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nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word Book Review

Reviewed by Phyllis Rhodes

Randall Kennedy, a Princeton and Yale educated African American (AA) Harvard Law School professor, is the author of the renowned book:  nigger:  The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. 

In the spirit of his legal background, Kennedy methodically organizes the book into three main sections:  The first attempts to define the word and discusses the historical and modern day uses of it particularly in the areas of entertainment (comedy, rap, poetry, etc.).  He takes the reader back to the historical roots of the word and its original meaning to firmly establish that the n-word was intentionally used to inflict insult or to humiliate and belittle its targets.  The first 40 pages cite numerous examples of how the racial epitaph has been recorded throughout American history in the educational, legal, and political institutions.

The second section deals with the use of the n-word in the American judicial system and provides interesting discussion on the legalities surrounding the use of the n-word as a "fighting word" and as justification for physical retaliation (even as a defense strategy for murder).  He discusses the impact that racist views of defendants and litigants can have on court rulings.  He spends a lot of time referencing legalities of when the word can be entered into evidence in a court of law and cites several instances including the infamous O.J. Simpson case in which Mark Fuhrman perjured himself when asked if he had ever used the n-word.  Kennedy also covers the difficulties AA's face when suing on the grounds of racial discrimination.  The author's knowledge of the law proves invaluable for this section because he shares his insight and perspective on the intricacies behind these controversial cases.  The third section of the book addresses a myriad of modern day issues such as the debate surrounding censorship of the word, the campaign against Merriam-Webster regarding the definition of the word, use of the word in the company of non-AA persons, etc.

Although it is a small book in physical size, it is packed full of hundreds of factual accounts of well-documented real-life cases that one can research independently for more details.  Throughout the book, Kennedy offers a solid discussion on the differing schools of thought between the eradicationists, those who maintain that all uses of the word are wrongful and hurtful, and those of a more tolerant group who support use of the term in its proper context.  This reader personally enjoyed the discussion that paralleled Amos-n-Andy to Def Comedy Jam and authors choice to include viewpoints of the AA intelligentsia of yesteryear and today: Langston Hughes, Bill Cosby, Roy Wilkes, Countee Cullen, Thurgood Marshall, and others.

This reader felt somewhat disappointed because the author does not provide a conclusion or any formative recommendations; others felt this was appropriate for the type of book that it was.  However, he clearly establishes that the n-word has been embedded in our culture for a very long time and will remain so as long as there is an America.

The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for nigger:  The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word is 3.3 out of 5 stars.  We welcome your comments and thoughts about this book review.  Please e-mail us at this address:

January 11, 2003