professor of law Randall Kennedy has become the kind of race hustler
that Dr. King so aptly described. He has opportunistically used his
status as a well-known Black public intellectual to reap profit and
a perverse kind of fame through what Dr. Martin Kilson calls "a
cold indifference to the typical sensibilities of African-American
citizens." Kennedy cooperates and collaborates with those whites
who would reintroduce into polite society the term "nigger."
Worse, he is a racial free-loader, arrogantly claiming the right to
a free ride among the historical victims of whites' use of the word.
would rather ride him out of town on a rail. However, The Black Commentator
is very serious about the drawing of political lines separating conduct
that is merely disturbing or misguided, from that which constitutes
a conscious assault on African Americans as a people. Kennedy's book,
"Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," falls
into the latter category. He has crossed the line, and should be repudiated.
dissecting the carcass of Kennedy, for whom we have no respect, we
should address the opinions of those readers who might believe that
we are giving the malefactor too much space in our publication - an
arguable position. We have long been convinced that a central weakness
of the African American body-politic is its tolerance of enemies within
the ranks, men and women who are allowed to circulate with impunity
- and are even accorded praise - while behaving with a depraved indifference
to the interests and "sensibilities" of the community.
people's adversaries interpret this tolerance as acquiescence in,
or even approval of, the actions of the "opportunists, profiteers,
free-loaders and escapists" of the race, thus boosting the cash-value
of the hustler class. Internally, these surrogates for the enemy infest
Black political discourse, causing confusion that we can ill afford.
They need to be unmasked.
Black Commentator seeks to devalue the likes of Randall Kennedy by
stripping away the veneer of authenticity and credibility that they
are assumed to have within the community. More importantly, we have
an obligation to you, the readers, to explain as clearly as possible
why we have singled out individuals for condemnation. We owe Kennedy
nothing, and believe he was quite stupid to give us another reason
to examine his own "strange career."
Nature of the Crime
Kennedy, in his pathetic response, throws out more defenses than a
skunk spraying stink - inventing accusations we haven't made and ideas
we do not hold - our charges against him are simple and straightforward.
He has transformed a Harvard podium into an auctioneer's platform,
from which he sells dispensations to whites who believe Blacks are
enforcing an unfair covenant against casual white use of the word,
nigger. His book is targeted at, and of use only to, white
audiences, many of whom badly want to believe that their racist behavior
is sanctioned by significant Black opinion.
Kennedy stands in for that illusory opinion, for which he is paid.
In polite white American circles, the kind Kennedy moves in, only
a Black person could offer advice on the acceptability of nigger.
He ducks and covers to avoid the fact of his complicity. Kennedy and
other conservative Blacks have always used the fiction of intellectual
"independence" as a cover to clear shelf space for their
anti-Black products, but they are intensely aware of their true value
in a racist society such as ours. Black opinions carry no weight with
most whites except to answer the question: What do the Blacks think?
Should we pay them any attention?
this sense, Kennedy is selling whites a false version of Black opinion,
advising them to ignore the complaints of those African Americans
who insist on maintaining strict social taboos on whites' use of nigger.
the process, he callously disregards the harm caused to members of
made Mamie cry
an interview with the collegiate website, ATHENSi.com, Kennedy gave
the yellow light option to whites who are itching to find a reason
to say the All-American word: "My position is that anybody who
uses 'nigger' as a term of abuse ought to be condemned - regardless
of race. Other than that, I'm open. Anyone can use it, depending on
the intention. My question is 'What is he doing? Is it anti-social
or just dumb or boring? Or does he have a point?'"
vagueness is Kennedy's slick trick. First, the pro-forma denunciation,
one that Strom Thurmond could fit his lips around. This allows Kennedy
to deny that he would countenance injury or insult to anyone. Then,
Kennedy follows with the open-ended nonsense about the speaker's intentions
and intelligence. He leaves that to white imaginations. Purposely.
For an apparently large number of whites, this is the intrigue and
appeal of the book. It's all open to civilized discussion. The racists
might really be..., reasonable.
you, nigger!" The African American turns around to see the white
face behind the voice. "Pardon me," says the Black person,
"but how do you mean that?"
this what Kennedy intends? Of course not; he intends to sell books
and ingratiate himself to a white public, some of whom yearn for any
excuse to do the wrong thing.
we have no need to construct a hypothetical. Mamie was sitting in
her chair, sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. In her 70s, Mamie is
a flesh and blood, real person who has worked as a domestic for many
years - and has never been a crier. Her white employer rushed to Mamie's
room, fearing the woman was deathly ill. From the radio came the voice
of Randall Kennedy, speaking words like those quoted above.
shook with torment, unable to explain the loss of her famous control.
