NIGGER by Randall Kennedy

NIGGER

The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

KIRKUS REVIEW

A lively treatise on the most offensive word in the English language, from a renowned expert on civil rights and black legal history (Race, Crime, and the Law, 1997).

Jumping off from a series of lectures he gave in 1999, Harvard Law Professor Kennedy explores with care the cultural, social, and legal significance of the powerful N-word. He looks at the unique staying-power of this highly charged term, asking why and how so forbidden an expression of race hate has come to also be used, in various forms, as an expression of esteem, power, and affection. Kennedy gives an account of the word’s origin and history in 17th-century America, examines revealing court cases in which it has figured, and in a chapter entitled “Pitfalls in Fighting Nigger” analyzes the various efforts on campus and in the workplace to inhibit its use. He has a well-tuned ear for the diverse ways the word has infiltrated the American vernacular, and strong views about the many PC arguments that have swirled around the issues it raises; he cites many wrongful abuses of the term, but tends to be critical of excessive measures taken by some to control or punish offensive speech. Rap music, TV shows, films, and books also get the treatment, with discussions of many familiar black artists, from Spike Lee to Bill Cosby to Tupac Shakur, and commentary on the edgy, self-deprecating humor of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, and the stars of Def Comedy Jam, as well as the long-running controversy over the ’50s TV sitcom Amos ’n’ Andy, which featured black stereotypes. Kennedy is at his best, however, when describing and interpreting legal cases, and his explanations of relevant courtroom dramas move it all along as he guides the reader to an understanding of the “mere words” and “fighting words” doctrines that have helped shape legal thinking on the subject. While some seasoned readers of black history may feel there’s not much here about “nigger” they don’t already know, Kennedy’s knack for storytelling and his overall smarts make this a very enjoyable one-sitting affair.

A coolly delivered small-focus study.

Pub Date: Jan. 22nd, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-42172-6
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2001




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