Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: “Nigger” by Randall Kennedy (2002)

A superb expose on the etymology beyond the most contentious word in the English language, or just a humdrum, half-hearted analysis with a sensationalist title? 


NOTE: In reviewing this book, it’s almost impossible to address the subject without addressing the connotations the title of the book implies. Although this REALLY should go without saying, I, in no way, shape, or form, condone racism in any of its incarnations, and if you just so happen to be one of those Stormfront knuckle draggers reading this right now, please do us all a favor and return to your dilapidated shack and never, ever come out. -- THNX, MGMT.

Hank Aaron was endlessly berated by it while he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Michael Jordan was once suspended from school for shoving a Popsicle into the face of a white girl that said it to him.

Tiger Woods said that the word was hurled at him, while he was allegedly tied to a tree by his classmates…in kindergarten.

It’s a word that’s famously slipped past the lips of countless, historically significant individuals. Among its documented, casual users: senators Benjamin Tillman and Huey Long, Governors Eugene Talmadge and Colemean Blease, Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds, Author Flannery O’Connor and Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

It’s a word that author Randall Kennedy eloquently describes as a verbal nuclear bomb -- the most humiliating term in the English-American language, a word whose mere utterance, according to some, ought to be considered a form of physical assault.

And it’s also the title of a book that I have a lot of qualms about typing in front of me.

I’ve wanted to read Mr. Kennedy’s book for well over a decade now. I believe the first time I heard about the title was through watching “Boston Public” way back when, where it was used as a prominent plot point in an episode about racism or some other mess. The reasons why it’s taken me this long to read it, I suppose, are two-fold. First off, at a little under 200 pages (and with basically three words printed on every page), I couldn’t justify spending nearly twenty smackers on something I could polish off over the course of one weekend. The second reason -- and I am guessing this is why overall sales of the book may have been lagging -- is because I was just too damned scared to walk up to the cashier’s desk and buy it. I mean, what if the person operating the register was…gulp…an African-American? Perhaps perfectly describing the word as a social force, the bare implications of being “racist” for picking up a book with a “racist” title (even though the book itself is actually about as anti-racist as it can get) was enough to keep me away from “Nigger” for more than 10 years. Well, that, or it just took me eleven years to find a used copy under ten bucks and in decent condition, I reckon.

Just picking up the book constituted a minor social crisis for me, so pondering whether or not I should even REVIEW the book on a quasi-public forum presented the sociopolitical equivalent of a personal Cuban Missile Crisis. Should I actually spell out the title of the book when I talk about? Should I refer to that particular word only when directly referencing the title of the book, and cloak the word under some “gentler” euphemism when addressing it abstractly? Is it even appropriate to use terms like “negro” or “colored” when citing specific elements of the book, or is even using the generalized term “n-word” too much? From a social standpoint -- let alone, an etymological stance -- there’s no denying the multitude of implications the title of Kennedy’s book entails. The subtitle of the book is appropriate in many aspects, as well; as troubling as the term may be as a pejorative, you really can’t argue that the term is utterly fascinating, considering the broad forms of usages the same six-lettered-utterance similarly provokes.

The etymology behind the term is the most  logical starting point for the book, and there’s not really a whole lot of new information Kennedy manages to trudge up regarding its origins. More than likely, Kennedy believes that the epithet stems from the Latin term for black, “niger,” which, over the course of  history, has had a virtually endless number of spelling variations. He goes as far back as 1619 to dig up the expression’s usage in the Americas -- for all intents and purposes, not only has “nigger” been around since the U.S. began, it actually predates its existence by at least 200 years. To give you a good idea of just how entrenched such racism is in U.S. history, you know that “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe” nursery rhyme we all learned when we were preschoolers? Well, in the original version, it wasn’t a “tiger” that was being caught.

For as long as the term has been around, Kennedy, writes, it’s primarily been used as a “paradigmatic slur” and an intentionally destructive descriptor. Looking back on the word’s dispersion into the popular vernacular, he claims that the term has virtually always been used as a pejorative; much more than a crude term that references one’s skin color, Kennedy argues that the term carries with it a certain social disapproval that condemns more than it describes.

Addressing the term as “the most socially consequential racial insult” in U.S. history, he also delves into the term’s “revaluation” in popular culture as a multifaceted positive descriptor that, depending on its context, can be construed as a compliment, a term of affection, or, in stark contrast to the term’s original use, an expression of respect.

Although certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the book, Kennedy’s take on the “nigger vs. nigga” debate is a little disappointing. Despite earlier stating that some -- noting Ice-T and Tupac, specifically -- used the term as both an inflection of “empowered” social standing and a spoof on the ridiculousness of U.S. race relations (at one point, stating that the term could be used as a means of “combating white commercialism,” since black culture-exploiting advertisers don’t have the gall to go anywhere near the term), he doesn’t really explore either the intra-community dynamics of the term (as Chris Rock so poetically stated back in the ‘90s) or how the term has been absorbed into some white communities as a social slur without any ascribed ethnic categories. Granted, Kennedy does touch upon these matters, but he really doesn’t cut into them too deeply, either.

