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Atlantic Unbound | January 17, 2002
That Word

Randall Kennedy, the author of Nigger, talks about the boundaries that culture—and language—should and shouldn't have


Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
by Randall Kennedy
256 pages, $22

f 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.

Kennedy is in as good a position as anyone to make such a judgment. A professor at Harvard Law School, he has spent a good part of his career assessing race in America. His first book was the highly regarded Race, Crime, and the Law (1997) and later this year he will publish Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2002). Kennedy grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. After attending Yale Law School, he was a Rhodes scholar and a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

We discussed his book on January 8 in a disconcertingly public place.

—Daniel Smith

Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy   

How did your idea for this book first come about?

One of the courses I have taught at Harvard Law School is a course on race relations, and in teaching that course I have often done lectures which had as their starting point a word, a key word. For example, "discrimination" is a word people use all the time, a complicated word, and so I found that a useful teaching vehicle is to take that word and then unpack it and show its complexity. "Nigger" is sort of a familiar word, and one day I was thinking about it a little bit and I looked at my computer and I typed n-i-g-g-e-r into the Lexis-Nexis computer bank and asked for the citation list for any state or federal court that had reported a decision. I got thousands of entries. Then I started reading these cases, and I saw that I was onto something, because the cases were just really interesting. Then I started making files of various types of controversies in which this word did appear to have a role. I was off to the races after that.

In the first paragraph of your book you ask a series of questions regarding the word nigger: How should it be defined?, Does it warrant preservation? But there's one question that appears to which I'm not sure what your answer is. The question is: "Is nigger a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook?" How do you answer that?

I think my answer would be on two levels. It's not necessarily a more hurtful slur in any given episode. Think about a Jewish kid who is running from some thugs saying "Kill the kike!" I'm sure that person may feel just as much terror as a black kid running from a thug saying, "Kill the nigger!" So I'm not saying that any particular instance of using the N-word is any more horrifying and menacing than any other such word. I am saying that from a broad sociological view, that word is associated with more havoc in American society than other racial slurs, in terms of the bloodshed, misery, injury that have been inflicted in episodes in which the N-word has figured prominently. Now, obviously there are all sorts of ethnic, racial conflicts in American society, but there's one that is deeper than all the others and that's the white/black racial conflict.

From the archives:

"My Race Problem—And Ours (May 1997) A consideration of touchy matters—racial pride, racial solidarity, and racial loyalty—rarely discussed. By Randall Kennedy
There seems to be a tension between your view that the vital element is not so much a word itself but the context in which a word is used and your suggestion that the historical weight behind a word should be considered. Do you see a tension between those two things?

No, I don't see a tension. In the book I talk about how I thought there might be some people who would challenge the idea that nigger is, as I call it, "the paradigmatic racial slur." There might be challenges to that and that's fine. There was one person who was quoted in a newspaper article as saying something like, "This is parochial. Doesn't this minimize the bigotry visited upon other groups?" And my response to that is, What does that mean? Does that mean that there can be no "paradigmatic racial slur"? Does saying that any particular racial slur is paradigmatic minimize all others? I just don't find that logic persuasive. There happen to be varying degrees of social injury in a society. I don't think that respect or fairness requires us to ignore the difference between various sorts of oppressive circumstances.

As far as context goes, you say that there's nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying nigger, just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it, and that what truly matters is context. You quote a letter between the photographer and novelist Carl Van Vechten and the poet Langston Hughes in which Van Vechten uses the word nigger. But because Van Vechten's actions showed him to be such a strong supporter of the Harlem Renaissance and because he was the farthest thing from a racist, it was okay—just as it was okay for him to publish an anti-racism novel titled Nigger Heaven. Am I right in taking from your book that the action of the individual is more important than the words they use?

