Absalom, Absalom, Academic Book, Barack Obama, Book Review, Larry Wilmore, Light in August, Mark Twain, Merrium-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, nigger v. nigga, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Political Discourse, Politics, Public speech, race, Race relations, Randall Kennedy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Nightly Show, White House Correspondance Dinner, William Faulkner
“Don’t re-nig 2012.” Imagine reading that.
I’ve written before, on several occasions, about issues of race often using my experience of East Texas as my example. I feel this is unfortunate for my reader who begins to assume that Texas is a state filled with racist bastards who do nothing but listen to Toby Keith on repeat but only the second half of that sentence is true. Texas is a state of fine people who, while they may at times seem cartoonish in their eccentricity, are possessed with a quality that evades description. Texas is a beautiful state and the people are unlike any the reader is likely to meet in their lifetimes, but this essay isn’t about defending my state, because alas while I love it and live it I do have to suffer the presence of a few assholes.
I watched the words through a kind of haze. The bumper-sticker was on the back window of a White Toyota and was just a white background with Black Impact font. I was used to the “One-Big-Ass-Mistake-America” stickers as well as the “NO” that used the cloudy “O” from President Obama’s first campaign. Living in Texas you get used to such rhetoric because Obama is a Democrat and democrats, like communists and liberals, are ghoulish creatures that emerge from the black pit of Washington D.C. to come and devour our children, freedom, health-care, businesses, and, if we’re especially unlucky, our guns too. I wasn’t bothered by the partisan bullshit because every asshole believes expressing his individuality through a bumper-sticker makes him part of the discourse.
I was outraged by the fact that the driver was white and seemed completely apathetic to the fact that there’s a difference between calling the President an idiot and being a racist.
It wasn’t this bumper-sticker however that lead me to Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. It was actually William Faulkner.
This semester I received my second chance to read Faulkner in Graduate School, and given the fact the last book was Absalom, Absalom I was nervous as fucking hell. I only in the last few weeks have completed the exhausted physical and psychological recovery of such a long painful affair that left me stimulated and devastated intellectually. Light in August however was actually an amazing read, and true to Faulknerian style, the book was ultimately demonstrating the atmosphere of the post-Civil War south as a scene of internal corruption mixed with the complicated nature of race embodied in the character of Joe Christmas. Faulkner and nigger tend to go hand in hand (he was a white man writing in Mississippi, it was gonna happen) and the first real recognition of the word struck me. Christmas is an orphan who steals into the orphanage’s dietician’s office to grab some toothpaste when he is interrupted. The dietician, a 26 year old woman, begins to have sex with a man until she hears Christmas coughing and when she finds him she says:
“’You little rat!’ the thin, furious voice hissed; “you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!” (LIA 122).
It would have been enough to just say the dietician was a white woman from the south therefore she’s racist, but I needed a paper topic, as well as a viable excuse for spending my parent’s money on yet another book. My father’s keeping a tab. He denies it but I know he is. One of my other professor’s had introduced me to the book, and given my background attending a lily-white private Christian school, and then attending a public university where most of the students and faculty are white I was curious about Nigger.
Kennedy is an academic, specifically a law professor at Harvard University, and before the reader believes that that means Kennedy’s book in one of the many dense unreadable texts produced by academics I’m happy to disappoint them. Nigger is readable and written in a way that anyone with the ability to read can approach the book and come away secure in the knowledge that they have understood the material. Part of the reason for this is Kennedy’s careful strategy of approaching the word with curiosity along with agenda. He says in one opening passage:
To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.
Let’s turn first to etymology. Nigger is derived from the latin word for the color black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time. Nigger and other words related to it have been spelled in a variety of ways, including niggah, nigguh, niggur, and nigger. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as “negars.” A 1689 inventory of an estate in Brooklyn, New York, made mention of an enslaved “niggor” boy. The seminal lexicographer Noah Webster referred to Negroes as “negars.” […] No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of first third of nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult. (4)
Kennedy later goes to list how the word Nigger has become a fluid term and an almost unifying form of insult as the Irish are sometimes referred to as the “niggers” of Europe, and arabs, when described casually by bigots, are sometimes referred to as “sand-niggers.” These are just two of the numerous examples Kennedy provides and that itself is revealing enough about the potency of the word.
Kennedy’s book is vital reading to any and all who are left puzzled to the nature of the word nigger, specifically whether or not they are really allowed to say it. Before the reader thinks I can answer that question, allow me to clarify: I CAN’T. I am a white man writing a review of the book and not in fact commenting on the existence of the word or my freedom to use it. I don’t use it, but that is partly because I’ve read this book, as well as commentary and testimony by numerous African Americans, and realized that it just doesn’t hold any relevance or usefulness in my lexicon.
That, and I try to avoid being a dick to the best of my ability.
