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
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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.
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