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, 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 2, Dr. KIlson's response, because the N-word author asked for it!

Randall Kennedy: Black Intellectual as a Tramp

by Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

Professor Randall 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.

Randall Kennedy 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 columnalongside 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 reply.

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.

Well, Kennedy's 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 honor.

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:

The questions 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. (Emphasis added.)

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:

Kennedy ignores 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.

Furthermore, to 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 thought thus:

His [Hughes'] 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."

Martin Kilson
(August 22, 2002)
Harvard University

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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Other commentaries in this issue:

Zimbabwe's Mugabe and White Farmers: by Dr. A. Chika Onyeani, Guest Commentator

The Promise of Reparations

DC's Measure 62: A Green Light for Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation
by Opio Lumumba Sokoni, J.D., Guest Commentator

A letter to our readers: Fight on, Sister McKinney... Afghan dope on U.S. streets... Don't bet Black futures on the market... Rep. Clyburn bears witness to racist crime

Commentaries in Issue Number 9 - August 8, 2002

The State of Black American Politics: Dr. Martin Kilson's Report to the National Urban League

Dignity - Plus a Living Wage and Benefits: Home health care workers win victories - for themselves and civilization

A letter to our readers: Burger King digested... Ashcroft stalks librarians... Cory Booker roams wilderness

e-Mailbox: McKinney: A Hero in Need of Money... Rep. Hilliard Rebuked on Ivy League Warning... Forget About Randall Kennedy!

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.