The bulk of Kennedy’s book focuses on the legal history of the term -- an interesting topic, to be sure, but Kennedy’s laser beam focus on court jargon as opposed to court implications makes things drag a little from time to time. One of the questions Kennedy asks is whether or not use of the term “nigger” by a white person is enough to exonerate an African-American person if he or she attacks, or even kills, the individual that uttered the slur. Surprisingly, there are actually quite a few cases on the books detailing the issue (Thornton v. State, North Carolina v. Rufus Coley Watson, Jr., not to mention the story of Julius Fisher, who in 1944, killed a librarian for dropping the “n”-bomb), and virtually all of the cases point to the same outcome --the “provocation” excuse just doesn’t fly in the U.S. legal system.

On the issue of torts, Kennedy said the “mere words doctrine,” in conjunction with a requirement of “outrageousness,” means that civil lawsuits brought against those that utter “nigger” are usually fruitless in U.S. courtrooms (citing the eventual outcomes in Brown v. EMEPA and Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass  Co. as case studies.) Nor does it necessarily constitute an inevitable win in a “hostile work place” suit (Ross v. Douglas County), a pivotal sway point in a divorce hearing (Preston v. Preston), either. And in case you were wondering? No, you cannot legally change your name to “Misteri Nigger”…well, in Ventura County, Calif. anyway.

Far and away the most interesting aspect of the book is Kennedy’s passage on attempts to eradicate the term from the English language. Perhaps surprisingly, Kennedy’s stance is actually firmly anti-eradication, stating that the term is used in such “a rich panoply of contexts” that attacking use of the term, without context, is both an overreaction and a slight against the First Amendment.

In the last third of the book, Kennedy plows through a ton of territory like a tornado sweeping across a junkyard; simply put, there’s a little bit of everything getting dropped as the book concludes, among them: what Kennedy considers an unwarranted attack on “Huck Finn” (which he complements with Mark Twain’s lesser-heralded, but still political-as-all-hell essay “Only a Nigger”), accusations of racism against Boston Magazine, Quentin Tarantino, the book “Nigger Heaven” and even the dictionary itself, multiple instances of staged hate crimes (the stories Tawana Brawley, Tisha Anderson, Persey Harris III, Sonia James and Sabrina Collins among them, not to mention Otis Smith’s comment that it simply didn't matter that such allegations were fabricated) and the broad, ineffectiveness of hate speech codes on college campuses -- which Kennedy believes targets “veritable strawmen” instead of the much more dangerous, and bureaucratic, forms of institutionalized racism going on across U.S. universities. In particular, Kennedy has strong words for Richard Delgado -- an activist that wants people that use the term “nigger” to actually pay financial penalties for their utterances, like we were living in “Demolition Man” or something.

Of all things. Kennedy concludes the book by talking about the popularity of 1950s television show “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which despite being loathed by individuals like Thurgood Marshall (for whom Kennedy was once a clerk) and Roy Wilkins, was actually liked by a good three-fourths of the African-American community. The intent, I suppose, is to make it clear that what constitutes racism is generally in the eye-of-the-beholder; that is, what’s apparent discrimination to one might be seen as nothing objectionable at all by a good seven out of 10 people. Needless to say, if you’re looking for answers (or really, even questions) about the state of racial affairs in the United States, you’re probably not going to find them in the finale of this tome.

I know my description of the book sounds very jumbled and disjointed, but that’s because the book is more or less that jumbled and disjointed. Granted, it’s an entertaining (and super quick) read, and there are a lot of nice tidbits here and there, but overall, the book doesn’t even begin to carve into the impact and import of the term, let alone begin to truly assess race relations in modern America. More or less, the book gives you a solid introduction on the origin of the term, and it is a nice primer on its implications, but it just leaves so much stuff unexplored that you can’t help but get frustrated while reading it. OK, so it’s been around for a long time, it’s hurtful (but can also be salutary), as a legal flashpoint, it’s had mixed (leaning towards ineffective) results and a lot of special interests folks like to take their disdain of perceived prejudices stemming from its use to ludicrous extremes. But beyond that? There’s just not a whole lot more underneath the cover, I am afraid.

To be fair, I really liked some portions of the book, but to me, it seems as if the topic is just way too broad for a book that’s barely 200 pages. With more and more individuals believing that America has progressed to a “post-racial” society, I think it would be interesting to see how Kennedy would have tackled the topic today; the book may not have been drastically different, but considering how the “mainstream” consensus on racial issues has drifted a little bit closer to the left in the wake of Obama’s presidency, methinks the angle would have been just a smidge more positive than the 2002 iteration.

At the end of the day, Kennedy’s book is enjoyable and interesting, but it’s just too darn brief to really give the subject matter a proper combing. At one point in the tome, Kennedy said that the word “nigger” is just “too important” a term to ignore; and in my opinion, a term that important deserves a dissection and analysis that’s a little bit longer…and more in-depth…than what the author posits here.

1 comment:

  1. if you are looking for a different conversation on the word "nigger," then check out Dr. J.W. Wiley's new book, The Nigger in You. It goes some places you wouldn't think a book on such a word would go.

    ReplyDelete