The twentieth anniversary edition of one of the most controversial books ever published on race and language is now more relevant than ever in this season of racial reckoning—from “one of our most important and perceptive writers on race" (The Washington Post).
In addition to a brave and bracing inquiry into the origins, uses, and impact of the infamous word, this edition features an extensive new introduction that addresses major developments in its evolution during the last two decades of its vexed history.
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.
About the Author
RANDALL KENNEDY is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia, the American Law Institute, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of seven books and lives in Deham, Massachusetts.
“Provocative. . . . engaging and informative.” —The New York Times
“Should be required reading. . . . This little book deserves to be read especially if we seek better understanding of ourselves and others.” –The 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
“A detailed, well-researched book. . . . Kennedy boils centuries of usage–in conversation, literature, legal proceedings–down to the most pertinent and instructive.” –San Francisco Chronicle