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. : The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word


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Randall Kennedy is a Rhodes Scholar and patron of the faculty of the Harvard Law School. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Association, and the American Law Institute, Mr. Kennedy lives in Dedham, Massachusetts.


The word is paradigmatically ugly, racist and inflammatory. But is it different when Ice Cube uses it in a song than when, during the O.J. Simpson trial, Mark Fuhrman was accused of saying it? What about when Lenny Bruce uses it to "defang" it by sheer repetition? Or when Mark Twain uses it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to make an antiracist statement? Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and noted legal scholar, has produced an insightful and highly provocative book that raises vital questions about the relationship between language, politics, social norms and how society and culture confront racism. Drawing on a wide range of historical, legal and cultural instances Harry S. Truman calling Adam Clayton Powell "that damned nigger preacher"; Title VII court cases in which the use of the word was proof of condoning a "racially hostile work environment"; Quentin Tarantino's liberal use of the word in his films Kennedy repeatedly shows not only the complicated cultural history of the word, but how its meaning, intent and even substance change in context. Smart, well argued and never afraid of facing serious, difficult and painful questions in an unflinching and unsentimental manner, this is an important work of cultural and political criticism. As Kennedy notes in closing: "For bad or for good, nigger is... destined to remain with us for the foreseeable future a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience." (Jan. 22) Forecast: This may be the book that reignites larger debates over race eclipsed by September 11. Look for a bestselling run and huge talk show and magazine coverage as the Afghanistan news cycle continues to slow; the book had already been the subject of two New York Times stories by early January. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

"Provocative... engaging and informative." - The New York Times; "A Molotov Cocktail of a book." - The Washington Post

Harvard law professor Kennedy (Race, Crime, and the Law) explores the multiple uses of the word nigger and examines the social, cultural, and legal rancor it generates. Distinguishing between two prevalent applications one ironical and affectionate, the other insulting and contemptuous Kennedy advocates more differentiated reaction to use of the term. Unfortunately, he is repeatedly disdainful of opponents' positions and persistently affirms mutually incompatible views. He compromises his argument by tending to underestimate the tenacity of social constructs evolving from and mutating within a context of emotional pain and the history of a people. Despite his desire to take the sting out of nigger, Kennedy provides little to resolve the controversy surrounding it and even less to ease the tensions attending its uses. Yet this unique and controversial work deserves credit for candidly addressing a troubling and irritating issue. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, Coll. of Staten Island, CUNY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Adult/High School-A well-written and researched book that traces the history of the N word and various races' use of and reaction to it. Kennedy begins with how the word should be defined, and why it generates such strong reactions. He explores its etymology and looks at the various ways the word has been used throughout America's history, citing court cases and legal battles involving the word from slavery times to the present. The last chapters look at the pitfalls in fighting the use of the word and at how the term is currently used in our society. This unique work will spark discussion among students interested in the history of this familiar term. Kennedy includes many contemporary references from comedians, rappers, athletes, movie stars, and other famous and not so famous African Americans.-Patricia White-Williams, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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