Randall Kennedy, the Harvard law professor whose social and professional
rise represented the dreams of Mamie's generation, had utterly betrayed
finally composed, the elderly woman explained to her employer the
crushing impact of Kennedy's remarks. As a Philadelphia teenager in
the Forties, Mamie was compelled to spend
a summer with her uncle in South Carolina, a place she didn't want
to go. Her first cousin, the uncle's teenaged son, didn't come home
one day. Word was that he had made advances on the white lady of the
house where his mother did cleaning work.
days later, her cousin's body was found in the woods. Details of his
murder spread around town. He had been dragged for miles behind a
car, and then shot twice in the head.
after the funeral, the husband of the allegedly offended white woman
pulled up to Mamie's uncle's car at an intersection. The man was prominent
among whites. "You're a good nigger," the white man told
the grieving father, whom he had known for years. Mamie, sitting in
the car, still hears that white voice. "But if I had to do it
all over again, I would." He spoke as if he had committed no
crime, and drove away. Naturally, no one was arrested.
Kennedy has no compassion for Mamie, or any other African American
but himself. It was Kennedy's words, not those of a dead or contemporary
white man, that brought Mamie to tears.
calls the word nigger a "cultural artifact." The first dictionary
definition of artifact is "an object remaining from a particular
period." Usually, artifacts are dead things from ages past, which
can be picked up and manipulated by... anybody.
the case of nigger, this fits nicely with the views of those whites
who claim that racism is a thing of the past. The word has lost its
bite, its kick, its power, they say, because the white users are not
the same old racists. "Can whites properly use this cultural
artifact or not?" Kennedy asks, rhetorically, in the online interview.
Yes, he answers himself, in his stock spiel. However, he gives no
real guidance on the matter, besides the usual admonition not to use
nigger as a term of abuse. Again, the deliberate vagueness. The issue
is "complex." Civilized people ought to talk about it.
use of nigger among Blacks is, indeed, complex and many-layered. However,
that's not the point of the book, the attraction (to whites) that
made it a best-seller. In fact, there is no other purpose of the book
than to justify white use of nigger.
you think the fascination of the word itself helped selling the book?"
Kennedy was asked. "That's part of it," the hustler replied.
"I begin by saying that 'nigger' is a very special word in American
society. I've been asked if the title of my book is a provocation.
In a way, it is. I wanted to grab people's attention. I write a book
to be read, and I want as wide a readership as I can get."
is aware of the specialness of the word, and Kennedy's motivation.
That's what made her cry.
is among a growing number of what could be called Black counter-opinion-makers;
African Americans who can be counted on to help whites rationalize
racism. This peculiar and perverted little industry has its own specialists
and, like flies drawn to cow dung, they find each other. It is useful
here to remind readers of the December 1, 2001, New York Times story
on Erroll McDonald, Pantheon's Black editor of Kennedy's book, as
cited by Dr. Kilson in his June 27 guest commentary, "The N-Word
as Therapy for Racists." McDonald, a true soul mate of Kennedy's,
couldn't get enough of hearing the N-word streaming from white mouths.
Contemplate the sick games he played:
serious effort to erase nigger altogether would have bad consequences
that would supercede the good that might be achieved," writes
Kennedy, in his response to Kilson and The Black Commentator. He whines
on for several paragraphs about people who want to "expunge"
or "eradicate" the word. Yet, neither Kilson nor BC ever
called for erasing nigger from historical or contemporary America.
We denounced Kennedy for encouraging white people to put the word
back in their mouths, where it seems to have lain, semi-dormant, awaiting
the signal to re-emerge in full malevolence. Kennedy provides that
of us said a single word about Black people's use of nigger - be they
Rappers or otherwise, in all-Black company or within earshot of whites.
That's a different subject, entirely. Nevertheless, Kennedy rambles
on, imagining himself in the company of Mark Twain, the publishers
of The Crisis magazine, and Dick Gregory. What gall, from the hacker
of a racist-friendly book!
we were attempting to be civil, we would call Kennedy's irrelevant
squirmings a red herring. However, we do not intend to prettify the
situation for the benefit of a man who would sell Black people's honor,
as Dr. Kilson might put it. Kennedy is like a pickpocket caught in
mid-act. Frozen in crime, he points, "Look, over there!"
the Serpent's Mouth
Kennedy is not a smart man, merely clever enough to insinuate himself
into the darker recesses of some white minds. The sleazy scholar succeeds
in damning himself in one, short paragraph.
an outbreak of white usage of nigger on Harvard's campus last spring,
following publication of his book, Kennedy says: "A connection
was plausible, even likely." Then, he
dares Kilson and The Black Commentator to "clearly" make
the connection. Why? He already admits that it is "likely."
presses on, digging himself in deeper: "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?"
