Social democracy in peril.
The new fascism.
Coming Together at the Seams
The view from Porto Alegre ...
... and direct action in New York.
Not Just Black and White
LOCAL MOTION: Oak Park, Illinois
A Scandal Bigger than Enron.
An Open Letter to George W. Bush
Kenny Boy? Never heard of him.
The military busts the 2003 budget.
Bush stealth-attacks reproductive rights.
Bush hands AIDS policy to the Christian right.
Chechnya remains mired in misery.
Ann Pettifor: Discrediting the Creditors.
BOOKS: Micah Sifry follows the third way.
BOOKS: Randall Kennedy's Nigger.
MUSIC: Something is in the water.
FILM: Let's play Rollerball.
February 19, 2002
Spreading the Word
erhaps no other insult can be spoken with more malice, or received with more
outrage, than the word nigger. By the same token, there may be no
other word in the history of the English language that has been so brilliantly
adopted and subverted by the oppressed and aggrieved.
Nigger, by Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, takes a long, hard
look at the N-word, as it is often politely denoted, attempting, as he puts
it, to put a tracer on nigger, report on its use, and assess the controversies
to which it gives rise.
For Kennedy, the word seems in some ways an odd choice of subject matter. An
advocate of a colorblind society and an outspoken critic of racial solidarity,
I once heard him ask Cornel West in a debate what value blacks could find in
identifying with each other. After a brief pause, West replied: We can
share our nigger stories. The response, which rendered Kennedy temporarily
speechless, elicited uproarious applause from the audience.
Certainly Kennedy has a fair share of his own nigger stories, though
they dont make it into his latest work. Still, despite his aversion to
racial ties, Kennedy is not blind to the history of white supremacy, in which
nigger plays such a central part. Nor is he aiming to make money
off the N-word, or stir unwarranted controversy, though the title of his book
cannot help but furrow a few brows: How are bookstore patrons to ask for the
volume by name? Is Kennedys Nigger in stock by any chance?
ccording to Kennedy, nigger is derived from the Latin term for
the color black, niger. When exactly the word transformed from racial
moniker to racial slur is unknown, but by the early 19th century nigger
was a familiar insult. By 1871, the term had made its first recorded appearance
in a court of law. Since then, as Kennedy illustrates, nigger has seeped
into practically every aspect of American culture, from literature to political
debates, from cartoons to songs. Nigger is all over the place,
from well-known nursery rhymes such as Eeny-meeny-miney-mo! / Catch a
nigger by the toe! (I grew up thinking it had always been tiger)
to prominent landmarks previously known as Nigger Lake, Niggerhead Hill or Old
Nigger Creek. And from the more recent manifestations of nigger
in Quentin Tarantinos Pulp Fiction to virtually any hip-hop song
made in the past five years, Kennedy points out that the words meaning
varies by content and context, depending largely on the individual circumstances
in which it is used.
But Kennedy is largely interested in a careful examination of the legal history
of nigger. For like every other significant feature of American
lifeincluding cigarettes, guns, pornography, drugs, stock trading, sex,
religion, and money, he argues, nigger is thoroughly enmeshed in
litigation. He notes that while a Lexis-Nexis search of state and federal
cases pulls up 84 instances of kike, 50 of wetback,
90 of gook and 286 of honky, nigger appears
in the text of 4,219 decisions.
In one instance, a black man attempting to return merchandise at a store was
forced to sign a return slip on which a sales clerk had written arrogant
nigger refused exchange in order to obtain his refund. Courts in Illinois
ruled in 1977 that the notation, however rude, was not harmful enough to warrant
a lawsuit. In another case, one James H. Spriggs quit his job at an auto glass
company in Maryland in the early 90s and sued after being subjected to
what he described as years of listening to his supervisor refer to black customers
and employees as monkeys and niggers. Spriggs won his case on appeal.
Although he carefully explores the legal intricacies the use of nigger
has given rise to, Kennedy has little patience for the arguments of p.c.-minded
advocates of banning so-called hate speech, or those who merely attempt to limit
or confine the uses of the word. He argues that even the best-intentioned hate
speech law cannot accomplish its goalwhile such laws ultimately undermine
fundamental rights. Thankfully, as Kennedy notes, the hate speech debate is
largely dead in the water, though the issues it raised about the boundaries
of contemporary dialogue remain relevant. The debates very defeat, in
his view, is a measure of progress, and a sign of the health of our democracy.
Another sign of progress, to Kennedy, is that more blacks are using the term
openly, regardless of the confusion or haphazard mimicry it elicits among some
whites, or even the backlash from some blacks. Hes happy too that many
whites and other non-blacks are starting to use the word to refer to each other,
in both the positive and negative senses, shedding much of the terms racial
specificity. In a sense, he points out, as the meanings and uses of nigger
(and its variants) have become more variable, its prominence in the American
dialect has been revitalized. Given these facts, Kennedy argues, for bad
and for good, nigger is thus destined to remain with us for many years to comea
reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American
ew could argue that point, and for those unaware of just how pervasive the
use of the word was and is, Nigger will provide a jarringly educational
wake-up call. (Even as an African-American, I was shocked by many of the examples
Kennedy lists.) While readers will certainly appreciate the lucidity with which
Kennedy presents complicated legal issues, and the sheer breadth and depth of
his overall analysis, some may still prickle at the idea that we should all
accept nigger as here to stay.
Such detractors could probably never be satisfied, and the linguistic tide
they stand against will all but certainly swallow them whole. Still, even those
on Kennedys side may feel a tad cheated by Nigger for different
reasons. Though it couldnt be more thoroughly researched or meticulously
argued, the book tells us surprisingly little about the power of language or
the language of power. One is left wondering how the word has remained at once
so scathing an insult and so treasured a term of endearment, and from whence
comes its power both to oppress and to liberate. The growing paradox of the
word in the modern context is what makes it so alluring a subject, and so perplexing
a puzzle. Yet Kennedy does not manage to fully flesh out the implications of
niggers simultaneous ability to empower and humiliate.
That said, Nigger tells us moreabout our country and ourselvesthan
most books do in volumes. Given this one words horrible, often neglected
past and its complicated, conflicted future, that is an important contribution.
Alex P. Kellogg is a reporting fellow for The Chronicle of Higher Education.