially ugly misunderstanding. And, no, not precisely: Says Mary Ellen Keating, spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble, ”We’re going ahead with it just as we would with any other title.”
Kennedy’s idea was ignited by a random search of a legal database. ”I’ve often used words as points of departure in lectures,” Kennedy says from his Harvard Law School office. ”It wasn’t just completely out of the blue that I put nigger into Lexis, but I was just messing around one afternoon…and I put that in. And then when I got all these thousands of citations, that made me say, ‘Whoa.’ It was clear that there was an interesting project here.”
The project became a series of lectures that was repackaged for print with the aid of Andrew Wylie, Kennedy’s flashy agent, and Erroll McDonald, his flashy editor. ”I spent a couple of weeks making it more of a written thing,” Kennedy says. The book betrays both his age (focusing its pop-cultural discussion on the routines of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce and only briskly acknowledging hip-hop culture) and his academic background (reserving its greatest gusto for a history of legal debates over the word).
Nigger, the word, is a slippery shape-shifter—a glob of spit or a bear hug or a number of things in between, depending on who’s talking and to whom. Nigger, the book, is eliciting a similarly broad range of responses. Some of Kennedy’s colleagues have denounced the title as exploitative, with Duke professor Houston Baker calling it a ”crude marketing technique” in The New York Times. Some members of the press seem determined to misread it; the Washington Post‘s reviewer dubbed it a ”misguided polemic…[which] contends that ‘nigger’ is hardly the earth-shattering, illegitimate word that many blacks and whites brand it.”
The problem there is that Kennedy isn’t pressing an argument. ”I’m not urging people to use the word nigger,” he says. ”I am urging people to understand the way people do use it.” Now the pages again become lecture notes as he prepares for a 10-city tour. ”The last book I did”—1997’s Race, Crime and the Law—”I didn’t actually do readings. I talked for 10 minutes and then shut up and let people ask questions. I think I’ll do that this time around, too.” And watch the book shoppers squirm.
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word