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Book Sparks, in a Word, Controversy

Randall Kennedy's discourse on the 'N-word' is embraced by some for its boldness and criticized by others for glossing over the world of hip-hop.


'Deep in the streets" is not how anyone would describe Randall Kennedy. Each morning he commutes from his home in suburban Boston to Harvard Law School. His office there is a cacophony of casebooks and culture. Sarah Vaughan tapes and Philip Roth novels join the clutter that surrounds his large desk. He sits behind stacks of papers in a gray tailored suit that complements the gray hairs that curl around his temples.

Kennedy, who wrote 1997's acclaimed "Race, Crime, and the Law," is the author of a pithy new book with an eye-catching title: "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word." Already the book has spawned debate about how the "troublesome word" can and should be used.

Under discussion as well is whether a book about the word, even one by an Ivy League legal scholar, can avoid the monolith of hip-hop culture--the word's primary arena these days. Kennedy's book owes far more to the canonized texts of jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. than to the lyrics of Ice Cube. And to some critics, that means that the law professor's reading stops short of capturing the difficult issues surrounding the word's popularity in some circles.

Kennedy, who is black, says he never set out to write a definitive history of the word. One day, just out of curiosity, he searched for "nigger" in the electronic database Lexis-Nexis to see what would come up. Thousands of documents later, he crafted his findings into a series of guest lectures he delivered at Stanford University in 1999. Kennedy mentioned his lectures to his literary agent, who suggested he pass them on to Erroll McDonald, who had edited his previous book at Pantheon. Three weeks later, Kennedy says, "That was that. Finished. Finito. We had a book."

This is the first book to emerge that purports to chart and assess the word's expansive history. Kennedy starts off with the word's etymology (from "niger," Latin for black) and then embarks upon a quick tour of the word's place in history. He begins his journey in the estate records from the 17th century and roams onward through overtly racist jokes and personal experiences of black icons from Richard Wright to Tiger Woods. In his central chapter, "Nigger in Court," Kennedy essentially puts the "protean N-word" on trial in history's courtrooms, examining the legal spheres of education and employment, as well as the infamous testimony of Mark Fuhrman in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The book then expands its focus to scrutinize use and reactions to the word in the culture, including controversies over using the word in dictionaries, and how it plays in humor from "Amos 'n' Andy" to Chris Rock.

Throughout, Kennedy repeatedly steps aside to reiterate that he deems the word a slippery, malleable thing and to argue for the "renovation" of the word as a "linguistic landmark"--and even a term of endearment and empowerment. "For bad and for good," he concludes, "'nigger' is thus destined to remain with us for the foreseeable future--a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience."

Kennedy is entirely aware of the fury he stirs with the argument that the word's use does not always constitute hate speech but needs to be judged in context. And in the context of this book's sales and marketing, the word has proved to be incendiary. Since the title's announcement, enraged correspondents have sent Kennedy heaps of mail. He glories in the thought of confronting readers with their uneasiness about the word. He says with a smirk that he envisions them walking into bookstores to ask, "Have you got any 'Niggers'" in?' or "Do you folks carry that 'Nigger' I've read about?"

In the Pantheon offices, the title has befuddled some of the people who have worked to publish the book. "There are some people who have not been able to bring themselves to say the title," says editor McDonald. "I myself have been known to yell, 'Say the title! Say "Nigger!" Say it!'"

Says Kennedy: "There's a whole chapter to be added to the book about how people talk about it and avoid talking about it."

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory has seen this territory before. In 1964, he scandalously titled his autobiography "Nigger" in an attempt to claim the word and eliminate its lethal sting.

He had long dreamed of forcing the word into white dinner party conversations and book clubs, wielding rather than complying with its power. "I had practically an all-white audience back then," he says, "and I would get on stage and hold up the book and say, 'Take a nigger to bed with you tonight.' It cost me millions, but I did what I wanted to do, and we won--we put it out there."

He's thrilled that Kennedy has followed his lead in titling his book. "I hope he gets T-shirts made of the book cover--and if he won't, I'll do it for him!"

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