by Dr. Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

Dr. Martin Kilson, a Harvard research professor of political science, was the first African American to be granted full tenure at the college, in 1968. He retired from Harvard's Department of Government three years ago, and is now completing 22 years of work on the two-volume study, "The Making of Black Intellectuals," to be published next year.

In his study, which is excerpted below, Dr. Kilson describes Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, author of "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," as a "Black-rejectionist." In Dr. Kilson's view, Black-rejectionists represent "a style of Black conservative discourse that views African-American ethnic or cultural group patterns as the main obstacle to a colorblind society."

One feature of Randall Kennedy's Black-rejectionist outlook is a cold indifference to typical sensibilities of African-American citizens, such as their deep dislike for public expression in American media - newspaper, radio, television, magazines, and books - of the epithet "nigger." This indifference on Randall Kennedy's part was announced in an article in the New York Times (December 1, 2001) titled, "A Black Author Hurls That Word As A Challenge," which reported that Kennedy would publish in January 2002 a book titled "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" (New York: Pantheon Books).

As the Times article noted, the use of "Nigger" in the book's title is a matter of major concern to African-Americans, given the N-word's cruel and vicious epithet history. The decision by Kennedy, concurred in by the director of Pantheon Books, Erroll McDonald - who is also an African-American - sparked sharp reactions from a variety of African-American intellectuals, among whom was Professor Houston Baker of Duke University. Prof. Baker characterized Kennedy's use of the N-word as a cynical, money-making, "crude marketing" ploy.

A month after the Times column on Randall Kennedy's new book, the Boston Globe's Living Arts section carried a report on Kennedy's new book by correspondent Renee Graham. In his interview with Ms. Graham, Kennedy crudely embraced the money-grubbing cynicism underlying his decision to use "nigger" as the first word in his book's title. This struck me as a morally and intellectually astonishing admission by Kennedy. "I'm not shamed," he told Ms. Graham. "[T]his is a catchy title that will get people's attention, yes!" And indeed, the title did catch "people's attention," for by Spring 2002, Kennedy's "Nigger" had been on New York Times Book Review's Best Seller List for several weeks.

The "immune-to-racial-insult" crowd

"Catchy title" hardly goes far enough to characterize Kennedy's rather venal, money-grubbing choice for his book. From my perspective, his choice at bottom amounts to a twisted and horrifying insult to Black people's honor. And interestingly enough, the editor of Kennedy's book at Pantheon Books, Erroll McDonald, articulated an indifference to the sensibilities of African-American citizens in regard to the N-word that was even more twisted than Kennedy's. For, as the Times reported on December 1, 2001:

Mr. McDonald enjoyed the reactions of colleagues, almost all of them white. He carried a piece of paper around the office with the word "nigger" written on it, asking people to pronounce it. Presenting the idea [for the book] at a planning session in January, he asked about 45 editors and other executives to say it [nigger] in unison. In both cases, some refused. "I think it is pretty fun[ny]," Mr. McDonald said, imagining customers asking a bookstore clerk, "Can I have one 'Nigger,' please?" He added, "I am not afraid of the word 'nigger.'"

It should also be noted, by the way, that Kennedy's core purpose in producing "Nigger" was to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet "nigger," once they understood from his text how the epithet was used among African-Americans in their interpersonal tete-a-tete. Here Kennedy has a theory - one quite idiotic I believe - that the more freely Whites employ the epithet "nigger," the better they'll be able to purge Negrophobia from their souls. This, I suggest, is as idiotic as the suggestion, say, that the more today's citizens of Germany employ anti-Jewish epithets the more effectively Germans will finally purge anti-Semitism from their souls.

It is at minimum a most bizarre intellectual behavior that Kennedy, the African-American legal scholar, felt compelled to probe the historical patterns associated with the epithet "nigger" to help free up White America's verbal usage of this vicious Black-people tormenting word, a term that White Americans have for centuries freely taken liberty with whenever they desired. At maximum, Randall Kennedy's intellectual compulsion to assist White Americans' contemporary usage of the epithet "nigger" reflects a deep-seated Black self-negating or Black rejectionist behavior on Kennedy's part.

Thus from where I sit, it is quite strange that in our post-Civil Rights era, with its history of riveting struggle by ordinary African-Americans to smash our country's White supremacist patterns and uproot its racist heritage, there are leading figures among the Black professional class - like Kennedy and McDonald - who can find a sense of special status for themselves. In their own minds, they are immune-to-racist-insult Black personalities, so to speak. Interestingly enough however, such immune-to-racist-insult Black professionals cannot be underestimated by African-American intellectuals who are politically to their left, as I myself am. These particular conservative Black professionals are highly resourceful in regard to mainstream American power structures. One sphere of the American power structure that bookseller Erroll McDonald is clearly masterful about is the media. In early 2002 Fox Television Network produced a subplot episode in its situation drama "Boston Public" that revolved around Kennedy's book, "Nigger" - resulting, of course, in a major advertisement for the book.

