Number 10 - August 22, 2002
N-Word 3-Ways - Part 2
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We hope you have
already read N-Word Part 1 in which the N-Word
author asks for an apology. When you have finished reading Dr. Kilson's
commentary, we invite you to read the N-Word Part
3 in which
calls for the repudiation of the N-Word author.
In our July 8th
issue we published the following e-Mail message from N-Word author,
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:
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 2, Dr. KIlson's response,
because the N-word author asked for it!
Kennedy: Black Intellectual as a Tramp
Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator
Kennedy at the Harvard Law School concludes his reply of my critique
in The Black Commentator of his book, "Nigger: The Strange Career
of a Troublesome Word" with the following sentences: "The
treatment I have been given by Professor Kilson and The Black Commentator
is mistreatment. It should give rise to apologies." Let me say
straightoff that there is not one word in my critique of Kennedy's
book that warrants an apology, nor one word in my characterization
of Kennedy as a new-wave conservative Black intellectual who specializes
in trashing Black people's honor for the entertainment of White folks
that warrants an apology. I stand firmly by my original critique.
represents a new variant or wave of the cadre of Black conservative
intellectuals that initially surfaced in the late 1970s into the 1980s
- figures like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, Robert Woodson,
Anne Wortham, among others. The initial wave of Black conservative
intellectuals might be called "conservative technocrats,"
insofar as they were "conservative true believers," convinced
that problem areas in the modern development of African Americans
into parity social and political standing in our racist American democracy
could be resolved by fervent application of classical capitalist processes.
And as a corollary proposition the Sowells, Steeles, and Lourys believed
that racism was merely an aberration on the face of an otherwise perfect
American Republic, not, as I and other progressive Black intellectuals
believe, a deep-rooted pathology at the core of the American Republic
that must be activistically challenged in order to uproot.
On the other hand,
as what I call a new-wave conservative Black intellectual, Randall
Kennedy, I suggest, is merely a huckster-type Black conservative,
very much like the thousands of huckster-type Irish-American and Jewish-American
conservatives who surfaced from the late 1960s onward. Huckster-type
conservatives in American society have a hawk's eye for conservative
discourse that sells, and maximizing the market value of their
conservative discourse is their core obsession. The Anglo-Protestant
(WASP) core power group in American society since, say, the 1930s
has had a keen talent for anointing White ethnic intellectuals (Irish,
Jewish, Italian, etc.) willing to perform this crucial capitalist-hegemonic
role for the Anglo-Protestant power class. In our post-Civil Rights
era the American power class has extended the anointing of intellectuals
willing to serve this power class's capitalist-hegemonic purposes
to conservative Black intellectuals. Enter Randall Kennedy as a huckster-type
Black conservative intellectual - a type I view as tramps.
The apology requested
of me by Randall Kennedy at the end of his reply was not the first
time he's done so, by the way. Following a sharp critique of Kennedy's
book that I wrote and that the Boston Globe printed in January 2002,
Kennedy sent me a letter in which he said that my observation that
his core argument in his book was that free access to usage of the
vicious epithet "nigger" by Whites would help purge their
souls of Negro-phobia was an erroneous statement. He demanded I send
him an apology. I threw his letter into my wastebasket! But let me
reiterate here that I still maintain that it's a reasonable interpretation
of Randall Kennedy's core purpose in his book that some kind of soul-liberation
among White Americans will result from freer usage by them of that
vicious epithet "nigger."
Now in the remainder
of this reply to Randall Kennedy, I don't want to speak to all of
his numerous defenses of himself, for most of them are not worthy
of serious intellectual rebuttal. I say this because most of his defenses
are couched in a self-serving "straw-man" context, as it
were. For example, in one "straw-man" context Kennedy pretends
that opponents of that vicious epithet "nigger" like Martin
Kilson seek to wipe-out part of the historical record, a claim that
is just nonsense. Here's how Kennedy puts it:
In my book
I proceed to argue
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.
As I read this
passage in Kennedy's reply, I wrote the word "nonsense"
in the column alongside the passage. That is, there is no pedagogical
or sociology of knowledge reason why contemporary persistence of the
vicious epithet "nigger" is a condition for the effective
recalling or rewriting of the historical record of racist practices
and processes in the American past. Not only is this argument
by Kennedy "nonsense," it is also "idiotic," as
I also wrote in the column alongside the above passage in Kennedy's
In another part
of his reply, Kennedy denies my charge that his choice of the epithet
"nigger" as the first word in his book's title was purely
a cynical, "money-grubbing" decision. Well, my charge was
based on an interview Kennedy gave to Boston Globe "Living Arts"
columnist Renee Graham, January 8, 2002. Graham asked Kennedy if cynical,
money-making concerns influenced his choice of the book's title. Kennedy's
reply: "I'm not ashamed.... This is a catchy title that will
get people's attention, yes." And indeed the title did catch
"people's attention," for in Spring 2002 the New York Times
Book Review's "Best Seller List" had Kennedy's book listed
for several weeks.
slick term, "catchy title" doesn't go far enough to characterize
his venal, money-grubbing title choice: Nigger. At bottom, Kennedy's
title choice amounted to a twisted and horrifying insult to Black
people's honor. To the honor of Black mothers, fathers, grandfathers,
grandmothers, great grandparents, sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters,
nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. But as what I call the "tramp-type"
Black conservative intellectual, Randall Kennedy can never recognize
this, I'm afraid.
