Monday, March 17, 2014

The most offensive word in the English language...

I wrote this review a few months ago and it generated some interest on this blog.  I'm reposting it here in hopes that it won't be obliterated in a few days when Epinions might go dark.

A look at the most offensive word in the English language...

 Dec 9, 2013 (Updated Dec 9, 2013)
Review by    is a Top Reviewer on Epinions in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

    Pros:Well-researched.  Kennedy is articulate and interesting as well as even-handed.

    Cons:A bit short and dated.  Will make some readers uncomfortable.

    The Bottom Line:You may learn new things reading about this troublesome word.

    I don't remember what made me decide to download Randall Kennedy's 2002 book, N!gger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.  I think I might have found it after I read Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.  I enjoy reading about language, especially controversial words that make people squirm or blush.  I quickly read Mohr's book, but it took me awhile to get around to Kennedy's book about the so-called n-word.  I finally sat down and read the whole thing yesterday.  Frankly, the book left me with a lot to think about.

    Uncomfortable reading...

    I grew up in the South during the 70s and 80s.  During those years, it wasn't uncommon to hear people use the n-word in casual conversation, though it was definitely becoming taboo.  I occasionally heard it uttered on television shows like The Jeffersons or Gimme A Break.  As I got older, rap and hip hop music became more popular and I'd hear it in songs by popular artists like IceT or L.L. Cool J.  I often wondered why, if that word is so objectionable to people of color, they used it so liberally in art and music or even in a friendly way among each other.

    Randall Kennedy is a black, left leaning, law professor and legal scholar at Harvard University.  His writing is exquisite and articulate.  He repeatedly uses the n-word, spelling it out in all its painful glory.  I have to admit, the first few pages of this book were uncomfortable reading for me.  Seeing that word so bluntly written had the effect of making me wince, especially as Kennedy relates stories of how his mother and grandmother were abused with it by white people during the Jim Crow era.  At the same time, he writes of how his grandmother used the word to disparage other black people whom she felt were shifty, uneducated, or dishonest.

    As I continued reading, I stopped wincing quite so much.  Kennedy's study of the n-word is very scholarly and he takes the time to explore how the word is used today and how it has historically been used.  As a former English major who took courses in African American literature and women's literature, I have read my share of slave narratives and novels that are considered racist by today's standards.  I was interested in Kennedy's thoughts on Mark Twain's controversial book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that shows up regularly on banned books lists because of the racist language used in it.  Kennedy notes that by the time Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, he had come to despise racism and was actually using the language to show how wrong it is.  But, we have become so sensitized to the merest hint of the n-word that sometimes we lose all objectivity.  Indeed, I can't even type this book's title properly within this review.

    Kennedy relates the infamous story of David Howard, a white man who worked with Washington, D.C.'s mayor, Anthony Williams.  During a staff meeting, Howard used the word n!ggardly to describe how he would be administering the city's budget in the coming year.  A couple of black staffers who apparently were not familiar with the word, which means "grudgingly mean about spending or granting", mistakenly assumed that Howard had used a racist epithet.  Howard soon found himself in hot water for using the n-word, when in fact he had not used a word with any racist connotations whatsoever.  He ended up resigning, though Williams eventually offered him another job in a different department.  The fact that Howard had chosen to use the word "n!ggardly" instead of a synonym like "stingy" or "parsimonious" was still controversial, though.  Critics said that he should have realized the word might be mistaken for a racist epithet and simply not gone there.  Kennedy seems to take a moderate approach to this situation, reminding readers that there's no need to be quite that sensitive.  Sometimes even the n-word can be used appropriately, even by white people.  We need to pay more attention to context rather than simply banning the word and words that sound like it.

    I learned a lot...

    Though this is not a lengthy book, I learned a lot from it.  Kennedy presents a number of historical and literary examples of how the n-word is used and the complex social rules that govern its use today.  He writes at length about why the word is often accepted among people of color for their exclusive use but is highly taboo when it is uttered by a white person.  Frankly, I found Kennedy's discussion both interesting and surprising.  He seems to think the word has its place and that we should be paying close attention to the context in which it's used and reacting accordingly.  Although I don't use the word myself, I happen to agree that all words, no matter how ugly, have their place.  I am not a fan of burying language.  However, I know that when it comes to the n-word, a lot of people would like to just forget it exists.  

    I like the fact that Randall Kennedy mixes personal anecdotes with history and current events to build his discussion about the n-word.  I also like the fact that he is so lucid and even-handed in his discussion.  This book is very well-researched and there are plenty of notes for those who want to do more reading.


    This book was originally published in 2002, which makes it a bit dated.  It's not a very lengthy book and I'd say maybe a quarter of it consists of end notes.  Some people may find the mere subject matter of Kennedy's book very uncomfortable.

    I also wish that Kennedy had included more information about the history of the n-word, beyond the fact that it originally stemmed from the Latin word for black.  Many objectionable words start out perfectly innocently before they get hijacked into bad word status.  More discussion of that process probably would have made this book more informative and beefed it up somewhat.


    Kennedy's N!gger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word handles the discussion of a highly controversial and objectionable word with grace and class.  I know this book made some waves when it was first published.  I think it's still worth reading.  I came away from it with new knowledge about a troublesome word.

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