The N-word at Harvard

However, there have been other, less benign, spill-over events associated with "Nigger," events that have occurred at Randall Kennedy's front door - as it were - the Harvard Law School campus. As a direct consequence of Kennedy's published work, hundreds of African-American law students at Harvard University were viciously harassed in what amounted to a crude, racist assault. The Boston Globe reported, on April 20, 2002:

The controversy began in early March when a first-year student posted online class notes [at a Harvard Law School website] that included an offensive phrase - "Nigs buy land with no nig covenant; Q: Enforceable?" - in a summary of a 1948 Supreme Court case about racially restrictive housing contracts…. The student, reported by the Harvard Crimson to be Kiwi Camara of Hawaii, later apologized and the notes were removed. But a black female classmate who had complained [to Harvard Law School officialdom] about the notes soon received an anonymous e-mail in which the author [a White American] promised to use the word "nigger," and advised her to "work hard" if "you, as a race, want to prove that you do not deserve to be called by that word." That e-mail was traced to a different classmate, reported by the [Harvard] Crimson to be Matthais Scholl, who also later apologized…. A week later, two unrelated incidents further angered black students.

Rightly offended by such blatant anti-African-American racist posturing, leading figures among the Harvard Black Law Students Association - Joshua Bloodworth, Michelle Simpson, Nicola Lawson, Dimeka Nichols, Murad Kalam - organized a protest rally during the second week in April. As reported in the Boston Globe (April 20, 2002), the protest commenced with

a class walk-out that drew several hundred students and professors. Although Dean Robert Clark met with association members last weekend, some students say Harvard has developed a reputation as an unfriendly place for minorities and needs to work harder to make itself known as a tolerant environment…. Today, about 11 percent of Harvard's 550 first-year law students are African-American, as are seven of the school's 80 full-time, tenure-track faculty members, a spokesman said.

Clearly, these Black-people-harassing-and-insulting events at Harvard Law School during the Spring Term 2002 were set in motion by Randall Kennedy's "Nigger," by the intellectually bizarre idea propagated in this book that White Americans' and other non-Black Americans' greater use of the epithet "nigger" will aid the cultural health of America's cruel racist legacy. In regard to the sad Black-people-insulting events at Harvard Law School during the Spring Term 2002, Randall Kennedy's "nigger" theory was tantamount to tossing a match at a gasoline-soaked building.

I searched through a variety of news reports on the events at Harvard Law School during the Spring Term 2002 to see if Randall Kennedy himself surfaced to assist the officials of the Law School in managing the crisis and calming the waters, but I could locate no such reports. Randall Kennedy, it appears, has no sense of responsibility for the vicious racial fires he has cynically ignited. Clearly, for Randall Kennedy the protesting Black law students should surrender their Black ethnic sensitivities - their fidelity to Black people's honor - and join the Black self-negating ranks led by Kennedy and Erroll McDonald, whose members are special, "immune-to-racist-insult" Black intelligentsia personalities.

A Letter to the Times

When the New York Times first reported on the forthcoming publication of Randall Kennedy's book, I was moved to make public my own reactions to this version of what I called Kennedy's Black rejectionism outlook on African-American cultural group patterns. I wrote a letter to the Times, dated December 4, 2001:

While Professor Houston Baker of Duke University viewed my Harvard University colleague Professor Randall Kennedy's new book title - "Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word" - as a money-making "crude marketing" ploy (and no doubt it is this), I view it additionally as something so much worse: a cynical and horrifying insult to Black folk's honor. Equally horrifying is the Kennedy/McDonald notion that the more White Americans mouth the N-word the greater will be the purge of Negrophobia in their souls, as if by comparison the more today's Germans mouth the K-word the greater will be the eventual purging of Jewish-phobia in German society. If I may say so, this is just idiotic!

Furthermore, as I read the effort of Randall Kennedy and Erroll McDonald to rationalize the book's insults to Black people's honor, what also came to mind was the long tradition of African-American leadership personalities educated at Harvard who dedicated their careers to redeeming Black people's honor from the vicious ravages of America's slavery and racist heritage. I thought of activist scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Rayford Logan, Ralph J. Bunche, John Hope Franklin, Adelaide Cromwell Hill; activist Harvard Law School trained lawyers like William Hastie, Charles Houston, Benjamin Davis, Raymond Pace Alexander, William T. Coleman, Walter Carrington, Charles Ogletree, Christopher Edley, and Lani Guinier; and activist intellectuals like Robert Moses, Randall Robinson, and Cornel West. Without these African-American products of Harvard, the plight of Black people today would still be marred by the worst oppressive features of our country's racist heritage. What a pity my Harvard colleague Randall Kennedy thinks his "crude marketing" of the N-word amounts to a comparable contribution.

Yours sincerely,
Martin Kilson
Frank G. Thomson Research Professor
Harvard University

This letter was not published and, rather incredibly I thought, not a single letter on this topic was published in the Letters section of the New York Times.


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