ejohnson at BERRY.EDU
Fri Dec 7 15:26:40 UTC 2001
I forwarded this before, but I don't think my email went out the day the
worm shut us down. addresses the question of whether the n-word is
becoming less taboo or not. Ellen
This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by fsgiles at arches.uga.edu.
A Black Author Hurls That Word as a Challenge
December 1, 2001
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
At halftime of a 1993 basketball game against Miami
University of Ohio, Keith Dambrot, varsity men's basketball
coach at Central Michigan University, called his team
together to talk about the word "nigger." Mr. Dambrot, who
is white, had overheard his African- American players call
each other "nigger" to denote toughness and tenacity on the
court. He asked the players permission to use the word in
the same sense, and after they assented he adopted
"nigger," too. A few weeks later, after administrative
censure, sensitivity training and two campus protests, Mr.
Dambrot lost his job and promptly filed suit.
His case is one of dozens analyzed in "Nigger," a new book
by Randall Kennedy, an African-American scholar at the
Harvard Law School. Mr. Kennedy recounts many unpleasant
episodes, like the embarrassing use of the term by Senator
Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia in a public appearance last
march. But Mr. Kennedy also considers the newer, more
complicated use of "nigger" as a term of affection by young
African-Americans and their well-meaning white friends. All
in all, he argues, the new uses are gradually helping to
exorcise the word's power as America's "paradigmatic ethnic
Even before the book's appearance in stores next month, its
uncomfortable title has elicited considerable hand-wringing
among the mostly white staff of its publisher, Pantheon
Books, where some executives have even refused to say its
name. It has also become the source of a certain
mischievous amusement on the part of its African-American
editor. And as advanced word spreads among other
African-American scholars, the title has provoked
denunciations from some who vehemently disagree with Mr.
Kennedy's thesis even before they have read the book.
"When I show up on CNN, I get e-mails from racists calling
me a nigger bitch, O.K.?" said Julianne Malveaux, an
African-American economist and newspaper columnist, "so I
don't think its use is taking the sting out of it. I think
it's escalating at this point. You are just giving a whole
bunch of racists who love to use the word permission to use
it even more, like, `I am not really using it, I am just
talking about a book!' "
Patricia Williams, an African- American professor at
Columbia Law School, objected to the title: "That word is a
bit like fire - you can warm your hands with the kind of
upside-down camaraderie that it gives, or you can burn a
cross with it. But in any case it depends on the context
and the users' intention, and seeing it floating abstractly
on a book shelf in a world that is still as polarized as
ours makes me cringe." Houston A. Baker Jr., an African-
American professor of English at Duke University, agreed
about the title: "I see no reason whatsoever to do this,
except to make money. It is a crude marketing technique
unworthy of someone with the kind of penetrating
intelligence that Professor Kennedy has."
For his part, Mr. Kennedy said he felt no qualms about the
sensational title, adding, "I write a book to be read."
He said he had come up with the idea for the book, which
grew out of a series of lectures, after idly typing the
word "nigger" into a database of court cases. He found over
4,000 entries. Even before prosecutors in the O. J. Simpson
case argued that hearing a witness's use of the word might
unduly bias a jury, courts have often grappled with the
caustic power of the word's history. Some courts have ruled
that hearing the word "nigger" constitutes a provocation to
violence similar to receiving a physical blow. Others have
determined that speaking the word as an insult can
disqualify a prosecutor or judge from his job. Lawyers have
argued that a juror's utterance of the word in earshot of
other jurors can invalidate their deliberations.
Mr. Kennedy writes approvingly of entertainers' penchant
for "nigger." The comedian Lenny Bruce expounded the idea
that repeating the word "nigger" could defang its
derogatory impact, capitalizing on the word's shock-value
in the process. But Mr. Kennedy notes that African-American
rappers and comedians do not concern themselves much with
whether they are encouraging white racists or disarming
them. "They say, `We don't feel constrained that we have to
burnish the image of the Negro - we think this is fun and
we are going to do it,' " Mr. Kennedy said. "Frankly, I
felt inspired by that."
Erroll McDonald, Mr. Kennedy's editor at Pantheon and one
of the few senior African-American editors in book
publishing, was delighted with the manuscript. "I
appreciated its importance instantly," he said, "It is just
such a curious word that provokes atavistic passions in
people, and I thought it was time for a proper reckoning
with it." He continued: "I for one am appalled by that
euphemism `the N word.' It seems an elision of something
that would be better off talked about. There are some
people out there talking about the `N- word' that do regard
a certain section of the population as niggers."
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 at a planning session
in January, he asked about 45 editors and other executives
to say it unison. In both cases, some refused.
"I think it is pretty fun," Mr. McDonald said, imagining
customers asking a bookstore clerk, "Can I have one
`Nigger' please? Where are your `Niggers'?" He added, "I am
not afraid of the word `nigger.' "
Some of the sales and marketing executives, however, were
nervous, partly about how to publicize a book some would
not name aloud and partly about the subtitle. Mr. McDonald
picked the subtitle, "A Problem in American Culture," which
appeared in the Pantheon catalog sent to reviewers and
stores. But at a sales conference in August, some
executives worried that consumers might think "nigger"
referred to African-Americans and that by implication
African-Americans were the "problem," said Joy Dallanegra-
Sanger, who is white and the marketing director of the
division of Random House that includes Pantheon.
Mr. McDonald disagreed but acquiesced. "I always thought of
`nigger' as an imaginary construct, like `goblins' or
`elves.' I never thought they actually existed, but
apparently they do in the minds of some." The subtitle was
changed to "The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,"
clarifying that the subject was a word and not a person.
In the past, librarians and bookstore owners have sometimes
removed books from their shelves for containing the word
"nigger" in the title, including "The Nigger of the
Narcissus," by Joseph Conrad. But several bookstores,
including some catering mainly to African-Americans, said
that they planned to stock Mr. Kennedy's book. Several
noted the comedian Dick Gregory's 1964 autobiography,
"Nigger." He wrote at the time that he hoped the word would
become obsolete, but he also joked that it was advertising
for the book.
John McWhorter, an African- American linguist and the
author of the forthcoming book "The Power of Babel" (Henry
Holt), read an early copy. He said he shared Mr. Kennedy's
hopeful fascination with the changing uses of the word
among young African-Americans and even their white friends,
suggesting that the book might further dilute the
opprobrium the word carries. "Pretty soon we are going to
have a book called `Nigger' that is going to be sitting in
front of every bookstore in the United States, and that
will be one more step toward taking the power of the word
The most immediate effect, however, is likely to be an
escalation of the debate over the politics of its use.
Richard Delgado, a Mexican-American professor at the
University of Colorado Law School, who has argued for
restrictions on hate-speech, said that he, too, feared that
Mr. Kennedy's defense of the term's novel uses would
encourage racists. But Mr. Delgado also said that Mr.
Kennedy risked slighting other ethnic groups by
underestimating the power of other slurs. Calling "nigger"
the "paradigmatic" ethnic slur was "parochial," Mr. Delgado
For his part, Mr. Dambrot, the basketball coach who lost
his job for using the word, said he favored open
discussion, even of his own mistake. He lost his suit and
worked as a stockbroker for five years before he found
another job coaching basketball, for a high school in
Akron, Ohio. This year he finally returned to coaching a
college team, at the University of Akron.
"I try to use the whole situation as an educational tool
for the kids," he said. "I explain that you have to
understand how different people understand your words. Be
careful what you say. Every decision you make can effect
the rest of your life, and my life can be case study for
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