A writer, one who goes about the work of describing the world as he
or she sees it? Probably not. However, a public intellectual
who intends to influence public policy and behavior is unquestionably
obligated to be concerned for the effects of his speech - that is
his very reason for being. Kennedy knew what the effect would be,
and cares nothing about the consequences to African Americans. As
a public intellectual, he is a fraud; he admits as much, by conveniently
claiming to be a simple writer.
the troublesome fool persists in denying any responsibility for his
audience's actions. "I think not. The alternative approach would
permit bigots too much sway." It is Kennedy's purposefully vague
advise to his white readers on the do's and don'ts of using nigger
that gives bigots all the "sway" they could want.
Kennedy is "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."
"public education," Kennedy's book is useless. His is a
shallow, small work that, like a bad disco record, has only one "hook":
constant repetition of the word, nigger, designed to titillate whites
who may or may not find use for the word under ill-defined circumstances
that he cannot control, yet to whom he gives at least a yellow light.
His attempts at the "history" of the word are rehashes of
well-worn material, unimaginatively executed.
is no new, independently developed thought, no fresh fact - nothing!
- in Kennedy's book, lectures or talk circuit interviews that we have
encountered. Here's an example from one of his articles: "Leading
etymologists believe that 'nigger' was derived from an English word
'neger' that was itself derived from 'Negro', the Spanish word for
black. Precisely when the term became a slur is unknown
On and on he drones, dribbling widely known facts to nowhere. This
book exists only for the purpose of holding out hope for nigger-using
(to Black people) and helpless - that's Randall Kennedy. Naturally,
he is also helpless to prevent Mamie from crying. Too bad for her.
be accurate, raw young racists are not at the core of people that
Kennedy is trying to influence. These volatile elements are not rich
and powerful, nor are they dependable book-buyers.
need only observe the reaction of Kennedy's most immediate market
- the media outlets that hold the keys to his career as a "public
intellectual" - to gauge the effect of his book on white opinion
Weekly: "This may be the book that re-ignites larger debates
over race eclipsed by September 11. Look for a best selling run and
huge talk show and magazine coverage...."
"He's made his case: that this 'troublesome' word is only a word.
And that words - like people - can always change."
Rooney, 60 Minutes: "The best way to get rid of a problem is
to hold it up to the bright light and look at all sides of it, and
that's what Kennedy does in this book. He takes a lot of poison out
of the word while he's doing it.... This is the way to get rid of
words like 'nigger' and all the contemptible ideas that go with it."
New York Observer: "Calm, correct, informative."
New Republic: "Kennedy's commitment to racial justice is plain,
and so is his impatience with the subverting of empiricism by the
theatrics of the underdog.... He frequently throws the cold water
of common sense upon issues that are too often cloaked in glib histrionics."
lifted these reviews from Kennedy's own publicity material, and can
assume that he is pleased with the opinions stated by his friends
in the corporate press. What are they saying?
Weekly looks forward to the debate. Since Kennedy's repackaged "history"
of nigger contains nothing exciting or debatable, the industry's hype
magazine is referring to the coming debate over white folks' newfound
options to use nigger. They thank Kennedy for the favor, and bless
his sales. So much for Kennedy's service to "public education."
solemnly proclaims that Kennedy has convinced them that nigger is
"only a word" - one that a "changed" (white) people
can comfortably reacquaint themselves with.
old irritant at 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney, who has had racism scandals
of his own, feels vindicated by Kennedy's contribution. He can almost
taste the word, now that Kennedy has removed the "poison."
next two reviews get to the white supremacist heart of the matter.
The New York Observer is soothed by Kennedy's "calm" presentation,
apparently a rare trait among African Americans. The neo-conservative
New Republic believes that Kennedy, like itself, is fed up with Black
people's "theatrics" and subversion of "empiricism"
- which basically means that most Black minds are not rooted in reality,
i.e., they imagine things like racial insults.
are the sentiments that Kennedy evokes, the real "poison"
that his book calls forth, from the places where Kennedy, like a tomcat
in heat, really wants to make his mark.
Jews Too Sensitive About the Holocaust?
in June in these pages, Dr. Martin Kilson compared Kennedy's loonyness
to the idea "that the more today's German citizens in Germany
employ anti-Jewish epithets the more freely German citizens will finally
purge anti-Semitism from their souls...."
would expand on Kilson's approach, and insist that the anti-Semitic
terms evoke murder and dehumanization, just as nigger does in white
American mouths. Imagine the following dialogue:
Jewish Public Intellectual (JPI), greeting a group of Germans:
"Hello, my German friends. I as a Jew am here to explain to you
the reasons my fellow Jews are so upset about being called 'blood
suckers of children' and 'Christ-killers.' Of course, you may be aware
that they suffered greatly here on German soil."
