New book about racial epithet misses the point
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
When I saw the title of Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, I immediately thought of a conversation I had with my son not long ago. I had overheard him greet a buddy on the phone with “Yo nigger, what’s up?” It wasn’t the first time this had happened. In the past I ignored it. I knew it was the way many young blacks talked to each other; the word is part of their hip jargon, and they aren’t particularly troubled by its odious significance.
But this time I was.
I asked him why he used it. He shrugged and said that everybody does it. “Then what if one of your white friends calls you a nigger?” I asked. “Is that O.K.?” He was silent. We both knew that would not be acceptable. When any white person, especially a celebrity, athlete, or public official, slips and uses the word or makes any other racist reference, they hear about it from outraged blacks.
Randall Kennedy, in his provocative but misguided polemic, denounces the double standard that my son and other young blacks apply to whites. He contends that “nigger” is hardly the earthshattering, illegitimate word that many blacks and whites brand it. Kennedy is intrigued by the rappers and black comedians who sprinkle the word throughout their lyrics and jokes, and by black writers and filmmakers who go through lengthy gyrations to justify using it.
Their rationale boils down to this: The more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography Nigger. Black writer Robert deCoy also tried to apply this form of racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel The Nigger Bible.
In his book (Pantheon; $22), Kennedy ticks off the litany of defenses many blacks cite to justify using the word. They claim that it is a term of endearment or affection. They say to each other, “You’re my nigger if you don’t get no bigger” or “That nigger sure is something.” Some use it in anger or disdain: “Nigger, you sure got an attitude.” Still others are defiant. They say they don’t care what a white person calls them, since words can’t harm them.
Kennedy understands, even sympathizes with their defense. He has no truck with those who want to purge the word from public discourse, wage war against its presence in such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, encode it in hate-speech laws, and impose penalties and sanctions on professors, basketball coaches, and public officials who use it, no matter how instructive or benevolent their intentions.
But in his passionate plea to recast public thinking and debate over the word, Kennedy makes the same mistake as other n-word apologists. Words are not value-neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often words reflect society’s standards. If colorphobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then a word as emotionally charged as “nigger” will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can’t be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as culturally liberating.
“Nigger” can’t and shouldn’t be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse gets made for it. Kennedy goes further and creates straw-man enemies to bolster his warning against making too much ado about the word. He cites cases of blacks who lie for gain or publicity by claiming they were assailed by racist whites (e.g., the Tawana Brawley case), who demand excessive punishment for offending whites, or who push to purge the word from dictionaries.
These are extreme, media-sensationalized examples of blacks overreacting to the word. Yet there are dozens of daily examples where whites taunt and harass blacks by calling them “nigger”; spray-paint the word on their homes, businesses, churches; use the word as part of assaults, even murders, of blacks. The word “nigger” still has a grotesque and deadly meaning. And even if some blacks do occasionally protest too much, maybe that’s because “nigger,” as Kennedy himself admits, pricks agonizing historical and social sores.
That’s certainly why comedian Richard Pryor publicly changed his mind about the word. The irreverent Pryor had practically made a career out of using “nigger” in his routines. But after returning from Africa, he told a concert audience that he now considered the word profane and disrespectful, and was dropping it from his act. His audience applauded.
Although Kennedy frowns on Pryor’s racial conversion as a betrayal of cultural faith and freedom, Pryor got it right. And anyone who reads Kennedy’s Nigger should immediately go rent the tape of that concert to understand why there’s no excuse for “nigger.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and the author of ‘The Crisis in Black and Black.’
From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.