Speaking The Unspeakable

ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT If you don't think Randall Kennedy's "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" is ultimately a hopeful book, just watch for the next few weeks as nice white people writhe while saying the title aloud. The slur that journalist Farai Chideya has called "the nuclear bomb of racial epithets" may soon discomfit those who devised it more than those who have suffered from it. Whites, Kennedy notes, can no longer use the word (derived from niger, Latin for the color black) without disgracing themselves; blacks use it ironically, defiantly, even affectionately. True, some African-Americans still object to anyone's using it. But when a black man with pooh-bah credentials like Kennedy's--he teaches at Harvard Law School--praises the rappers and comedians who sling the N word around for their "bracing and admirable independence," the controversy among blacks may be about over.

As you'd expect, Kennedy does best when tracing the convolutions and weighing the merits of various legal cases involving the word--such as that of a black prison guard who sued because his black supervisor called him "nigger." He can make decisions, reversed decisions and reversed reversals into tense intellectual drama. If only he'd written the whole book with similar argumentative rigor. But there's too much filler in these 224 small pages: it shouldn't take this many slurs, jokes and anecdotes to show that "nigger" is an ugly word. His six-page digression on "Amos 'n' Andy" could have done its job in a few sentences. He undermines an already thin defense of "Huckleberry Finn" with carelessness: "By putting nigger in Aunt Sally's mouth, the author is not branding blacks, but branding Aunt Sally," he tells us--citing a passage in which the word comes out of Huck's mouth. And at times, he seems overoptimistic: should we really be glad whites now use "nigger" to dis both whites and blacks? Still, by the time Kennedy gets to his nuanced but upbeat conclusion, he's made his case: that this "troublesome" word is only a word. And that words--like people--can always change.

NiggerRandall Kennedy
(Pantheon)