"Yah, yah, we have heard some terrible things. But, that was
a long time ago. Why are they still so super-sensitive? It makes us
feel uncomfortable. It's a New Germany. Why can't we use the old words?"
"Ah, but you can, my friends. Relax, and read my book, 'Christ-Killer.
'Christ-Killer' is well worth the price. It will bring you peace of
mind, believe me. Go ahead, say the title a few times, see how it
"Christ-Killer, Christ-Killer, Christ-Killer! Das es goot! But,
are you sure this is acceptable speech from an Aryan... I mean, from
a German's lips? Won't the Jews become angry?"
"Don't worry your little blond head about it. These are my people.
They'll just have to get used to it. It's your emotional health
I'm concerned about."
the fictional TV character Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heros is
not so stupid. He is smart enough to say to his fictional commander,
Colonel Klink: "I don't think it's acceptable to use the K-Word
when talking with Jews.")
you can't imagine such a conversation; it could never take place.
And, yes, we have arrived at that time-honored juncture when comparison
of Jewish and African American communities is in order. Readers of
The Black Commentator are smart. We won't condescend to you with elaboration
on the meaning of our little fictional dialogue. You get it.
to do with a Troublesome Fool
discussed earlier, slick Black counter-opinion-makers like Kennedy
are extremely vulnerable to the charge of being unrepresentative of
the race - or, at least, some significant segment of it. Minus the
cachet of authenticity, the Black surrogate for racist opinion or
power is useless to his employers and, therefore, harmless to his
is half of the reason we rail against the Randall Kennedys, Cory Bookers,
and Condoleezza Rices of the day. Silence is acquiescence, and keeps
them in their traitorous business. For Kennedy to prosper, he must
convince his patrons that he speaks for some significant Black public
opinion. Black Commentator does not hesitate to say that we despise
him and his works. We wish many others would do the same. In this
regard, Dr. Kilson's forthcoming book, "The Making of Black Intellectuals:
Studies on the African-American Intelligentsia," performs an
invaluable function on a grand scale, delineating the wondrous continuity
of progressive Black thought in the 20th Century, and exposing the
aberrant pretenders and hustlers along the way, including Randall
Clarence Thomas didn't have a lifetime job, but stooged for the Republicans
as a transient appointee somewhere else in government, they would
have gotten rid of him by now. Thomas is so clearly reviled by the
vast bulk of African Americans, his value as a credible, alternative
Black voice is nil. Even Jay Leno knows that.
Kennedy must adorn his response to Kilson and BC with references to
his Black students - captives of the preening poseur - and list his
appearances on Black-oriented media.
have observed that most Black collegiate audiences react quite negatively
to Kennedy's remarks. Certainly, our readers do. So, why does he take
time out from his busy white schedule to make stops in hostile, Black
territory - including his insistence on a response in this publication?
The answer is simple: Kennedy must present a false front of
Black authenticity to whites, who can then say they learned the correct
uses of nigger at an actual, Negro knee. We are all sales tools for
Kennedy, the conniving racial entrepreneur, including his students.
may even attempt to use his presence in this issue of BC to demonstrate
to whites how brave he is; how he struggles with the backward and
narrow elements among Blacks, all in the effort to establish a reasoned,
civilized atmosphere in which to calmly discuss white uses of nigger.
How heroic! Perhaps Kennedy's tales of his travails among dark, undisciplined
minds will be worth another book.
are confident we will achieve the opposite effect, by demonstrating
that Kennedy is hated for his callous disregard of Black sensibilities.
says Glen Ford "extends the attack to my career as a whole."
Yes, emphatically, as does co-publisher Peter Gamble. We maintain
that Nigger is the financial highpoint of Kennedy's career, and the
low point of his moral existence.
don't care how Kennedy makes his money - unless it is by giving aid
and comfort to racists. We believe Kennedy's calculated maneuvers
are more harmful than the crimes of common felons, no matter how much
or how little he is paid. The magnitude of the offense, not the profit
to the perpetrator, is what counts.
professes to be upset that "Mr. Ford did not call" before
denouncing him. Why should we? Kennedy pays Black people no
respect, yet he thinks he deserves a phone call. Amazing. He needs
to wander in the wilderness for five or ten years, to do penance for
his crime, followed by additional years of atonement.
didn't call him, we didn't invite him, and we have absolute contempt
this commentary an exercise in drawing lines; that's the other half
of our reason for allowing Kennedy to respond. If we do not learn
to protect ourselves from the servants of money among us - at the
very least, by exercising our powers of indignation -we will surely
be crushed. Repudiate Randall Kennedy, loudly, wherever and
whenever he pops up, and you will have neutered him, and made others
consider taking another path.