Issue Number 10- August 22, 2002

The N-Word 3-Ways - Part 1
N-Word Author asks for apology

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In our July 8th issue we published the following e-Mail message from N-Word author, Randall Kennedy:

May I have space in your publication to respond to the charges that have been aimed at me and my work by you and Professor Kilson?

Kennedy was the subject of a June 27 Guest Commentary in these pages by Harvard's Dr. Martin Kilson and an additional comment in the July 11 issue. Although The Black Commentator was under no obligation to Kennedy - moral, ethical, or otherwise - we responded:

As you requested, we will make space available in The Black Commentator for your response "to the charges that have been aimed at me and my work by you and Professor Kilson." Please use as much space as you feel necessary. We will publish every word, as written.

We promised our readers a very interesting issue. Here is Part 1, because the N-word author asked for it!

When you have finished reading what the N-Word author wrote, we invite you to read the N-Word Part 2 in which Harvard colleague, Dr. Martin Kilson says an apology is not warranted and N-Word Part 3 in which calls for the repudiation of the N-Word author.

The following is every word written to by the N-Word author:

Dear Readers of The Black Commentator:

I contacted the editors of The Black Commentator to respond to articles they have recently published about me and my work. They have granted me space to reply and assured me that they would print my response without editorial intervention. I would like to thank them for this opportunity.

First I was condemned by Professor Martin Kilson of Harvard University who berated me for writing Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. He stated that my book, particularly its title, evidenced "a cold indifference to typical sensibilities of African-American citizens, such as their deep dislike for public expression in American media . . . of the epithet nigger." In my book, I spend a considerable amount of space detailing how, over time, many black Americans have indeed expressed abhorrence to the use of "nigger" in all circumstances. For example, I quote Langston Hughes who wrote in 1940:

The word nigger to colored people of high and low degree is like a red rag to a bull. Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake or realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy [,] it doesn't matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play every ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.

In my book, I explain why many blacks view nigger in this way. I detail how racists have cruelly used nigger as a rhetorical weapon against blacks (and whites who affiliated themselves with blacks - ie., so-called "nigger lovers.") I give example after example of how nigger as insult has burdened the lives of blacks who are famous (Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Hank Aaron, Michael Jordan) as well as those who are obscure. I offer a brief history of anti-black American racism, using nigger as the lense for focusing upon the horrors of lynching, segregation, and other forms of racial oppression. Professor Kilson mentions none of this. But in my book I go out of my way to show that there is reason, good reason, why everyone should be anxious in the presence of the N-word, and why many people - blacks and non-blacks alike - would like to see "nigger" expunged from our culture altogether.

In my book I proceed to argue, however, that a serious effort to erase nigger altogether would have bad consequences that would supercede the good that might be achieved. First, erasing nigger entirely would obscure from view significant parts of the history of racism. People should know, for example, that until recently major politicians openly and without embarrassment or apology referred contemptuously to blacks as niggers on the floor of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Obliterating nigger from books, movies, plays, and similar productions would entail losing access to such knowledge.

Second, seeking to eradicate nigger would entail destroying, bowdlerizing, or otherwise removing from view many important anti-racist documents. Is that prospect far-fetched? Unfortunately, it is not. The NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, was removed from the list of publications approved for use in the public schools of the District of Columbia because the magazine was said to make "a practice of using the opprobrious term 'N' in its published stories of Negro life." School officials remained unmoved when it was pointed out that The Crisis was a crusading anti-racist publication.

Responding to the D.C. authorities, Roy Wilkins remarked that he and his colleagues at The Crisis believed the function of education "to be the inculcation of the truth and the discovery of truth by the widest reading and the freest discussion." He added: "we fail to distinguish between the use of the word 'nigger' and the highly suggestive 'N' which you use." Similar acts of censorship have ensnared other works of anti-racist literature including Dick Gregory's Nigger: An Autobiography, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Third, seeking to eradicate nigger would entail attempting to muzzle people who use the work not as a racist insult but as a term of endearment or gesture of solidarity. Many black folk are using the term in just this way - as anyone knows who listens to rap, black comedians, or ordinary folk on the streets. One does not have to agree with this usage. One should recognize its reality, however, and understand the ideas and sentiments prompting it, all of which I do in my book and all of which Professor Kilson ignores.

