Harvard Book Store’s virtual event series welcomes renowned legal scholar RANDALL KENNEDY for a discussion of the twentieth-anniversary edition of his acclaimed classic, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.
In the new introduction to his classic work, Kennedy questions the claim that “nigger” is the most tabooed term in the American language, faced with the implacable prevalence of its old-fashioned anti-Black sense. “Nigger” continues to be part of the loud soundtrack of the worst instances of racial aggression in American life—racially motivated assaults and murders, arson, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and workplace harassment.
Consider this: twenty years ago, Kennedy wrote that any major politician credibly accused of using “nigger” would be immediately abandoned and ostracized. He was wrong. Donald Trump, former POTUS himself, was credibly charged, and the allegation caused little more than a yawn. No one doubted the accuracy of the claim but amidst all his other racist acts his “nigger-baiting” no longer seemed shocking. “Nigger” is still very much alive and all too widely accepted.
On the other hand, Kennedy is concerned to address the many episodes in which people have been punished for quoting, enunciating, or saying “nigger” in circumstances that should have made it clear that the speakers were doing nothing wrong—or at least nothing sufficiently wrong to merit the extent of the denunciation they suffered.
He discusses, for example, the inquisition of Bill Maher (and his pathetic apology) and the (white) teachers who have been disciplined for reading out loud texts that contain “nigger.” He argues that in assessing these controversies, we ought to be more careful about the use/mention distinction: menacingly calling someone a “nigger” is wholly different than quoting a sentence from a text by James Baldwin or Toni Morrison or Flannery O’Connor or Mark Twain.
Kennedy argues against the proposition that different rules should apply depending upon the race of the speaker of “nigger,” offering stunningly commonsensical reasons for abjuring the erection of such boundaries.
He concludes by venturing a forecast about the likely status of “nigger” in American culture during the next twenty years when we will see the clear ascendance of a so-called “minority majority” body politic—which term itself is redolent of white supremacy.
Praise for Nigger
“Provocative. . . . engaging and informative.” —New York Times
“Should be required reading. . . . This little book deserves to be read especially if we seek better understanding of ourselves and others.” —Dallas Morning News
“Demonstrates a key truth about the N-word. . . . it tracks our racial history and stars in a slew of court decisions that reveal large truths about bigotry and free expression.” —Philadelphia Inquirer