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Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word Paperback – Jan 14 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (Jan. 14 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375713719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375713712
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.4 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 222 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #353,283 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Amazon

Nigger is Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's ornate, lively monograph on what he calls the "paradigmatic" racial slur in the English language. A neutral noun in the 17th century, nigger had, by 1830, become an "influential" insult. Kennedy traces the word's history in literature, song, film, politics, sports, everyday speech, and the courtroom. He also discusses its plastic, contradictory, and volatile place in contemporary American society. Should it be eradicated from dictionaries and the language? Should it be, somehow, regulated? What is the significance of its emergence among some blacks as a term with "undertones of warmth and good will"? Do blacks have a historical right to its use or does that place the term under a "protectionist pall"? With courage and grave measure Kennedy has, in effect, created a forum for discussion of the word he calls a "reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience." --H. O'Billovitch --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

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 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most helpful customer reviews

Format: Paperback
I had heard a lot about this book that made me curious to read it, but what finally prompted me to do so was through several discussions about offensive words, especially relating to literature. I was curious to find out what Randall Kennedy had to say on what he calls the "strange career of a troublesome word."
Kennedy's book takes us through the history of the word "nigger" and how it has been used, for insult and for good, throughout American history. Why is it that blacks can use the N-word as a sign of affection, yet coming from the lips of a white it is automatically offensive? What makes this one word seemingly more volatile than any other word in the English language? These are just a few of the questions that Kennedy attempts to bring to light in his example-bound treatise. "Nigger" is filled with examples - from song lyrics, to court cases, to literary passages, to the repertoires of comedians - to explore how this word is used and abused.
Randall Kennedy has covered all the bases to show how this word is deeply rooted in America's past as offensive, and how it is still taboo today, even though many African-Americans are trying to reclaim it for a positive use. Kennedy's writing is concise and thorough, offering various instances of "wrong" and "right" actions regarding the N-word. Yet at times, there seems to be almost too many examples. After a while, one wishes for more of an argument than a laundry listing of the word's history of discord. He offers little of his own opinion in the epilogue, only saying that he diasgrees with the useage of racially offensive words. I understand his need to remain unbiased, and realize that there may never be a right or wrong answer regarding the impact this word will have on American culture. Kennedy has succeeded at showing us its past; it's up to us to determine its future.
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By JMack on Nov. 30 2003
Format: Paperback
Randall Kennedy had a brilliant idea for a book. Unfortunately, the subject may be too complex for any mortal man to tackle in a reasonable amount of pages. Kennedy does open some eyes and has created some dialogue in regard to his subject, but the book will leave most readers with some unanswered questions.
Kennedy discusses many facets of this controversial word in his thought provoking book. After discussing the history of the word, he looks at its use in pop culture, law cases, as well as its overstigmatizing effect. Kennedy succeeds in stating these facts in a reasonably fair and balanced way. In large part, he avoids over-stating his opinion as part of the explanation.
While Kennedy proposes no direct solution to the problems created by this word, it is difficult to criticize him when any possible solution has its flaws. He does manage to create a long overdue dialogue on the subject. The cautions which can be drawn from this dialogue include being cautious of the context of the word and overstigmatizing those who use the word.
The fact that such a book exists demonstrates a deeper cultural understanding and defining of the word is being sought. This makes Kennedy's final product very credible.
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Format: Paperback
I was very excited to see a book out on Black History with such a daring title. The hoopla in the paper and television show Boston Public made me very intrigued on this novel. Coming from Canada, Black History is not discussed, and this book is perfect to learn of the lives of a people we know very little about. A novel where the world can learn about N-word in an impartial manner with a gutsy attitude.
Nigger is a book about the word, first and foremost. It discusses its uses in history, its place in history, its uses in pop culture, and so on. Although these are topics that have been digested by the American and Canadain public time and again, Randall Kennedy displays it in a refershing way. I had no idea that the culture of this word was so broad, overused and abused. The book discusses the words useage by black and white persons and when it is ok to use it.
The author does not damn all those that use the word but, is quick also, to priase the person who files for its inappropriate use. Not to say Kennedy contradictics himself, by far, he does not.
Kennedy wrote this book so that Nigger, the word, can be disolved or be used in accordance to society (norms). People must inspect it from every angle, which is exactly what Kennedy did. He has attempted to reduce the evilness, however, not replacing it with good, but, with delicate understanding and careful explination. Through use of quotes, court cases and related experience, we the reader have enough information so that we can respect or disregard his discussion.
For any one person interested in the English lexicom, history or general reading, this book can allow you to think and discover your innermost thoughts. A wonderful intellectual read.
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Format: Hardcover
The experience of reading this book further highlighted what the book discusses, and why it is a subject that needs discussion. While reading it, my awareness of those around me was sharpened. It felt strange, even somehow wrong, to even have this word on display in my presence. And yet, the fact that it was there sparked some valuable conversations, which I think Kennedy might have appreciated.
It was difficult for me to imagine a book that focused on a single word so closely without becoming trite or repetitive, but Kennedy accomplishes the task admirably here. It helps that this particular word is so rich in cultural background and societal impact. It's an important word, even if it's a vile one, and Kennedy never loses sight of either fact. In the course of the book, he briefly covers the word's history and etymology, but moves quickly on to discuss its cultural impact, how this has changed over time, how different groups or individuals can use it in different ways, the reactions one finds when certain people use it, how the word has affected legal proceedings, and how the word is being handled today. Through all of this, he is neither overly critical nor overly apologetic about the use of the word; he is simply honest.
About halfway through the book, while discussing an effort to have the word removed from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Kennedy states "Nigger should have a place in any serious dictionary. The word is simply too important to ignore." I'll take that a step further and say that it the word is so important to American history and culture that it demands examination and open discussion.
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