Randall Kennedy’s Nigger … In Which We Wish We Could Read the Book Kennedy Didn’t Write

If the question is scholarship and clarity, no fault can be found with Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. And if that is so, what makes Kennedy’s book so ultimately unsatisfying? Perhaps it is the sense that Kennedy, who is eternally fair-minded (at times, perhaps, even to a fault), never quite seems to get his arms entirely around his topic.

Indeed, if Kennedy is always rational in pronouncing his phlegmatic judgments on various famous and infamous uses of the “troublesome” word, the fact is that his reasons for considering one episode defensible and identifying another as certifiably hateful and racist are not entirely coherent. To say it another way, if the reader were to ask Kennedy to define when, by whom, and under what circumstances “nigger” can be deployed legitimately, it is doubtful that he could express a practical philosophy, even in the broadest of terms. Or to put the matter in still other words, Kennedy is just like many of the rest of us: appalled by the use of the word in contexts in which it is clearly intended to injure, more than occasionally troubled by its prevalence in everyday discourse, ambivalent about its modern-day dispersal as a (quite literal) shibboleth, and intellectually muddled over how to confront the word in its undeniable position as both linguistic fingerprint and American literary instrument.

But if that is the case, what purpose does Kennedy’s book actually serve? Those who have spent any time at all thinking about the word and its uses (and, by extension, about American-style racism) won’t find, in Nigger, much they didn’t already know; those who haven’t considered the topic are unlikely to read such a book; and those looking for legitimation and permission (it is, after all, a black man saying that even white people sometimes have the right to say “nigger”) will go away with their oversimplifications intact.

In fairness to Kennedy and his obvious gravitas, perhaps we are meant to content ourselves with just what his subtitle—The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word—suggests: a linguistic-historical review. The major disappointment of Nigger, however, is that, having spent 200 pages laying the perfect groundwork from which to launch a potentially enlightening discussion, Kennedy closes the book. One suspects that a writer and thinker with Kennedy’s clear admiration for scholarly exactitude might have provided both significant insight and indispensable reflection on the matter (imagine the same topic in the hands of a Toni Morrison, for example), but he rarely goes beneath the surface. We cannot know whether Kennedy’s courage failed him or whether he simply lost interest in the subject, but Nigger is one of those cases in which the reader has every right to regret the book that wasn’t written.

(P.S. As if to underscore some of the points Kennedy makes, Amazon.com refused to post my review with the actual title word in it—that word is on Amazon’s “bad word” list and triggers an automatic rejection of the review. That is, quite frankly, exactly the kind of knee-jerk, no-thought-involved stupidity that Kennedy is aiming at.)

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Posted on 9 October 2011, in Book Reviews & Literaria. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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