Nigger by Randall Kennedy

[21 August 2002]

By James Withers

Two nigger stories: 1) one balmy NYC night about 14 years ago, I was walking with a group of friends in the neighborhood of New York University. We were talking, and being the college educated Negroes that we are, our language was a mixture between William F. Buckley and Richard Pryor. A group of white teenagers were walking towards us, and I immediately noticed their boots, demeanor, and shaved heads. Expected trouble, but instantly chastised myself for my facile assumptions; however, before “We Are The World” could finish in my head, one of the kids said, “There sure are a lot of niggers out tonight.” A friend, being rather quick with the retort, responded with “Yes there are, and if you do not shut up some niggers are going to kick your ass.”

Fast forward to last spring: I’m walking out of a racially mixed high school. A group of Latino students are milling about, and one of them says “Nigga, shut-up.” I turn around, ready to get medieval on someone (for the record: me getting medieval on someone involves a dramatic recitation of Shylock’s famous Merchant of Venice speech), but I realize that the students are not even paying me any attention. They are talking to each other, and the word had nothing to do with me.

It doesn’t take much intellectual daring to argue that much has changed between those two nigger stories. The most obvious change is that contemporary popular culture is so unabashedly based on Black-American cultural expressions. Granted that has always been true, but now there is no need for an Elvis or Benny Goodman to make cultural life from the “other side of the tracks” safe for mainstream (translation: white) consumption. And this unreserved selling of Black culture is no more obvious than in the world of music, specifically hip-hop. And if hip-hop is as American as apple pie, then the language it uses, a language that some call coarse and others call authentic has become the currency of hipness and modernity. This is the phenomenon that underscores Randall Kennedy’s short book, Nigger.

Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University, has written a book that takes readers from the world of the Internet (KKKomedy Central is my personal fave) to the quiet halls of legal discourse. It starts with a short linguistic history lesson. Born from the Latin word “niger” for black, nigger gained its derogatory status over time (there is no exact reason how). What is surprising is that once the word became an insult, it found a home everywhere. “Nigger has seeped into practically every aspect of American culture, from literature to political debates, from cartoons to song.” While some maintain that the word is suddenly everywhere, if Kennedy is to be believed it was everywhere before even on the mouth of Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds who once called Howard University “nigger university.”

You will probably learn more about the law in Kennedy’s small chapter, “Nigger in Court,” than you will by watching any judge show on television (dear Judge Judy: please go away!). “. . . Nigger is thoroughly enmeshed in litigation.” There is, of course, Los Angles police officer Mark Fuhrman’s denial of using the word in the Simpson trial; however, the most fascinating legal case of the word involves Julius Fisher. In March 1944, Fisher, a janitor at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, slapped Catherine Cooper Reardon. She had called him a “black nigger” after he spoke to her about his job performance with his supervisor. She screamed, and to keep her quiet, he beat, choked, and stabbed her. His lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall’s teacher, “offered a defense of partial responsibility.” “The trial judge allowed Houston to present evidence intended to show that Fisher suffered from a diminished capacity to control himself and that Reardon had disastrously triggered this weakness by calling him a ‘black nigger’.” Houston hoped this defense would give his client a second-degree murder conviction, 20 years in prison, as opposed to first degree, which meant the death penalty. The judge did not instruct the jury to take into account Hamilton’s “alleged mental deficiency.” Fisher was convicted of first degree murder and when his appeal reached the Supreme Court only three justices called into question the trial judge’s jury directions (Justice Felix Frankfurter was one of the dissenters).

If the legal history leaves you cold, then Kennedy’s own revelations are worth considering. When it comes to nigger, Kennedy is a First Amendment absolutist. He does not want to dismiss the word from the public square, and is willing to critique big names who do (such as comedian Bill Cosby). He finds the use of the word by young musicians, specifically rap-artists, a refreshing tonic to a world that seems bound by convention. “Many people (including me) are drawn to these performers despite their many faults because, among other things, they exhibit a bracing independence. They eschew boring conventions, including one that maintains, despite evidence to the contrary, that nigger can mean only one thing.” Kennedy, in this small book, asks more of us when it comes to race conversations, and it is this breaking of the boundaries that makes Nigger an important study.

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