Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy lectured on Friday about his controversial book “Nigger: the strange career of a troublesome word.” The book, which retraces the linguistic development of the word from a racial insult to a term of endearment and its legal ramifications, has generated sizeable controversy and interest.
This curiosity was carried over to Hoffman Hall where students and faculty gathered for two hours to learn firsthand about the man behind the book, its subject matter and the controversy surrounding it.
Kennedy began by describing how his fascination with the word was born. Kennedy said that the term “has been a part of the soundtrack of my life” and talked about growing up in South Carolina.
He talked about his spontaneous Internet search of court cases where the word was used and his discovery of its contradictory and complex legal ramifications. His research extended to the historical, social and cultural course of the word and resulted in the oft-discussed book.
He said that the term is unique because of its derogatory meaning and its adoption as a gesture of solidarity between many blacks.
According to Kennedy, etymologists claim that the word originated from the Latin term for black and was used as a neutral term in the 1600s until it developed into “the most notorious racial insult in the world,” by the 1800s. This evolution in meaning, he said, reinforced his belief that words change depending on their context.
He cited situations where people have lost court cases, friends, jobs and their lives for using the word. He also spoke about friends and family greeting him with the word and its preeminence in pop culture, particularly hip-hop and film.
“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; a word is instead the skin of a living thought that may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used” Kennedy said, borrowing a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Oliver W. Holmes.
Kennedy described the issues that have arisen in the field of law due to the controversial nature of the word. He talked about court cases where the word has been used as evidence to generate a conviction and instances where evidence was thrown out because of the word’s incriminating capacity.
Much of the conflict has arisen from the fuzzy line that is drawn between harmful language and the first amendment, according to Kennedy. He said that the term is especially confusing because the word changes its meaning depending on the situation and the person using it.
He also summarized the divisions that have been drawn between the “eradicationists,” who criticize the application of the word regardless of context, groups that believe the word can be “de-fanged” if it is addressed openly and others who judge its use on a case by case basis.
Kennedy, who falls in the last category, has received criticism from a variety of people for his choice for the title of the book. He cited a writer in The New Yorker, who criticized the book and referred to the title as “a type of pornography.”
During the question and answer period, an audience member asked how Kennedy responds to accusations that the title is sensational. He said that he wanted a title that was “straightforward, unapologetic and it would tell somebody right from the get-go what this book is about. And it did have the benefit of making people look twice.”
He added that most writers in any field strive to hook the audience when writing a title, headline or book.
Another audience member raised the issue of who can acceptably use the word. Kennedy said that most people agree that because black people have historically been the target of the word, they have equity and maintain the right to use the term.
An audience member commented that if white people “actually understood their history, they’d already have their answer and I think that’s where they need to go.”
Kennedy said the intention of the user is important, but not enough to determine the severity of the word, considering the complexity of the word and the difficult nature of judging intention.
The lecture, which was followed by a book signing, was organized by the Black Cultural Affairs Board and mediated by the organization’s coordinator, Dramaine Irions.