Nigger-'tude

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy's Troublesome Word

As stated above, "Eradicationists" is how Kennedy identifies those African Americans uncomfortable enough with the word to demand Mark Twain's removal from high school English classes. But though he is quick to admonish those like Spike Lee and Ice Cube, who emotively claim the word and off-limit it to whites, Kennedy never comes out and says how much of the word's power comes from its position as a marker of white power—especially in working-class situations that find one-paycheck-from-poverty Black employees in the thrall of abusive white supervisors. As with most things in life, power separates the men from the boys more than context per se.

Kennedy points out the word has wantonly attached itself to the fortunes and infamy of Richard Pryor and Quentin Tarantino's careers. Only in the endnotes, does he enter into evidence Pryor's heart-wrenching decision to stop using nigger after returning from a visit to Africa nor does he address Tarantino's specious if not disingenuous claim that he used the word because he thought it had too much power. Since white power is the only power nigger could have, the world is still waiting for proof of Tarantino's contribution to white disempowerment. And for the first Black filmmaker who will be lionized for his witty way with Jew-baiting.

To Kennedy's credit, he does point out that there are white supremacists who eschew nigger yet do far more harm to Black social advancement with their power than those who use it all the time. He argues that though nigger was documented as a conversational favorite of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, both did good things for the Negro, though he fails to specify exactly what. (Integrating the armed services and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were both cool, propitious moves, dude, but let's help the historically challenged out here, aiight?)

Kennedy is too hopeful about nigger's demise as an insult as it becomes more of a trope in the hands of African American musical and comedic entertainers. That African Americans have a genius for subverting, perverting, and commodifying English is beyond argument. You can go to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, now and hear locals dream of coming to America to live the "Thug Life." Nigger is further proof that African American speech possesses the secret of juju, what some Afrocentrists identify as wordsoundpower, a force akin to that which novelist Frank Herbert ascribed to his character Muad'Dib in Dune who understood his name as a "killing word." A central, philosophical question that should be on the table of every Black forum going today is, What are the limits of Black symbolic, legal, and moral victories over white power in America? Another way to ask the question might be, Whatever happened to Black Power? Or Foucauldian Power, for that matter.

Kennedy aptly and professorially demonstrates the limits of the law when it comes to using a white supervisor's flagrant nigger-usage as Proof of Racism but never takes on the power surging through, around, under, and beyond that nigger-talking offender.

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