As an African American Studies student I listened to Randall Kennedy’s talk about the use of the work “nigger” as part of the Temple Issues Forum broadcast on WHYY (1/31/02) in almost disbelief.
Here was a well spoken, highly educated African American-Harvard law professor defending the right of people to use a word that was devised with only one purpose: to dehumanize people of African descent.
Kennedy, claiming his book’s goal is to educate people about the history of the word “nigger” and to help people understand its various meanings, clearly misses his target. Those seriously interested in examining the word should read Richard B. Moore’s The name “Negro”: Its Origin and Evil Use.
Temple professor Nikki Keach commented that the only time using “nigger” is instructive is when attempting to explain its hateful development and perpetuation, and how people can act to ameliorate the conditions that gave rise to it in the first place is a perfect response to Kennedy’s rhetoric that any word can become beautiful in the proper context.
Unfortunately, Kennedy and his new book give people license to used the N-word willy-nilly, without ever seriously examining its oppressive meaning and purpose. One therefore must ask, what is Kennedy’s real purpose for writing this book? Would this book have been published if a white author had written it?
Most likely not. While Kennedy is opportunistically cashing in on America’s obsession with race, he is providing fodder for people who exclaim, “Using ‘nigger’ must be OK because a well known and respected black man says it is.”
In essence, Kennedy is acting as a cultural pimp, using his own blackness to justify his position while providing ammunition to a society that is already well armed and divided along racial lines.
Paul T. Miller is a graduate student of
African-American Studies at Temple University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.