Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
by Randall Kennedy
256 pages, $22
If Randall Kennedy could see me now—huddled over my keyboard, tense, worrying over a single word—he would most likely be pleased. The questions I am forced to ask myself (Can I possibly write it? What are the ramifications? Am I helping or hurting?) are exactly the questions he intends for me, and everyone else, to ask about what Christopher Darden famously called "the filthiest, nastiest word in the English language." That word, of course, is nigger, and it is quickly proliferating in the debate over Kennedy's new book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, a slim volume whose stated intention is to "put a tracer on nigger, report on its use, and assess the controversies to which it gives rise." Kennedy's is a strange and difficult venture, and many people have already lodged complaints. But he doesn't seem to mind. It's Kennedy's opinion that to ignore what's behind the word nigger is to "make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils," and that it would do more harm than good to turn away from its history and its destructiveness.
Also its complexity. For as Kennedy makes clear in his book, nigger is far from static in meaning. It can connote vitriol, yes, but it can also connote camaraderie. It can be said angrily, but it can also be said with irony. It can be thrown like a grenade, but it can also be picked up and thrown back. Just as there are devastatingly bad uses of nigger, there are, Kennedy believes, "good uses"—uses that can promote the cause of justice (Mark Twain's bitterly facetious "Only a Nigger") or that can help "yank nigger away from white supremacists" (the comedy of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock). And in Kennedy's opinion, we are moving in the right direction.