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Book about the "n-word"

Posted by ESC on March 11, 2002

The N word
Author attempts to examine our most explosive epithet

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The Courier-Journal
March 11, 2001

It's a book with a title that makes some readers cringe.

Written by a top black intellectual, it has been denounced by other black intellectuals as a setback to the race.

Within its 175 pages is a dispassionate, erudite discussion of 400 years' usage of what's variously been called "the six-letter word," "the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language" and, simply, "the N-word."

The book is "[N-word]: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" (Pantheon, $22). Its author, Randall Kennedy, said in a telephone interview: "I have had conversations about the book with friends and the title will somehow be unmentioned. A couple of weeks ago, I went on a radio talk show in Detroit and had a wonderful, hourlong discussion.

"But beforehand they told me, 'We have a strict rule here that there is no use of the word "nigger." ' "
A Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School professor, Kennedy will read from and sign copies of his book at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers in Shelbyville Road Plaza on Wednesday from 7 to 8 p.m. (For more information, call 893-0133.)

He also will be the featured speaker for a sold-out NETWORK luncheon that day at the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.

Kennedy's book traces the epithet from slavery to the 21st century in conversation, movies, literature, academics and the courts, noting its use by Presidents Truman, Johnson and Nixon. In 1947, he reports, Philadelphia Phillies teammates yelled from the dugout at Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers: "We don't want you here, [n-word]!" In 2000, white Florida high school students ended a newsletter attack on a black teacher with the phrase, "Die, [n-word]."
Other racial slurs don't seem to take the same emotional toll.

"Other groups aren't as physically distinguishable and don't have the history of slavery and racism," noted Anna Bosch, director of the linguistics program at the University of Kentucky.

Generations of black people have felt the sting of the word "nigger."

"It was a curse word, a bad word, when I grew up as a child, calling someone out of their name, and a no-no in our family," said Lillian Anthony, a retired official of Presbyterian Church (USA). "Later, my research as an educator led me into documenting negative images of black people. And a lot of the images had the word 'nigger' on them, whether they were postcards, advertisements and artifacts.

"Seeing them didn't hurt me, but I was offended, and angry. It's white people denying my humanity, denying my humanness."

Car salesman Patrick Edwards said he was called "nigger" at Pleasure Ridge Park High School when he was a junior there in 1983: "I was in the lobby and this white girl who was arguing with her boyfriend rushed by, bumped into me and knocked the change out of my hand as I was trying to buy a Coke. I said, 'You need to watch where you're going, say excuse me.'

"And she said, 'I ain't got to watch nothing, [n-word].' I pushed her, she tried to kick me, we got into a scuffle, and I was suspended. They didn't do anything to her."

Kennedy's book has several examples of public utterances of the word that resulted in controversial firings. In Kentucky, pressure mounted on former Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler to resign from UK's board of trustees in 1988 after he said, "Zimbabwe's all [n-word] now," in a meeting about stock divestiture in then-apartheid South Africa. He rejected demands that he resign and rode out the controversy.

Over time, many believe the word has appropriated new, positive contexts, meanings and connotations. Kennedy applauds its use as a bonding term of affection between black men and in interracial friendships.
Actress Halle Berry, for example, made it a pet name between interracial lovers in the 1998 movie "Bullworth," telling Warren Beatty: "You know you're my [n-word]."

N.W.A., the Compton, Calif., rap-music consortium that produced Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, stands for "Niggas With Attitude." And Kennedy notes that Asian teens who assimilate hip-hop culture regularly call each other "nigger," trying to be ghetto-authentic like their African-American heroes.

"Tupac (Shakur, slain rap superstar) had an acronym for it," Edwards said. "Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. It's taking something negative that whites have said about you and turning it into something positive."

Kennedy said, "I've been called 'nigger' across the gamut of ways that it is used. I've been called 'nigger' with love, and I've also been called 'nigger' with malice.

"Do I use the word? No, I don't. But I do have friends who embrace me and say, 'Good to see you, my [n-word].' Am I offended? No. Do I have white friends who have called me 'nigger'? No. Can I imagine this situation? Yes.

"I'm not urging people to use the word. It's not as if I'm trying to popularize it. I'm trying to educate people about the way it's being used."

The idea for the book originated with a series of lectures Kennedy delivered in 1998 at Stanford University, titled "Who Can Say [N-word] . . . And Other Related Questions."

Afterward, he searched a legal database and found more than 4,000 court cases related to the word. In some, verdicts had been invalidated because a juror said the N-word. In others, judges and prosecutors were disqualified for using it as an insult.

After Kennedy's book was published, some executives at Pantheon Books refused to utter the title, and reportedly worried that it would hurt book sales. Kennedy's editor, Errol McDonald, wrote "nigger" on a piece of paper and went around the office making colleagues pronounce it.

"Sales have been really good for us," said Melissa Bernstrom, public-relations director at Louisville's Hawley-Cooke Booksellers. "But we've had no one ask for it by name. They tend to say, 'Do you have Randall Kennedy's new book?' And at least one person just pointed to his picture in our newsletter and said, 'Do you have this book?'

"I don't know if that's quantifiable, but it's not how customers ask for other titles."

The book got gratuitous publicity when Columbia Law School professor Patricia Williams and Duke University African-American Studies professor Houston Baker said the book and its title would embolden racists to use the word more.

Kennedy's wasn't the first book with the N-word in its title. "[N-word]" was the title of comedian/-activist Dick Gregory's 1964 autobiography, and satirist Cecil Brown's debut novel in 1969 was called "The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass [N-word]."

"That was a more radical time," said David Anderson, associate English professor at the University of Louisville. "The '60s were about shocking people into new realities.

"But Kennedy's going to be judged on two things: One, the tradition that says you should never use the word, or encourage others to use it, so there's a sense of propriety that some people will believe he's violated.

And others will ask whether the use of a provocative title is a means of calling attention to himself."
Other epithets have evolved into honorifics as modern usage subverts their original intent to offend. "Bitch," for example, defined by Webster's New College Dictionary as "a spiteful or ill-tempered woman," became synonymous among some in the '90s with female assertiveness.

Kennedy says keeping "nigger" taboo only reaffirms its power to harm. He writes: "In stressing the 'terror' of verbal abuse, proponents of hate-speech regulation have, ironically, empowered abusers while simultaneously weakening black students by counseling that they should feel grievously wounded by remarks that their predecessors would have ignored or shaken off."

Efforts to ban the word are futile anyway, Bosch said: "I can't imagine it happening. It's very common that, over many centuries of use, a word can take on a new meaning because it's used in a new context. It may fall into disuse in its negative sense, and eventually be forgotten.

"But part of the genius of language is its flexibility, and how people use words to convey whatever meaning they want. I think the best we can hope for is that our culture would change in such a way that it wouldn't be needed as a term of abuse."