No, I wouldn't put it like that. I would say the words vary in their meaning. One of the lessons of my book is that nigger has many meanings. The one that's deepest—the one that probably is meaning number one—is derogatory slur. And again, I devote many many pages to illustrating that the word has been used as a terribly hurtful derogatory slur. But one of the interesting things about this word is that that's not its only meaning. Obviously it's been used by some people as an anti-racist vehicle, in order to mirror back and condemn racist uses of the word. So when the comedian Dick Gregory titled his autobiography Nigger, it was an anti-racist slur. Huckleberry Finn is an anti-racist book. Twain uses nigger 215 times. I could go on and on. Richard Wright uses nigger lots of times in his autobiography Black Boy and in his collection of short stories Uncle Tom's Children. These are anti-racist uses. Then there are other uses. Some people are not as interested in engaging in anti-racist uses of the word as in using nigger to make people laugh. I watch (or I used to when it was on) Def Comedy Jam. Some of the jokes on the show that used the word nigger were flat and unfunny. Some of them were hilarious and I laughed. They were attempting to use cultural artifacts to make a joke. They were not trying to advance a racist agenda. They were doing something else entirely. That can happen with words. I think we should take comfort from the idea that a word that has miserable, terrible, hurtful roots can be appropriated by folks and made into something very different, including an anti-racist word, including a term of endearment. It's well known now that within certain sectors of the black community a salutation that is meant to be totally friendly begins, "My nigger." The word takes on its meaning from the context in which it's spoken: tone of voice, who is saying it, where it is said, what the intention is of the saying.

What if it is a white person saying "My nigger"?

I've heard white people say "My nigger." I've heard white people say it to other white people, or Chinese-Americans to other Chinese-Americans. They say it.

You don't have a problem with it?

No, I don't have a problem with it. I don't have a problem with it once I understand what's going on. I'm glad the word nigger is a stigmatized word. I'm glad that it is a word that causes people to have anxieties. I'm glad that for the most part it's a word that is presumptively wrongful to use. I think that's fine. But that's not the end of the conversation. It's presumptively wrong to use nigger, but a presumption can be overcome. So if a white guy uses the word nigger—if anybody uses the word nigger—I'd say presumptively there's a problem. But then dig a little deeper and say, Well, what's going on? What is this person saying? Why did he say it? What is he attempting to accomplish? There may be answers to all those questions that are perfectly fine. And at the end of hearing the perfectly fine answers, I'd say, fine. It's okay.

Well, I'd like to hear your judgment on an example. I've sat around with friends, white friends, and used the word nigger in fond imitation of, say, Chris Rock, or of Def Comedy Jam, and though I had no political, social, or cultural purpose in mind, I've experienced quite a bit of anxiety about whether I have the right to use the word.

I think people should be thoughtful. I think that people should know about the baggage that comes along with this word. I'm certainly against ignorant usage of the word. Say somebody's using a word. When you ask them, "Do you know anything about the history of this word?", and they say, "No, I don't." Well, then I think that's a problem, because they are using this very powerful provocative word—a word which if used in the wrong setting might cost them their lives. It's like somebody playing with a very powerful device and they don't know what the device is about. I want people to know what the device is about and if they play with it after they know about it, okay. But at least know what you are doing. Just imagine, for instance, a white person uses the word, and you ask them, "Why do you use this word?" The person says, "Well you know, I'm with my black friends and I really like what they are about. They use the word. They understand what I'm about. Frankly, I don't want there to be anything that distances me from them or distances them from me. What I do, I want them to be able to do, and similarly what they do I want to be able to do." If that is the position, then actually saying that a white person cannot use this word creates an alienation between this white person and the people that this white person wants to be with. I discuss in my book Eminem's refusal to use the word. People applaud him. They say he's showing respect by not using the word. Maybe. But by not using the word, given his setting, he is also saying that he can never truly be part of this community. If you truly want to be part of a community that has a certain usage of words, you have to use these words, too.

So what about my using the word nigger among a group of white friends? There aren't any black people around. So there's no attempt to be a part of that community except in a larger sense.

In that setting I don't know what the person may be trying to do. Again, it's very complex. They could be laughing at black people as in, Let me imitate these people in a way that shows that I'm looking down on them. If that's what's up, then I think it's terrible. On the other hand, there are white kids whose heroes are black hip-hop folks. They dress like them and want to talk like them. They use words like them because that's what their heroes do. It's not looking down, it is the sincerest form of flattery—namely imitation. Do I have a problem with that? No, I don't have a problem with that. I'm sure that there will be people who will have a big problem with me, but what can I say?

What about the issue of the visceral hurtfulness of the word? You cite an anecdote involving a professor at Jefferson Community College who was dismissed for using the word nigger for teaching purposes. Similarly, when I was in college I took a class in which the professor, who was a former civil-rights activist, used the word nigger in recounting the words of several black civil-rights activists he had worked with. There was a black student in the class who anonymously wrote a letter to the professor and said, "I realize what you are trying to do but simply hearing the word is too painful, and I would appreciate it if you don't use it." And the professor, in deference to this, vowed never to use the word in class again.

