Nigger-'tude

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy's Troublesome Word

 Nigger is no ordinary noun. No other single epithet in the English language could justify a memoir and career profile as juicy as nigger, a word whose manifest destiny exercises a hold over the world as varied and virulent as Hollywood's. No other appellation in the American idiom has led such a rich, vibrant life; no other sobriquet has acquired such a juju-fied life force nor been the cause of so much continuing pain, pleasure, and acrimony. Not to mention ongoing controversies in our courts of law and public opinion. No other word has proven itself so emblematic of the host culture's worst and best features, meaning white supremacy and Black Resiliency. Nigger has been everywhere, seen everything, known and influenced players high and low, insinuated itself into all things American, moved freely from the bedroom to the boardroom, the outhouse to the courthouse, the locker room to the stateroom, from our killing fields to our fields of higher learning.

Randall Kennedy, an African American Harvard law professor and former clerk for Thurgood Marshall, recently published Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Pantheon). Trouble has already come for Kennedy in the form of strong condemnations from Houston Baker, Patricia Williams, and Julianne Malveaux, three leading Black intellectuals. In a nutshell, Kennedy is arguing for the fluidity of the word in American life, noting that the "protean n-word" shifts in meaning and affect depending on who's using it, how, in what context, and to whom. To buttress the point, he draws Richard Pryor, Quentin Tarantino, Ice Cube, and various of the nation's appellate courts into the fray. Much of what he cites from court records is perversely funny, making the book read like one long, drawn-out nigger joke. People like Baker, Williams, and Malveaux who would deny nigger any leniency in the marketplace of ideas, Kennedy tags "Eradicationists." He himself, though, finds so much salacious joy in this project as to risk being labeled a nigger-fetishist. Kennedy often walks the fine line between being both an adjudicator of nigger-'tude and a nigger-apologist.

Oddly he doesn't touch upon the word's place in the British Raj in India or during the high period of African colonization, nor spend much time on its tactical use by U.S. slaveholders in lobotomizing the African part of the African American brain. Tacitly we get that nigger now instantaneously refers to us American Blacks. The author might have spelled out how this ahistorical, ontological, etymological, and epistemological twist came about. I suspect he didn't because that would have required spending more time discussing white power rather than his beloved nigger. (More on that later.)

Randall Kennedy risks being labeled a nigger-fetishist.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Randall Kennedy risks being labeled a nigger-fetishist.

Instead, Kennedy, an American-law scholar and author of the acclaimed Race, Crime and the Law, treats us to the tortuous reasoning and outcome of numerous legal cases where debates over the use of the word nigger held lives and judgment fees in the balance. Some are less tragic than darkly comic—like the college basketball coach who asked his realnigga players for permission to rally the team by using nigger as they used it, as a supermasculine signifier separating the pussies from the truly hard motherfuckers. This gambit, Kennedy rightly argues, cost Coach his job, though the writer is sympathetic to Coach's Rodney-can't-we-all-just-love-niggers-King naïveté. No friend of the academic hate-speech code on campuses, Kennedy is less understanding toward the "hypersensitive" Black student who led a successful campaign to get a white professor fired for referencing nigger in a discussion of hateful speech.

Some of the less ambiguous, and less offensive to the Black upper-middle-class, cases involve lawsuits against white employers and supervisors who deployed the term with extreme prejudice. Some of these cases were lost or never even got to trial because their judges found no great harm in bosses' heatedly spraying nigger around their shops at Black underlings. One judge went so far as to claim nigger had simply become a "convention of the workplace" and therefore couldn't possibly qualify as inflammatory or discriminatory. Be a cracker beat-down convention at most workplaces I know of thanks to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, whose limits Kennedy reports with stinging jurisprudence. Black folk who've traded in the hot knuckle sandwich for the steamed legal brief get rebuffed a lot.

Questions of nigger-context and who has license-to-nigger clearly delight Kennedy, who finally betrays his own fetish for the N-word's lumpen, transgressive powers when he speaks of certain Black entertainers as exhibiting a "bracing independence" when using the word, as if only their relationship to it mattered. He also praises them for their daring to "eschew boring conventions including the one that maintains, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that nigger can mean only one thing." Some would describe this "bracing independence" as the new minstrelsy, since post-gangsta, just being Black and wrong isn't as energizing or emancipatory as it used to be. It also doesn't seem anyone is arguing against nigger's multiple meanings—just that it still means the same thing to those in power and remains one of their weapons against the Black and powerless who tend not to be Harvard ensconced.

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