Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word , by Randall Kennedy. Pantheon, 226 pages, $22.
Nigger . The word is surprisingly easy to type. Don’t try saying it out loud, though-not unless you have a good lawyer or a ton of street cred; used carelessly, it spreads enduring pain and anger; used as invective, it’s a stick of verbal dynamite. Nigger , for an American who’s not African-American, may be the most dangerous word in the dictionary.
Which is what’s puzzling about Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word : Though it’s about a slur so explosive as to be utterly taboo for large segments of the population, his book is safe, conscientious,mild-mannered,dull. Although his stated purpose is to “put a tracer
on nigger ” because it is “a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics,” Mr. Kennedy hardly mentions the political ramifications of racism. His focus is narrow, his approach strictly case-by-case. Mr. Kennedy is a law professor, and black; part of his aim is to show that the word nigger can be looked at coolly, reasonably, with a lawyer’s logic. He doesn’t downplay the damage done-on the contrary, he begins by piling up anecdotal evidence of suffering the insult has caused-but he hopes that nigger is losing its sting. The laid-back subtitle of his book is a kind of wishful thinking: if only nigger were merely a “troublesome” word.
Bad words, forbidden words, are thrilling-the nasty ones as well as the dirty ones. Nigger , as Christopher Darden memorably put it, “is the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language”-which makes it possibly the most fascinating. No one would object if Mr. Kennedy got his wish and nigger somehow mellowed. But despite some feeble signs of progress, we’re not there yet, and this book, which broadcasts the sorrow and outrage of those who have been battered by the word, should also be crackling with the subterranean energy of concealed aggression and perverse desire. I’m not just thinking of whites who get their jollies by sampling in private offensive slang they would never dare use in public. I’m thinking also of the pursed-lip group Mr. Kennedy calls “eradicationists”; their
drive to have the word excised from popular culture-essentially expunged from the vocabulary-stems from powerful emotions, not all of them straightforward.
When blacks use nigger , it can carry an impressive depth and complexity of meaning. Mr. Kennedy offers a modest array of examples and one startlingly brief personal anecdote (the autobiographical glimpse is tucked between two sentences typical of the opaque formality of his legally inflected prose): “It is undoubtably true … that in some cases, blacks’ use of nigger is indicative of antiblack, self-hating prejudice. I myself first became aware of the term as a child in an all-black setting-my family household in Columbia, South Carolina-in which older relatives routinely attributed to negritude traits they disparaged, including tardiness, dishonesty, rudeness, impoverishment, cowardice, and stupidity. Such racial disparagement of blacks by blacks was by no means idiosyncratic.”
These days, as any hip-hop fan will tell you, nigger can be a badge of honor. Ice-T wears it proudly, Ice Cube waves it like a flag, but a white rapper like Eminem won’t risk it. Mr. Kennedy calls this “a prudent course”-yet he thinks it unwise to draw a strict “race line” between those who can and those who can’t use the term: “To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of nigger .” Or rather to preserve it as a fetish, since that’s clearly what it is. In a recent interview shivery with sexual innuendo and veiled hostility, Maureen Dowd asked Muhammad Ali about “his amazing arc from reviled to beloved figure.” He answered: “Did you say beloved figure or beloved nigger?” What kind of kick did Ms. Dowd get from reporting that exchange?
Mr. Kennedy would rather contemplate the legal history of the word than its poisonous psychosexual reverb. Early on he notes that nigger crops up in 4,219 reported court decisions ( kike , by contrast, appears 84 times). He could hardly wait, it seems, to start sorting through the court records. After a 50-page general-interest survey consisting of a brief etymology, a grim selection of quotes (first famous whites who have used the word, then famous blacks who have been bruised by it) and a cursory sampling of the ways in which the word is deployed in contemporary popular culture, Mr. Kennedy takes refuge in jurisprudence. For the rest of the book, he sticks to summarizing criminal and civil court cases.
How sketchy are these summaries? The O.J. Simpson trial, which branded Mark Fuhrman for life as the cop who says nigger (“the most famous evidentiary ruling involving the N-word”), rates a skimpy two and a half pages. It’s true that there was an unbearable surfeit of commentary at the time of the trial, but if a prominent black law professor wants to think it through again today, wants to weigh the impact of the trial on race relations and American politics in a book about the word nigger -I say bring it on. Unfortunately, Mr. Kennedy never digs much deeper than this, his concluding remark: “The jury subsequently acquitted Simpson in perhaps the most hotly debated jury verdict in American legal history.” Thanks for the insight, professor.
Remember when the casual use of the word “niggardly” got some poor bureaucrat fired from his job as director of a Washington, D.C., municipal agency? Mr. Kennedy collects a dozen or so quotes about it from pundits and concerned citizens across the political spectrum (there’s nothing like a Web search when it’s a balanced view you’re looking to present), and then passes judgment himself: He calls the incident “a benchmark of oversensitivity.” He’s right of course. Case dismissed. But wait-is the confusion between nigger and niggardly too silly, too obviously “wrongheaded” to merit more scrutiny? Can the word niggardly be spoken in front of a black audience without tripping some kind of alarm? Did the bureaucrat get a charge out of flirting with disaster, or was he simply oblivious to the sounds coming out his mouth?
Mr. Kennedy’s slim book is calm, correct, informative-and disappointing. In his acknowledgments, he thanks his editor for making “sure that procrastination did not stall publication.” What exactly was the hurry? Maybe what was needed was a different kind of editorial encouragement: making sure that the book bore no trace of its origin as a series of university lectures, and coaxing the author into responding to the dangers of his chosen topic with commensurate daring.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.