'N-Word' Should Not Be Banned, Harvard Law Professor Argues

Racial tensions and injustices across the U.S. and the globe are unfortunately nothing new, neither are the responses they can elicit.

For Randall Kennedy, Harvard scholar and law professor, this has long been a concern. For the majority of his life he has been studying and writing about U.S. law and order, culture, and race.

On February 8, the 20th Anniversary edition of his book N-word: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word will hit the bookshelves loaded with a new introduction, where Kennedy stands by his original rejection of the eradication and excessive censorship of the n-word, claiming the word is here to stay "for good and for bad."

"The book has aged well, in the sense that it's subject—the term n-word—remains a key term in American race talk. This term remains a device, a weapon, that people use to demean and to terrorise. The term is still a very active word in American society and for that reason warrants attention. It's a terrible thing that this word is still so present, and is still effectively used in terrible ways," Kennedy told Newsweek.

His original book was published in a different social setting, before the rise of social media which brought with it more scrutiny of language use and exposed cases of racial and social injustice.

"My predictions have largely borne out. I have been, I must say, a bit surprised by – though I probably shouldn't have been – by the dogmatic literalism of some of the people that I refer to as 'eradicationists'.

"We're in a bad situation if we prioritize the elimination of danger. If we do that, well, let's just then get rid of books, get rid of discussion, get rid of comedy, get rid of satire," the scholar argues.

Newsweek has been given exclusive access to Kennedy's new introduction, part of which can be read below.

All instances of the n-word have been removed from the excerpt as per Newsweek policy. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Kennedy's resigned sigh.

New Introduction — N-word: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word

I eschewed wholesale eradicationism twenty years ago and reject it now. One reason is prudential, a fear that people in a position to censor will do what people in positions of power often do: behave stupidly and with prejudice, giving vent to dictatorial impulses of the sort that have led to the punishment of conscientious teachers. So I want to restrict the power of arbiters of taste, particularly those armed with governmental authority. I want to inhibit their desire and ability to prohibit what people can say or hear, portray or see. I want to restrain them from banning or bowdlerizing or confining to a locked closet Cecil Brown's Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass N-word, Gil Scott-Heron's N-word Factory, Carl Sandburg's N-word Lover, Carl Van Vechten's N-word Heaven, Flannery O'Connor's Artificial N-word, Henry Dumas's Double N-word, Ed Bullins's Electronic N-word, or Dick Gregory's N-word—not to mention the many other stories, plays, novels, and other works that are constantly menaced because they contain the N-word.

But there is more to it than that. There are people of all backgrounds, including different racial identities, who put n-word to uses that are enjoyable, instructive, and moving. They do so in protest, satire, comedy, and all manner of gestures that are hard to characterize but richly expressive. I began this introduction detailing despicable uses to which n-word is put. I have not forgotten that horrific catalog. But neither can I forget the way in which commentators, activists, novelists, playwrights, comedians, and many ordinary folks have used n-word creatively to poke at racism, to signal solidarity with those wrongly demeaned, to communicate playfully and ironically with intimates, and to express all sorts of other sentiments.

My father, of blessed memory, an African American Louisianian born in 1917, used n-word often. He used it to compliment people, as when he said that of the "n-word" he had come across in his lifetime, Professor Allison Davis was the smartest, the Reverend James Hinton was the bravest, and the baseball star Jackie Robinson was the greatest. He used it as a friendly salutation: "Good to see you, my n-word." He used it to convey respect: "Thurgood Marshall is a stand-up n-word." Yes, he used the term to identify people of whom he disapproved: "Them n-word should be ashamed of themselves." But he also used it pridefully to refer to himself: "I am a stone n-word." My father used n-word frequently and without shame to convey a spectrum of beliefs and emotions that could be properly understood only by listening carefully to the intonation of his voice. In my childhood household, therefore, I learned about what the journalist Jarvis DeBerry referred to as the N-word's beautiful multiplicity of functions. Of course, there are vestiges of childhood socialization that are best abandoned. But this lesson in the complexities and capacities of language is not one of them. To the contrary, it is a valuable lesson that deserves championing.

I am glad that I learned that n-word—like any symbol—is capable of being used to express contradictory emotions. And I am glad that that lesson has stuck with me. It has helped me to avoid susceptibility to the trauma alluded to as a reason for obsessively scrubbing the N-word wherever it emerges. And it has allowed me to appreciate teachings, creations, and performances that would be mangled if not wholly proscribed if n-word eradicationism prevailed. I enjoy the wordplay of August Wilson and Quentin Tarantino, though n-word is sprinkled liberally in the mouths of their characters. I delight in listening to "Still D.R.E." (Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre) and "My Mind Playing Tricks on Me" (Geto Boys), though n-word is pervasive in the lyrics. I relish listening to the n-word-filled comedy routines of Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams, Chris Rock, and Richard Pryor, particularly new ways in which they deploy the N-word, as when some of them use it to refer to white people like Donald Trump. (I am well aware that later in his life Pryor repudiated his earlier playfulness with n-word. I believe, though, that the comedy that used n-word—the comedy exemplified in That N-word's Crazy—was deeper, sharper, and funnier than his later work.)

N-word remains a powerful weapon of disparagement, inflicting contagious contempt. It continues to be wielded by some as an implement of bigotry. Deployed in a racist fashion, it still can and does draw psychic blood. But despite the abhorrent uses to which n-word is often put, seeking to ban it altogether is folly. The extent and intensity of the repression that would be required to obliterate n-word would impose costs that far outweigh any good that can be foreseen. Having to tolerate to some extent—even a large extent—obnoxious, even racist uses of n-word is, in my view, an acceptable price to pay for the freedom that a vigorous ethic of expressive pluralism demands and encourages. That is why I say anew that I hope that "n-word...is destined to remain with us...a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience."