On a hot night late in June of 1995, a husband and wife, both white, walked into a bar in Wrightsville Beach. At some point after midnight, the husband noticed his wife engaged in conversation with an African-American man in another part of the bar. The husband, who had been drinking heavily, was overheard to say: “Look at that nigger hitting on my wife.” When she came over to introduce the two men to one another, her husband exploded with rage, loudly and repeatedly calling the other man a “nigger” to his face; eventually the bartender stepped in and forcibly ejected the husband. Other bar patrons, including the object of the husband’s tirade, were thus treated to a spectacular example of the vigor of old-fashioned racial hatred here in the hip and progressive New South.
The drunk, as it turns out, wasn’t a backwoods Klansman or an ex-con with a forearm full of Aryan Brotherhood tattoos. He was Jerry L. Spivey, who just happened to be the District Attorney for North Carolina’s Fifth Prosecutorial District, encompassing Wilmington as well as the beach communities south of the Outer Banks. (The African-American man was Ray Jacobs, who at the time played football for the Denver Broncos.) When word of the incident got out, a group of local attorneys successfully petitioned to have Spivey–a popular elected official–removed from office. Spivey appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, arguing somewhat paradoxically that this punitive removal violated his First Amendment right to express himself freely, but that it didn’t really matter anyway because of course he didn’t mean what he’d said to the man in the bar. He didn’t harbor any animosity toward black people, he maintained; the word “nigger” wasn’t even a part of his vocabulary. The Supreme Court wasn’t buying it. They affirmed the decision, and Spivey disappeared from public view.
Anyone wondering about the ability of a single word to completely overturn a person’s fortunes could learn a lot from Jerry Spivey (assuming they could find him). His is just one of many sad and often horrifying tales almost numbingly rolled out in Nigger, a new book by Randall Kennedy, an African-American Harvard Law School professor and a renowned scholar of race’s role in American jurisprudence. Kennedy’s book aims, in his words, to “put a tracer on nigger, report on its use, and assess the controversies to which it gives rise.” In doing so, he shares a number of stories proving that “nigger” still occupies a singular place in our lexicon as a word capable of igniting controversy, upending lives and even disrupting entire systems.
Most of them feature the word being used in its original, epithetic sense, as it was used against Henry Brown, an electric company worker who rose from the level of janitor to become the East Mississippi Electric Power Association’s first black serviceman. Throughout the 1980s, Brown’s supervisor routinely and unabashedly said the word “nigger” in the workplace, sometimes in Brown’s presence. Brown complained to company officials. In 1989, he was informed that he would either have to accept reassignment to a lesser position or lose his job altogether. He sued in federal court, claiming racial discrimination–and lost. (An appeals court reversed the decision.)
Other tales involve cases of mistaken profanity. A few years ago David Howard, a white Washington bureaucrat, used the term “niggardly”–a word bearing no etymological connection whatsoever to “nigger” and actually derived from an ancient Norse word meaning cheap or stingy–in a meeting attended by some of his black colleagues. The mere phonetic similarity of “niggardly” to “nigger” was enough to raise the ire of those colleagues, who didn’t care what the word meant, only how it sounded. The ensuing controversy cost Howard his job.
Still other stories reveal the problems that can emerge when people–especially white people–attempt in good faith to explore the word’s harmful effects. Ken Hardy, a white professor at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Kentucky, was in the course of teaching a class on interpersonal communications when he launched a discussion on taboo language. The word “nigger” was naturally a part of the long list of slurs and profanities compiled by the students, and repeated by Hardy. When a black student voiced her objection to him after class, he sympathetically told her that he understood her pain at hearing him utter the word, but that the purpose of the class was to discuss the ways in which hurtful language was used in hopes of discovering exactly how it generates its power. The student nevertheless complained to the university’s administration, which summarily relieved Hardy of his post.
Two weeks ago, Boston Public–the hour-long drama series on the Fox network that tells the stories of a racially and ideologically mixed collection of students, teachers and administrators in an inner-city Boston high school–borrowed elements of Hardy’s story for an episode dealing with the combustibility of the word “nigger” in the classroom. The show also raised the ante on the Hollywood practice known as “product placement” by actually incorporating Kennedy’s book into the main plot of the show. In this episode, a well-meaning white teacher stirs up controversy by passionately defending his pedagogical right to assign Nigger to his students and to discuss their reactions. The school’s black teachers and administrators are split on the issue; the white teacher’s job is on the line. But the episode may be most striking for the way in which it deftly weaves the actual, physical book–which, it must be remembered, is brand new and has yet to be lauded as a “classic” or a “must-read” by anyone–into the show’s plot, which includes scenes of the teacher unpacking big boxes filled with copies to hand out to students.
Of course, if you’re black, you don’t need to read Kennedy’s book or watch Boston Public to encounter the uniquely destructive power of this homegrown epithet. Few African Americans enjoy a life unsullied in any way by the word; if they haven’t had it hurled at them personally, then certainly a relative or close friend or colleague of theirs has felt the sting of “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language,” as O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden famously described it.
Darden’s sentiment is echoed by all those, black and white, who consider themselves conscientious participants in civil discourse. Our feelings about the word “nigger” are so visceral that Kennedy and his publisher must have anticipated the firestorm that would occur when the book, with its title spelled out in elegant white letters floating on a solid black background, appeared on the “New Nonfiction” table at neighborhood bookstores across the country. The mere display of that title on the book’s dust jacket–applauded by some as brave, attacked by others as crassly exploitative–has catalyzed the national discussion about the word and precipitated a complex and unpredictable set of reactions. Complicating matters even more are questions that have arisen in recent years concerning appropriation and authorization. Filmmakers, musicians and comedians have uncovered the word and brought it into the mainstream, forcing audiences to deal with hearing it in an entertainment context. Many white and Asian-American teenagers have adopted hip-hop culture as their own, and can be heard using “nigger” as an honorific or salutation among friends, in imitation of their recording artist heroes. Kennedy’s book arrives at a point when, as a nation, we’re all wondering: Who gets to say this word, and when?
Less obviously audacious than the title of Kennedy’s book is its subtitle: “The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” But this bold invitation to compare the book to C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow is probably just as likely to provoke strong reactions, albeit from a much smaller segment of the public. Woodward’s book was truly groundbreaking; in it, he effectively exploded one of the racist South’s most carefully tended myths, namely that the formal and systematic separation of blacks and whites was age-old and inexorable. By illustrating that the South had merely (if willfully) taken a wrong turn in what was otherwise a half-decent effort at integrating blacks into society after the Civil War, he showed that Jim Crow didn’t have to happen, that it was actually accretive rather than inherent. The ramifications of this argument were profound. It suggested, among other things, that Jim Crow was reversible–and Woodward’s book became an essential text for the generation of thinkers, writers and activists that would rise up shortly after its publication to change the course of the South and America.
Perhaps Kennedy is hoping to follow in Woodward’s footsteps by making a similar impact. His last book was 1997’s Race, Crime and the Law, which established him as a brilliant independent scholar deeply mistrustful of ideology and beholden to no particular group of African-American public intellectuals. He was too far to the right for the cult of Cornel West, but didn’t fit in with prominent black neoconservatives like Glenn Loury or Shelby Steele, either. Kennedy was a moderate, but he didn’t arrive at his moderation through wishy-washiness or middling rationalization. He did so by zigzagging between philosophical poles: He hated affirmative action and argued for a stronger police presence in black communities, but he acknowledged the damage that had been done by racial profiling and believed the death penalty was disproportionately and unjustly administered along racial lines. No matter the topic, however, Kennedy always brought to his arguments a cool, reasoned passion buttressed by a shrewd understanding of not only the law, but of how the word “justice” is defined differently by different communities.
Some critics have opined that with Nigger, Kennedy isn’t trying as hard. Maybe he’s coasting, they say. Maybe he balked when faced with the enormity of his subject. Or maybe, some of them have suggested, he just wanted to write a book that was sure to get lots of reviews, create lots of controversy and sell lots of copies. But regardless of how it’s received critically, it seems certain that Nigger, in the end, will be much-discussed and much- studied, passionately attacked and defended. It might even make history. Not as a revolutionary work of scholarship, like The Strange Career of Jim Crow, but more as the marker of a significant cultural entry point: the expansion of our discussion on race to allow blacks and whites to speak openly, for the first time, about the word “nigger”–its miserable legacy, its stubborn durability, its startling versatility.
Or maybe not. After all, the controversy attending the book’s publication is really over whether there is any controversy with regard to who gets to use “nigger,” and when, and how. For some people there’s no controversy, because there’s simply no question: The word should be banished. End of discussion. These “eradicationists” (Kennedy’s term) are both black and white, and remain unpersuaded by arguments that the word loses just a little more of its assaultive power every time it’s uttered by blacks in a context of friendliness–as a salutation, for example, or as part of a comedy routine. While they may not be of one mind on whether to remove Huck Finn from public school shelves, they are at least unified in their belief that casual usage by blacks–especially in rap lyrics, movies and stand-up–“bestow[s] legitimacy on nigger and mislead[s] those whites who have little direct interaction with African-Americans,” according to Kennedy. Eradicationists, he continues, “also maintain that blacks’ use of nigger is symptomatic of racial self-hatred or the internalization of white racism, thus the rhetorical equivalent of black-on-black crime.”
On the other side of the divide is a group that Kennedy doesn’t name, but which might be known collectively as “relativists.” Relativists–and Kennedy is one of them–believe that context should count for something, that there is indeed a substantial difference between a black comedian doing his observational schtick about “niggas” in front of a sympathetic black audience and a white racist using the word to sling hate. More provocatively, they believe that “whatever marginal benefits a politics of respectability may yield are not worth the psychic cost of giving up or diluting cultural rituals that blacks enjoy.” According to this logic, the word has been used colloquially by blacks since the days of slavery, long ago making its way into their private lexicons of humor, music and storytelling. Why should they hide it? Moreover, the relativists assert that with every instance of usage by blacks–and whites–in a benevolent context, racists have that much less of a claim on it. In other words, the more that people use it in this non-assaultive way, the closer we all arrive at the day when the word is stripped of its power to wound and becomes … just another word.
In between the eradicationists and the relativists are many genuinely conflicted black people who proudly advocate freedom of speech but are still tortured by memories of being called a “nigger” by a white racist. Standing right beside them are many earnest white people who aren’t racist, who want to be sensitive, who desperately don’t want to offend anyone. They just want to know if it’s OK for them to laugh at Chris Rock.
Last December, Duke professor Houston A. Baker Jr., told a reporter for The New York Times that the title of Kennedy’s yet-to-be-released book was “a crude marketing technique,” and speculated that he saw “no reason whatsoever to do this, except to make money.” In addition to being a triple-threat academic (he teaches English, African Studies and African-American Studies) Baker is the author of Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism/Re-reading Booker T., an interdisciplinary tour de force that attempts to fold the experience of the black Southerner into the melange of 20th-century intellectual movements collectively known as Modernism.
“Professor Kennedy’s book is historically and scholastically shallow,” Baker says when asked to elaborate on his earlier statement. “It does nothing but invoke, to my mind, a horrible set of denotations and connotations for no other reason than monetary profit. Which is a shame, because Professor Kennedy is capable of so much better.” The theory that the reclamation of “nigger” by blacks can help usher us into a racially harmonious future holds little water with Baker. “Professor Kennedy suggests that through its use in popular entertainment there has occurred a de-fanging of the word,” he continues. “His arguments seem to represent a type of ‘heroic medicine’ approach to a terrible word that always signals the disease of racism. He seems to think that if you let the word cause enough bloodletting, but are clever enough in your supposedly heroic interventions, you will eventually rob the word of its effects.”
Baker’s scholarship exists at the junction of African-American studies and postmodernism. One tenet of the latter is that words can never be fully divorced from the context in which they were written or uttered–that meaning isn’t fixed and absolute, but contingent and fluid. Another is that the present is constantly robbing symbols from the past, dispassionately mutating old icons to satisfy new and protean needs. Disciples of postmodernism would seem inclined, at the very least, to suspend a word like “nigger” in a kind of academic amber–if only for purposes of further study and exploration–rather than wipe it out altogether. But Baker doesn’t budge.
“I understand postmodernism’s claim to be for the overlapping of contexts and the interlayering of the temporal–past and present, here and now, appearing all at once, a pastiche,” he says. “But the postmodern also specializes in selectivity. One can choose one’s own combinations.” And Baker, for his part, has chosen to consign “nigger” to the rhetorical scrap heap. “I am an eradicationist,” he volunteers, readily appropriating Kennedy’s term. “I see no need to summon either racial epithets or racial stereotypes for popular entertainment, or for shallow scholarship. I don’t think any of us would be worse for the disappearance of the word, especially from the titles of books by Harvard scholars in the United States.”
One might think that Ann Atwater, the Durham-based civil rights activist whose improbable friendship with a former Ku Klux Klan leader was the subject of Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies, would echo Baker’s sentiments, if maybe not his professorial delivery. A proud, older black woman who still recalls the sting of growing up poor under Jim Crow and who by all rights should recoil reflexively at mere mention of the word, Atwater nevertheless voices an opinion common among relativists who have made their difficult peace with “nigger” by unilaterally redefining it.
“When somebody says that word–it used to upset me terribly,” Atwater begins. “Now it doesn’t bother me as much. As I got older, I [began to] feel that anybody can be a nigger. The word, to me, just means somebody that’s stupid, that doesn’t know any better. They can be black or white.”
But she stops short of saying that increased public usage among blacks might constitute some sort of symbolic triumph. Atwater is the namesake of a progressive community school that will be opening in Durham during the autumn of 2002. What would she do if she caught one of the young African-American students there calling his best friend a “nigger” in a moment of unbridled levity? “I would stop him and ask him, ‘Do you know what that word means?’” she says. “I’d ask him to explain to me what he just said. I think I’d want to embarrass him so that he didn’t use it anymore, because he might not even know what he was talking about.”
When Ann Atwater expresses her view that “nigger,” for her, has somehow transcended its race-bound origins to become a genuinely colorblind slur, she is extended the benefit of the doubt. Her record as a tireless champion of civil rights places her above suspicion. It also helps, quite frankly, that Atwater is black.
But when Robert C. Byrd, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia, expressed an almost identical opinion during a Fox Television interview a year ago, he was instantly excoriated by constituents and the media and forced to issue an immediate apology. That a highly respected member of the nation’s most important legislative body would utter the word “nigger,” as Byrd did, on national television was troublesome enough; that he uttered it in its original epithetic sense was–to be charitable to the senator–an unbelievably stupid offense betraying a special kind of arrogance. It also didn’t help, quite frankly, that Byrd is white.
Perhaps the hardest thing for white people to accept about the controversy surrounding Nigger–and “nigger”–is that the benefit of the doubt will almost never be extended to them. Non-racist white people want to believe that should they ever risk casual usage while joking with a black friend, say, or recalling a favorite Chris Rock routine at the water cooler, they’ll receive some sort of temporary authorization from black culture–a “pass” to utter the word in a spirit of unthreatening joviality.
Empirical evidence would suggest that it just doesn’t work this way. Much of the data in Kennedy’s book–especially the stories about white people who thought it was “OK” for them to use the word and found out, very quickly and very harshly, that it wasn’t–serves to illustrate the disconnect between whites who might feel entitled to take such license and blacks who are not yet ready to grant it.
LeRoy Seabrooks is a Raleigh-based comedian who has opened for Ray Charles and Jay Leno among many others; for the last six months he has been enjoying his new job as the house emcee at Charlie Goodnight’s, a popular comedy club in Raleigh. It’s not uncommon for young black comedians who cross his stage to punctuate their routines with “nigger,” and for racially mixed audiences to howl with laughter in response. Seabrooks, who is 49 and black, doesn’t use the word himself in his standup, “though I’m not going to say that I don’t ever use it at home,” he says. “I hear young people using it. My kids use it; I have a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. And I have friends who I get together with, and we’ll use it, too.”
A talk with Seabrooks about the word’s role in comedy quickly turns into a weightier discussion about issues of license and authorization. He insists that whites are perfectly welcome to laugh at black comedians who use “nigger” onstage as part of their act. (They’re at a comedy club, after all; laugh all you want, just keep buying those $6 rum-and-Cokes.) But he also admits that whites’ appreciation of the word’s comic punch must necessarily stop at a certain point: They can laugh, but they can’t get up on stage during amateur night and try to use it. Or at least, he says, he wouldn’t advise any white comic to make the attempt.
“When a black comic uses it on stage, it’s like water under a bridge; it just flows,” he says. “Especially in front of a hip-hop group. And even in a mixed audience it usually goes over very well. But a white comic saying it, no, I don’t think so. If I was at the club–as open-minded as I am, or at least like to think that I am–and I heard a white comic say he was planning to do that, I think I’d have to tell him: No, you just can’t.”
Seabrooks isn’t a Harvard Law School professor or the author of books on American race relations, but in his commentary he does something that Kennedy, for all his skills as a legal theorist and for all his grace as a writer, doesn’t do in Nigger: He makes clear the rationale behind what, to many whites, seems like an obvious double-standard. Why shouldn’t whites who feel no hatred in their hearts toward black people be able to use the word in the same way that many blacks now do, as a fraternal shibboleth, a greeting, an honorific?
Seabrooks pauses. “When whites say it, blacks hear malice, even when it’s not really meant maliciously,” he finally says. “When black people say it with their friends, it just doesn’t have that malice. If we’re joking, even if we’re arguing, it still doesn’t have that malice. We’re just addressing one another; it’s not the whole race that we’re talking about.”
That’s it, the whole conundrum in a nutshell. You can make a joke about your friend right in front of him, and if he’s really your friend, then everything will still be fine. You’ll laugh, your friend will laugh, and it probably won’t be a big deal. But extend the joke to include your friend’s entire family and suddenly the whole feeling of the joke changes. It becomes less of a comical observation rooted in fondness and intimacy, and more of a platform for questionable generalizations about people you don’t know nearly as well, if you happen to know them at all.
What Seabrooks is really saying is this: “Nigger,” when used by blacks with other blacks, is a singular noun. But when it’s used by whites, it’s a plural. A white person who casually uses “nigger” with his black friend isn’t heard to be addressing only that friend; whether it’s true or not, he’s heard to be addressing an entire race of people, all over the globe, from time immemorial to right now. This is just one of the myriad crippling debts we’re still repaying from our history of racism. It’s the true legacy of “nigger,” and it’s why Randall Kennedy’s hopeful prescription for the word is, finally, naïve. All the good intentions that reside in a white speaker’s heart don’t change the way those intentions are going to be perceived, the way they are, in fact, historically mandated to be perceived.
And that’s probably the way it should be. “For so many years, whites didn’t bother to use the names of black people; we were just ‘niggers’,” Seabrooks says, again illustrating his knack for clarifying complicated rationales in a single pithy sentence. What good could possibly come from “de-fanging” such a word, from allowing it to enter common usage and civil discourse? Would it make whites feel better? Would the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow suddenly be forgotten? Would racism suddenly end?
It turns out that the relativists are right, in a way. Context does matter. But context isn’t defined by the actor. It’s defined by the audience. “Nigger” should be exactly what it is: a word off-limits to whites in all but the most academic of contexts, a word they simply can’t have. It should be a word that continues to divide people, even blacks who disagree about its acceptability within their own communities. It’s the most divisive word in American history, and every time we read or hear it we should all be reminded of exactly how it was invented, and for what exact purpose. Then, after we’ve remembered and cringed, we should make every effort to summon a healing word or two, and continue making our slow, melancholy progress.
Jeff Turrentine is a writer based in Durham. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Slate.com.