I myself recognize this conflict for writing this review is in fact a form of cowardice on my part. A white man verbally dissecting the complexities inherent to the use of the word nigger is a needfully careful, and let’s be honest, tricky as fucking-fuck dance that leaves many impaled on their own good intentions. Writing the word however allows some buffering, but even so, my regular use of the word can and should be questioned. The conflict of being white is a guard against the potency of this word, and growing up surrounded by privileged white rich kids I became painfully aware of this fact. I would hear the word from time to time, always in purely white environments, and it was clear that as long as black people couldn’t hear nobody would mind, and the larger problem was there wasn’t a word to refer to us that had the same level of bite. Some would protest pathetically that “honkey” or “cracker” was just as bad as nigger but this fell flat and even the regular abusers of the word would recognize that that shit didn’t fly.
For the record, the only contemporary word on record that can sting a white person is the word “racist.”
Kennedy’s book doesn’t try to account or explain methods to eliminate this conflict, for ultimately the book aims to follow the use of the term in popular, cultural, and historical record. The book is divided into three sections: the first tries to establish the history of the word, the second section observes how the use of this word has become entangled with legal arguments, and finally the third and final section covers the public fight against the use of the word and the attempted eradication of it. It is in this third section, aptly titled “Pitfalls in Fighting Nigger: Perils of Deception, Censoriousness and Excessive Anger,” that Kennedy tackles two public instances of the word and the fight around them: the inclusion of the word in the Merrium-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and the regular arguments surrounding Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
In the first case he explains the significance of the inclusion:
Deciding whether to not or how to define a deeply controversial word is an inescapably “political” act, and claims to the contrary are either naïve or disingenuous. The issue, then, is not whether editors shape the substance of their dictionaries. Of course they do. The issue is the substance of the choices made. Some of Merrium-Webster’s critics have condemned the editors’ decision to include any reference at all to nigger. […] That tack, however, is glaringly wrongheaded. Many terms that are absent from dictionaries are nonetheless pervasive in popular usage. Moreover, so long as racist sentiments exist, they will fund linguistic means of expression, even if some avenues are blocked. There are, after all, numerous ways of insulting people. (108)
Kennedy follows this paragraph with a smaller summation in the last line of the subsequent paragraph:
Nigger should have a place in any serious dictionary. The word is simply too important to ignore. (108).
After this Kennedy addresses a conflict that is about at least a century old at this point: the use of the word nigger in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There have been entire books written about this subject, and rather than list out every position taken I’d rather just quote Kennedy because he speaks much clearer and with less pathetic attempt at humor. Addressing the argument that Huckleberry Finn proliferates racism by using the word nigger frequently Kennedy contends that:
That interpretation, however, is ludicrous, a frightening exhibition of how thought becomes stunted in the absence of any sense of irony. Twain is not willfully buttressing racism here; he is seeking ruthlessly to unveil and ridicule it. But putting nigger in white character’s mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites. (109).
Many authors both black and white have argued this position effectively and the scores of activists that have attempted to censor the novel have often been left revealed as people who don’t get the joke. Having read and studied Mark Twain in depth, and having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this entire argument is hilarious to watch. Yes white men use the word nigger ad nauseum (fancy-pants way of saying too much) but if you observe many of these white characters they tend to be crooks, thieves, bloodthirsty murderers, idiots, or just genuinely ridiculous fools. It would be one thing if Twain had his intelligent characters, or morally virtuous characters spouting that word at length, but when the individuals using that word tend to be morons it becomes a dubious proposition to argue that white’s using this word demonstrates Twain trying to argue for genetic or innate superiority of the white race. Simply put, if a murderer is using the word nigger then it becomes difficult to romanticize that vocabulary choice.
Kennedy concludes this argument later when he notes:
It is undoubtedly true, moreover, that regardless of Twain’s intentions, Huckleberry Finn (like any work of art) can be handled in a way that is not only stupid but downright destructive of the educational and emotional well-being of students. (111).
Having taught myself I understand this position because the classroom is a fragile space. The possibility to lose students to emotion or ego is a careful balance and when teachers sacrifice the opportunity to foster real growth by relenting to the idea that something is difficult therefore not worth my, or the student’s, time then a great tragedy has ensued.
It’s at this point though that the reader may be wondering what relevance any of this has to their life. Nigger is just a bad word and so we shouldn’t talk or write about it because it will either just make people angry or else jeopardize people’s careers. What good does it do talking about it?
The conflict with this position is that it is defeatist, but more importantly it’s just not practical given the current political and cultural climate. It’s been barely two years since Michael Brown was shot, and in that space of time the United States has suffered more and more tragedy and the conversation about black/white relations in America has become a more pressing subject. In our current atmosphere where conservatives are telling jokes about Black Lives Matter groups, and self-hating-self-aggrandizing liberals are bashing cops on twitter hoping they can be “cool” it’s easy to lose track of what the real problem is, and a perfect microcosm of this is Larry Wilmore’s half hour appearance at the White House Correspondent’s dinner.