Well, I would applaud his effort to be attentive to the student's wishes, and I think that his way of dealing with it was okay. I personally wouldn't take that approach. I have used the word nigger in my class, and if a student said the same thing I'd say, "Listen, we are in a class about troubles with racism in American life. We're not supposed to get to the heart of racism in American life?" I mean, you are taking a class on the Holocaust and you don't want to see the pictures of the corpses at Auschwitz? What are we talking about here? In the case at Jefferson Community College that I talk about, the student who complained was taking a course on tabooed expression. The whole course was about tabooed expression. If you were going to feel paralyzed or hurt or injured or have such feelings that you simply couldn't bear to be in a room where this word was uttered, what are you doing taking such a course? I mean, you shouldn't have been in the course. So, again, it's nice that the professor responded the way he responded, and I think that's okay, but I wouldn't respond that way.

Jennifer Lopez recently got involved in a controversy for using the word nigger in one of her songs. Does that fit in the same category? Many people were up in arms.

Some people were. I don't know enough about the situation. I don't know the deep down particulars. I heard the record. Did hearing it bother me? No, it didn't bother me. She wasn't trying to diss black people. She was talking in a way that's congruent with the way that people in her set talk. I should back up. I began by saying I don't know the details, but I guess I do know about the particulars of the case at least insofar as the newspaper accounts, according to which the actual writer of the words in question was a black hip-hop producer. So the whole question of whose words they are is itself interesting, as is the whole issue of what she is. Some people count her as black. Is she black? Is she a person of color? Is she something else? Does it matter? To me, I was not upset by J-Lo's use of the N-word in this.

I'm not so much asking if you are upset but about something larger. It seems to me that the predominant feeling in the country is that with this word there deserves to be a cultural ownership. That the word should be owned by black people.

Yeah, I think some people believe that. There are some people who take the position that it's okay for black people, but don't come on our turf. I don't like that and I reject it. I don't want to see boundaries set up in popular culture or in any level of culture where people cannot tread. If some fellow from Afghanistan comes here and hears hip-hop and says, "I want to be the greatest hip-hop star the world's ever seen," fine, man or woman, go for it. And similarly, if an African-American from Compton listens to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and says, "I want to be the world's greatest master of this genre of European music," go for it. What, because I'm an African-American from Compton are you going to say, "No, this isn't your terrain?" Culture is an open market, and that's why I defend, for instance, Quentin Tarantino's use of nigger in Pulp Fiction. Any subject, any words, are open for people of any sort to explore.

And no boundaries in law as well?

In my view.

There's a book by the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called Childhood's End in which he's describing a utopia on earth. At one point he says the following: "The convenient word nigger was no longer taboo in polite society but was used without embarrassment by everyone. It had no more emotional content than such labels as Republican or Methodist, Conservative or Liberal."

I wish we had spoken several months ago.

You could have put that in the book?

I'm still keeping notes, absolutely.

Do you share Clarke's view of a racial utopia?

Well, that's interesting. Now, here I'm confronted with a real dilemma. Because on the one hand it's an attractive proposition that this word that has all this terrible baggage is rendered totally innocuous—there's something nice about that. On the other hand, there's a way in which that conclusion would deprive this word of some of the very functions that delight me, frankly, when I listen to certain comedy routines. Because if it's a totally innocuous word, then the comedy routine is out. We have to go to something else. If the Clarke solution were to happen, some other word would simply take the place of nigger. Then the particular edge that this word still has would simply be rendered a historical edge. I kind of think that the way it is now is in many ways good. To a large degree the N-word has been stigmatized. In certain areas of our national life it has been completely stigmatized. I've set forth a proposition that no presidential aspirant can use this word. I can imagine a presidential aspirant saying, "This word is terrible," or speaking the word in a sentence like, "This word is never to be spoken." In any other context: finis to a serious career in national politics. At the same time there are certain bubbles in national life—the comedy stage, for example—where the word appears and people understand its ironic and paradoxical relationship to the word as a slur. There's a certain sort of a tension. Sometimes there's benefit to be derived from tension and ambivalence. As opposed to an unequivocal resolution one way or the other.

