Summary

Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger invites readers to reconsider “the N-word,” its meanings, and its appropriate uses. The book sets out to challenge Americans’ oftentimes absolutist views on what constitutes proper conduct in speaking about race. With its evenhanded rather than polemical mode of sober exposition, Kennedy’s work aims to articulate a new centrist vision of race in America. This new vision reflects an unusual mix of attitudes and styles of argumentation that attempt to dispense with the political imperatives of orthodox liberalism and conservatism in favor of ideological flexibility.

Accused by critics of titling his book with crass commercial intentions, it is instructive to repeat what Kennedy writes about his reason for writing it: “I have invested energy in this endeavor because nigger is a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics. To be ignorant of its meaning and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.”

The book begins with a brief history of the word “nigger,” a word which first appeared in the 1600’s as a nonpejorative term used to describe rather than to insult. By 1837, however, “nigger” was commonly used by whites for the purpose of expressing contempt and inflicting pain. Illustrating how whites have deployed “nigger” to communicate the idea that blacks are inferior, Kennedy collects some particularly grotesque phrases which have been in common use at times over the last two centuries. Kennedy matter-of-factly presents uses of “nigger” from popular song lyrics, nursery rhymes, Ku Klux Klan joke lists, and transcripts of comments uttered by U.S. senators, Supreme Court justices, and former U.S. presidents.

Although Kennedy is not trying to outrage or titillate, much of his content does indeed stir emotions. However, just as his presentation of horrific utterances and writings begins to convey the singularity of this one word’s potential to injure, Kennedy makes the issue more complex by drawing subtle distinctions between different uses of the word—distinctions that evolve into the central theme of Nigger. According to Kennedy, words mean different things in different contexts. Therefore observers ought to eschew one- size-fits-all rules for interpreting speech in favor of case-by- case analysis of the details surrounding a speaker’s utterances. Although history justifies certain presumptions as a starting point, observers ought to be willing to change their interpretation of those who use the word in the light of other relevant information.

One of the key implications of Kennedy’s thesis is that when white people say “nigger,” it does not necessarily imply they are racists, even though that is a fair presumption with which to begin. Kennedy notes, for example, that Louisiana senator Huey Long

used the terms “nigra,” “colored,” and “nigger” with no apparent awareness that that last word would or should be viewed as offensive. By contrast, for Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge,nigger was not simply a designation he had been taught; it was also a tool of demagoguery that he self-consciously deployed.

Kennedy repeatedly makes the claim that a speaker’s intentions matter.

In keeping with his focus on the importance of context and his rejection of absolutism, Kennedy considers whether it is possible to compare the severity of different epithets. Answering in the affirmative, he argues that there ought to be room in the language for making qualitative assessments about the degree of repugnance associated with different words. As illustration, Kennedy cites a debate which has appeared on various editorial pages about whether calling someone a “honky” is equally bad or decidedly worse than calling someone “nigger.” He presents quantitative evidence of asymmetry based on two queries using a LEXIS-NEXUS database of federal and state court cases: 286 hits for “honky,” and 4,219 hits for “nigger.” Kennedy adds to the quantitative evidence by producing a list of quotations from black authors and public personalities who recount instances where the word “nigger” inflicted extreme pain or played a decisive role in shaping their worldview. Kennedy...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)