It’s “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets,” a word that whites have employed to wound and degrade African Americans for three centuries. Paradoxically, among many black people it has become a term of affection and even empowerment. The word, of course, is nigger, and in this candid, lucidly argued book the distinguished legal scholar Randall Kennedy traces its origins, maps its multifarious connotations, and explores the controversies that rage around it.
Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways forbidden to others? Should the law treat it as a provocation that reduces the culpability of those who respond to it violently? Should it cost a person his job, or a book like Huckleberry Finn its place on library shelves? With a range of reference that extends from the Jim Crow south to Chris Rock routines and the O. J. Simpson trial, Kennedy takes on not just a word, but our laws, attitudes, and culture with bracing courage and intelligence.
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A must read - pulls no punches
Quick quiz - how many books would you read about the biography of a single word? Exactly. Well, you should read this one. This is a real tour de force of our most racially charged word - its etymology, evolution, uses, jurisprudence, controversies - you name it. Kennedy does not shy away from controversy; he readily offers his view on the often conflicting, frequently confounding examples in which the use of the N-word has contributed to racial inequality, landed parties in court, benefitted entertainers, and excused (or not) criminal behaviour to name a few. I found this mix thoroughly eye opening, entertaining, and informative. Illustrating his arguments with case studies keeps the narrative moving along and prevents this from being a pure op ed piece. The fact that Kennedy narrates this himself heightens the authenticity of his arguments and it certainly is well narrated. A thoroughly enjoyable must read not only for those with an interest in race relations but also for those with a curiosity about the evolution and cultural impacts of language.
- A. Brown "AB"