Nigger - The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

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9780375421723: Nigger - The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

Nigger: it is arguably the most consequential social insult in American history, though, at the same time, a word that reminds us of “the ironies and dilemmas, tragedies and glories of the American experience.” In this tour de force, distinguished Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy—author of the highly acclaimed Race, Crime, and the Law— “put[s] a tracer on nigger,” to identify how it has been used and by whom, while analyzing the controversies to which it has given rise.

With unprecedented candor and insight Kennedy explores such questions as: How should nigger be defined? Is it, as some have declared, necessarily more hurtful than other racial epithets? Do blacks have a right to use nigger even as others do not? Should the law view nigger baiting 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? How might the destructiveness of nigger be assuaged?

To be ignorant of the meanings and effects of nigger, says Kennedy, is to render oneself vulnerable to all manner of peril. This book brilliantly and sensitively addresses that concern.

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Review:

Nigger is Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's ornate, lively monograph on what he calls the "paradigmatic" racial slur in the English language. A neutral noun in the 17th century, nigger had, by 1830, become an "influential" insult. Kennedy traces the word's history in literature, song, film, politics, sports, everyday speech, and the courtroom. He also discusses its plastic, contradictory, and volatile place in contemporary American society. Should it be eradicated from dictionaries and the language? Should it be, somehow, regulated? What is the significance of its emergence among some blacks as a term with "undertones of warmth and good will"? Do blacks have a historical right to its use or does that place the term under a "protectionist pall"? With courage and grave measure Kennedy has, in effect, created a forum for discussion of the word he calls a "reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience." --H. O'Billovitch

From the Back Cover:

"[Kennedy] can make [legal] decisions and reversed reversals into tense intellectual drama. . . . He's made his case: that this 'troublesome' word is only a word. And that words--like people--can always change."—Newsweek

"The best way to get rid of a problem is to hold it up to the bright light and look at all sides of it, and that's what Kennedy does in this book. He takes a lot of poison out of the word while he's doing it. . . . This is the way to get rid of words like 'nigger' and all the contemptible ideas that go with it."—Andy Rooney, "60 Minutes"

"Calm, correct, informative."—The New York Observer

"Kennedy's commitment to racial justice is plain, and so is his impatience with the subverting of empiricism by the theatrics of the underdog. . . . He frequently throws the cold water of common sense upon issues that are too often cloaked in glib histrionics."—The New Republic

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