MAXWELL:  Confronting our cruelest word

1/27/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



NIGGER: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

By Randall Kennedy

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

In 1974, I was an English teacher at Northern Illinois University. I put Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the reading list of my American literature course. The six African-American students in the course protested, saying they would not read the novel because of Twain’s heavy use of the word “nigger” and because the black protagonist is named Nigger Jim.

I told them to either read the novel or drop the course. The dean suggested that I offer them an alternative novel. I refused. Read Huck or drop the course. Four dropped. Two remained, but they grumbled all semester. My 15 white students also felt uncomfortable with the word.

This was an instructive saga for me, a second-year college teacher, a black man reared in the South, who, despite having been called nigger hundreds of times both by whites and blacks, now believed the university campus was a place of free thinking.

I had naively believed I could put the word nigger in context and help my students assess its various shades of meaning as Twain had intended. Because of my ignorance, I gave a lot of young people an unnecessary bad experience.

If Randall Kennedy had published his book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, in 1974, my students and I probably would have had a more wholesome experience. Before they read Huck, they would have read Nigger first.

Kennedy, an African-American and a professor at Harvard Law School, says nigger “is the signature phrase of racial prejudice,” the most caustic and consequential social insult in American life.

With exemplary research, a felicitous writing style and candor, Kennedy explores, among others issues, these bedrock questions: How should nigger be defined? Is it more or less hurtful than any other racial epithet? Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways that others should not? Should the law view nigger as a provocation strong enough to reduce the culpability of a person who responds violently to it? Should a person be fired from his or her job for saying nigger? What methods can be used to deprive nigger of its destructiveness?

“To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life,” Kennedy writes.

The world of hip-hop has made nigger (“nigga”) as familiar as white bread. Few of us can navigate our social lives for 24 hours without coming into contact with the term.

Where did nigger come from? The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang claims that it derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger, and was not a slur. Over time, however, it became derogatory.

Even children’s rhymes featured the term. One of the most famous and most widely repeated is this one:


Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers, let him go!


The word has such negative cachet among racists, Kennedy shows, the Internet has sites devoted exclusively to nigger jokes. KKKomedy Central-Mousetrap’s Nigger Joke Center sports, among others, these gems:

Q: What do you call a nigger boy riding a bike?

A: Thief!

Another one:

Q: Why do niggers wear high-heeled shoes?

A: So their knuckles won’t scrape the ground!

One more:

Q: How do you get a nigger to commit suicide?

A: Toss a bucket of KFC into traffic.

Kennedy pulls no punches. He wants readers to confront all cultural contours of nigger. “Cultural literacy requires detailed knowledge about the oppression of racial minorities,” he writes. “To paper over that term or to constantly obscure it by euphemism is to flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudice that continues to haunt the American social landscape.”

To demonstrate the word’s deep penetration into the American psyche, Kennedy chronicles its use in literature, everyday speech, song, film, the courtroom, sports and politics.

He believes that nigger, as a racial epithet, is an inescapable part of the American character: “Given the power of “nigger’ to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror America’s most depressing failings.”

Again, if I had had this book in 1974, I would have prepared my unsuspecting students for the shock of Twain’s easy use of nigger and his sensitive portrayal of Nigger Jim as a flawed, complex being human. I am certain that Nigger will make a difference, at least in academia, as to how we view the cruelest word in American English.

Kennedy has produced a blueprint for understanding. Does the average American have the courage and a mind open enough to learn about a term that continues to define, divide and distort?

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist and editorial writer.