Which was why I was asking about what happens in situations in which there is no irony—in Clarke's vision, for example, where it's just a word.

If in the Clarke vision it's just a word, and there is no memory of how this word came to be, what it once meant, what it once stood for, that I think would be too bad. That would be a world deprived of a memory of earlier worlds, and that's a loss.

Do you personally still feel threatened by this word?

Oh, yeah. Depends on the context, but sure, it's still a very menacing word, if somebody's using it in a menacing way. In the Lexis citations for court cases, when you put in nigger or nigger lover, there are a whole slew of cases that come up. Often they are arson cases, where somebody has burned down somebody's house. The perpetrator is caught and part of the evidence against the perpetrator is testimony to the effect that the perpetrator said, "I'm gonna burn these niggers out" or "I'm gonna burn the nigger lover out." So, this word is still very much associated with violent, negro-phobic feelings and actions, and so it's still a very menacing word, absolutely.

How strong is what you call the "eradicationist" viewpoint—that nigger should simply be done away with?

It's certainly got some very well-known proponents. Bill Cosby, whom I respect in many ways, is an eradicationist. There are others. I've certainly talked with people with whom I've had very nice conversations but at the end of the conversation they've said, "Well, I'm simply not persuaded, I think that the country and the world would be a lot better off if this word was simply erased from our culture." But it's unclear how strong that view is. I think the reaction to my book will help qualify the strength of that point of view.

Was there any hesitation at all with putting the word on the cover of your book, with using it as the title?

No, for me there wasn't any hesitation. I knew from the beginning, as soon as I sent the book to my editor, that the title was going to be nigger. The question for me and for him was what the subtitle was going to be. There was a time when I thought, What about it having no subtitle? Do we have to have a subtitle? His response was, "Yeah, we gotta have a subtitle." And then we played around with various subtitles for a while, and it was only at the very end, actually, that we settled on this subtitle.

How many people have told you that they've had to hide the book beneath other things, to hide the word from view?

I've talked with a number of reporters and a couple of them have actually had covers over the book. They'd come in, take the book out, and I'd do a double-take. Like in grade school, the book had a brown paper bag cover. I talked with one person who was a journalist from New York City, and she said, "Well, you know I've been reading your book on the subway, and frankly I wasn't willing to be on the subway reading this book with nigger on the title." It will be interesting to see what happens in bookstores. How will people ask for the book? How will bookstores exhibit the book? All of those will be interesting things to see. I'll certainly be going to bookstores and watching.

Was there any element of simple provocation in making the title nigger?

One person was reported to have said in the paper that the title was mere vulgar marketing. You can term it like that, I suppose. I think that's a tendentious way to term it. The fact of the matter is, I would suppose that when people write books, they want their books to be read. If you write an article, you want your article to be read. So you figure out what would be a good title, what would be a good lead, what would grab people's attention. Do I want to grab people's attention with this title? Yes, absolutely! Of course I want to grab people's attention. I want as wide a readership as I can get. I'm not ashamed to say that. Is this title a provocation? In a way, it's a provocation, but so what? I hope it'll be a provocation for people to read and think and grapple with my ideas as presented in this book.

But will white people be able to read it openly?

We'll see. We'll see. What happens in bookstores, what happens in discussions about this book—all this will provide a new chapter in the history of this word. And it'll be interesting to see how this new chapter pans out.

Lots of white people in their basements huddling over copies of your book?

Maybe. And what will schools do? High schools, for instance: Will they order the book, will they not? What about in colleges? I would certainly think that this would be a very interesting book for students to read in ethnic studies, race-relations studies, diversity studies. Will people shy away from it? I don't know. I hope not, but we'll see.

Could you envision a situation whereby you have a white person reading this on the subway who gets beaten up? Does this concern you?

There have been people who've asked me, Am I concerned that things like that may happen, am I concerned that there will be racists who will buy the book to read the jokes? I've got a couple pages where I've listed vicious racist jokes. Am I concerned that this will in a sense popularize those jokes? Well, yeah, I'm concerned about it to some extent, I think that's too bad. Will it happen? Yes, it will happen. Will there be some bad episodes that eventuate from the publication of this book? Answer: yes, almost certainly. But I hope that the good things that happen will supercede the bad.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Daniel Smith, a former staff editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Boston.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.