Professor Kilson blames me and my book for racist uses of nigger in certain incidents that occurred recently at Harvard Law School, where I teach. He asserts that "clearly" these events were set in motion by my book. Nowhere does he establish that, in fact, there was some causal connection between my book and the incidents to which he alludes. A connection was plausible, even likely. But there is no evidence that he points to that "clearly" establishes causation. But let us suppose that, in fact, my book did prompt the misbehavior. Is a writer obligated to avoid a subject because some reader might misuse the writer's work? I think not. The alternative approach would permit bigots too much sway. I am sure that some racists will make mischief with my book. I cannot prevent that. I can only hope that the good that comes from the public education I attempt to impart will supercede the instances of misuse that are almost certain to occur.

Professor Kilson accuses me of failing to become involved in addressing the incidents at Harvard. He says that the basis of this charge was the absence of any mention of my involvement in press reports. He ought not to have drawn and asserted such highly negative inferences about my conduct based merely on the absence of press reports. As should be obvious, the press does not report everything that happens. Moreover, he could easily have called me to find out what I did. It so happens that the students involved were my students. I was their section leader. And as their section leader, I called a meeting to discuss what had transpired. I would have been happy to relay this information to Professor Kilson. Perhaps he would still have found fault with me. But at least he could have done so on the basis of accurate information as opposed to a supposition that turned out to be incorrect.

After publishing Professor Kilson's diatribe, Mr. Glen Ford, the Co-Publisher of The Black Commentator, proceeded to continue with the denunciation by printing a commentary entitled "Randall Kennedy: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Fool." In his piece, Mr. Ford describes me as "a specialist in telling white people exactly what he thinks they want to hear." In doing so, he echoed Professor Kilson's remark that the "core purpose" of my book was "to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet 'nigger'." Neither Professor Kilson nor Mr. Ford offer substantiation for their claims, though one might think that a considerable amount of substantiation would be called for given the damaging nature of the charges they level. They do not say that I am mistaken, or even grossly mistaken. They go much further than that. They say that my motives are bad, that I am essentially an evil person. Hence, Mr. Ford writes that my career "appears to be based on playing the role of surrogate to white racists who fear to mouth the dreaded N-word but love reading about it from the perspective of a Black man who hates African Americans even more than they do." It isn't enough for him to attribute without evidence a bad motivation to the effort behind the writing of my book; without evidence or explanation he extends the attack to my career as a whole.

Two final points

Both Professor Kilson and Mr. Ford accuse me of what Professor Kilson terms "money grubbing." If by this he means to charge me with wanting to draw attention to my book and make money off of my intellectual labor, then he is correct and I plead guilty. But making money was not and is not the only incentive that drives me as a writer. Vanity and a commitment to public education are also important animating forces. In all candor, though, money matters with me - as is probably the case with most writers who publish books with commercial enterprises. I reject the proposition that any presence of pecuniary ambition necessarily dooms the integrity of intellectual work.

Finally, Mr. Ford states that the press release he issued announcing Professor Kilson's condemnation of me "got lots of attention, including coverage among the only media that Kennedy respects: the big white press. Kennedy clearly does not consider himself answerable in any respect to other Black people, but he does answer the phone when the Boston Globe calls." Unfortunately, unlike the reporter from the Boston Globe, Mr. Ford did not call. And, as I noted at the outset, this letter did not arise from a call or invitation from The Black Commentator. It arose from my own initiative because, contrary to what Mr. Ford suggests, I do care about my reputation in all spheres of society. Contrary to what Mr. Ford suggests, I have written for black-owned publications and spoken frequently in predominantly black forums. During my book tour for Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, I spoke at The Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore in Detroit, the EsoWon Bookstore in Los Angeles, Howard University, and was a participant in interviews, debates and panel discussions on scores of radio stations and programs which aim their broadcasts primarily to black audiences - for example, the Tom Pope Show (Washington, D.C.), the Daily Drum (Wash. D.C), Inside Detroit with Mildred Gaddis (Detroit), On with Leon (Baltimore, Md.), Say It Loud (Boston, MA) etc etc etc.

The treatment I have been given by Professor Kilson and The Black Commentator is mistreatment. It should give rise to apologies.

Thank you for your consideration.


Randall Kennedy

We now invite you to read the N-Word Part 2 in which Harvard colleague, Dr. Martin Kilson says an apology is not warranted and N-Word Part 3 in which calls for the repudiation of the N-Word author.

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