Now Randall Kennedy
would have readers of The Black Commentator believe that only mad-hat
leftist Black intellectuals like Martin Kilson and Glen Ford have
produced critiques of his book. Well, this is wrong. Perhaps the sharpest
critique of Kennedy's book was an article by the conservative Black
literary and art critic Hilton Als. Titled "More Harm Than Good:
Surviving the N-Word And Its Meaning," the critique appeared
in The New Yorker, February 11, 2002. Unlike Professor Kennedy, Hilton
Als' conservatism doesn't cause him to have contempt for Black people's
Hilton Als argues
that, having run the risk of horribly insulting Black people's honor
by using the cruel epithet "nigger" as first word in his
book title, Randall Kennedy might at least have fashioned an intellectually
and analytically viable discourse on that epithet's history. This,
Als tells us, Kennedy failed to do. For one thing, says Als, the initial
questions used by Kennedy as conceptual rudders for his discussion
"are disingenuous." Those questions were as follows:
How should nigger
be defined...? Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance
that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful
reaction? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such
as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook? Am I wrongfully offending
the sensibilities of readers right now by spelling out nigger instead
of using a euphemism such as N-word?
Now for Hilton
Als, the bid by Kennedy to use these queries as conceptual rudders
lacked candor and seriousness. As Als put it:
are disingenuous. Instead of trying to answer them - by writing
about the moral and psychological repercussions that the word has
for blacks and for whites-Kennedy simply accumulates data, data
that never quite add up to an idea. His book is aimed at a large
readership... but it would attract little attention... were it
not for the nearly pornographic weight of the six lower-case letters
that are centered on the book jacket. The word appears in his
book not as it is used within the complex fabric of epithets that
blanket this country but as show-biz rhetoric, as a star turn that
demands our attention rather than our engagement. To use 'the
N-word' would of course, have been infinitely less impressive, less
of an event. 'Nigger' is Muhammad Ali. 'N-word' is Pee-Wee Herman.
In regard to Randall
Kennedy's theory that as White Americans use the epithet "nigger"
more freely they will more readily purge Negro-phobia from their souls,
Hilton Als - as I do - begs to differ. Kennedy puts forth this view
in a discussion of the friendship back in the 1920s to 1940s between
the White literary impresario Carl Van Vechten and the African-American
poet Langston Hughes. Of the friendship, Kennedy informs his readers
that Van Vechten "wrote of 'niggers' in correspondence with his
friend Langston Hughes, and Hughes did not object.... Should Hughes
have objected? No, Van Vechten, a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance,
had shown time and again that he abhorred racial prejudice... and
treasured his black friends."
Now for Hilton
Als, Randall Kennedy's has a pathetically shallow understanding of
the Van Vechten/Hughes friendship back in the 1930s era - and by extension
of the Black/White friendship in general, I should add. As Hilton
Als put it:
the complicated distribution of power between Van Vechten and Hughes.
Van Vechten, when he met Hughes, was already rich and well connected.
Hughes was obscure and ambitious. Imagine Hughes jeopardizing everything
by contradicting Van Vechten. 'Listen, Carlo, I object to this and
all racial epithets. You are using it simply as a test to see how
far you can go in our relationship, and as a means of identifying
with what you can never be.' The commissions and the parties would
have dried up faster than you can say Brer Rabbit.
reinforce his critique of Kennedy's naivete regarding the place of
racial-power dynamics that surrounded the Van Vechten/Hughes friendship
in the White Supremacist Age, Hilton Als refers his readers to Langston
Hughes' own understanding of that friendship. "In 'The Big Sea'
[Hughes' autobiography] Hughes wrote - 'The word nigger, you see,
sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and
struggle in America.'" Hilton Als then continues this searching
silence with Van Vechten was simply the price that every black artist
and intellectual pays: to climb out of obscurity, he must endure
the language of whites whose humor and cocktail party chatter is
still drawn from the well of Reconstruction.
But never mind,
Hilton Als suggests to his readers. In my words, Randall Kennedy "is
a tramp." Or in the words of Hilton Als: "Kennedy's belief
that it's possible to convert the [N] word from a negative to a positive
is not only naïve but dangerous."
(August 22, 2002)
We now invite
you to read N-Word Part 3 in which
calls for the repudiation of the N-Word author.
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