Willmore is the host of the program The Nightly Show, the half hour political comedy program that takes place after The Daily Show, and since he took over Stephen Colbert’s spot Wilmore’s humor has tended to focus more and more on the political atmosphere for African Americans and perceptions of race in media at large. At the White House Correspondence dinner he was introduced by the President and made a few jokes, some funny, some not so funny, but it was the last line of the evening that broke the media because before he left the stage he placed his fist to his heart and called President Obama “My nigga.” There was laughter, some horror, but then also the President doing the same and embracing Wilmore before the man left. NPR did a small article covering the affair and in it Wilmore laid out his artistic choice for using the word:
I’ve been called that word in my lifetime — the “-er” version — and I made a distinction between the use of “nigger” against us and the use of “nigga” that we’ve used with each other. On [The Nightly Show Monday] night, I said we conjugate the slur. …
The one in “-er” is unmistakable — it’s an attempt by white people to dehumanize and denigrate and demean black people, to make them less than human.
When we turned it around, it was our way of having camaraderie with each other, of taking the power out of that word, stamping [out its] ability to dehumanize. It isn’t always the easiest thing to translate to people who aren’t in that experience. … And not all blacks agree with that, and I acknowledge that. … I understand why people would be upset about it. I have no quarrel or criticism of that. … But part of it is a generational thing, and it is possibly a different way of just viewing who has the power to say what. Who has the right to be in charge of the narrative? Who gets to control what’s being said about us or how we get to say it?*
While I initially focused on the difference between nigger and nigga, rereading this article I focused more attention upon the last paragraph. The ultimate problem with nigger is not just that white people use it, for I like some people have been in situations in which a white person may have said the word in the presence of a black person and there wasn’t a conflict, and likewise there have been moments where you could slice the tension with a knife. It’s not just that white people use the word, it’s the way white people have used the word often to craft a rhetoric in which they are in a position of power. This manifested in the past as whites, whether they were rich or poor, using nigger to remind black people that they were socially inferior. In the environment of Post 1960s Civil-Rights the method of whites exerting power of their race over blacks has now morphed and often the idea of “reverse racism” has been employed to treat whites as “victims” of the real racism and that using that word really isn’t that bad. Wilmore received criticism from both black and white commentators for a score of reasons, but like many scrambling to alight Twain’s Huckleberry Finn on fire, most of these critics were people who just didn’t get the joke.
Kennedy’s book is an important read, and while at times his style is a bit tedious and he spends lengthy passages listing off offenses rather than digging into an analysis of them, it is still a vital read to any and all people approaching the complicated nature of race, particularly how rhetoric of said races are constructed using language.
I understand that many are bothered by the word, and many will be left more confused about the nature of the word, but the sanest way of understanding this conflict is not by refusing talking about it, or being self-righteous about it. The best means of beginning to understand and empathize people’s emotions is by talking it out and really listening to each other.
Kennedy’s book is a must-read and he concludes it by saying:
For bad and for good, nigger is thus destined to remain with us for many years to come—a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience. (139).
Nigger isn’t going anywhere, nor are stupid, racist bumper stickers.
If people give up talking and really listening however then the issue will continue to inspire bad memes, shit emails your uncle sends you, and more unnecessary violence. Kennedy’s book goes the long way of just starting the conversation, and books like that are worth people’s time because often the fear of asking questions leads to only further ignorance. Nigger will remain on my bookshelf because as a white man I cannot possibly comprehend the emotion that word inspires, and so rather than trying to ignore the problem, or protest that one doesn’t exist, I can do only what I have always done: read the book, and try to consider another’s perspective.
I’m a white man, as such my job isn’t to tell anybody what to feel or what to think about this word. My reality is to listen and try to understand so that when other people express confusion or anger I can try and communicate what I’ve read and heard. Kennedy’s book goes a long way then to getting the conversation started.
Below is a link to the NPR article concerning Larry Wilmore’s use of the word nigga at the White house Correspondent’s dinner in case you would like to read the whole thing:
**Writer’s Second Note**
If you’re still wondering if you’re allowed to use the word nigger in conversation or in public if you’re white the best answer I have is…No.
Just don’t use it.
If you believe that isn’t fair remember that it wasn’t fair that your older brother got a car for his birthday and you got a computer, and I know that isn’t a great metaphor but it’s simpler than the argument that because you’re white it will be seen that your character is immediately suspect in which case as a potential employee, friend, employer, etc you pose a risk because you’re using language that racists tend to use and nobody wants to work or be around racists except other racists and so job opportunities go out the window because you’re seen as unprofessional, your wife leaves you, and your kids think you’re a racist prick, but really the only reason you should need is that for the most part because everyone in the world doesn’t know who you are you’re just some random white guy saying the word nigger, so the nuance that might be able to help you will be ignored and you’ll be left looking like a gigantic douche.
If you’re still bitching about the fact that that isn’t fair remember the Grandfather in The Princess Bride who played Colombo for years: “Well who said life is fair? Where is that written?”
Before you use the word ask yourself an important question: Do you really need to use the word? If so why, and is that a legitimate reason to use it?