Six years ago, Robert S. Boynton in the Atlantic Monthly nominated a group of new black intellectuals whom he hailed for going beyond race to look at the "commonality of American concern." Yet if race were placed in the background of their work, none of the writers and thinkers he mentioned would be in business.
Americans are fascinated with race, and so it is inevitable that merely placing the word "nigger" on the cover of a book guarantees controversy and book sales. And because it is a book written by an African American, a professor at Harvard Law School at that, it is a strategy that creates a rift among the African American intelligentsia, many of whom seem to be proxies for white, neo-liberal opinion. As Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's, said of one of the chosen, "He says what we say in private." No wonder these writers receive such an uncritical free pass in those publications whose opinions they mirror.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has described himself as an "intellectual entrepreneur," was assembling a staff to compile an encyclopedia of black history, of the 40 full-time writers and editors brought to the project, "Encarta Africana," only three were black. In addition, according to Mother Jones magazine, Gates and co-editor K. Anthony Appiah turned down requests from white staffers to hire more African Americans.
Works of dubious scholarly merit are given inflated advances by publishers. Nearly nine years ago, for example, Michael Lerner and Cornel West were awarded a reported $100,000 advance for their slim collection of essays, "Jews & Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America." Some of these works are rewritings of other works and contain no new or original insights. John McWorther ("Losing the Race") writes about black "victimization," a territory already exhausted by Shelby Steele, a much better and more thoughtful writer. McWorther goes so far as to say that blacks are "anti-intellectual" when, according to Martin Arnold of the New York Times, blacks since Sept. 11 are buying books in numbers that seem to be "a bit better than [in] white mainstream publishing."
The goal of the black intelligentsia, it might be argued, is to justify white opinion that might seem racist. For example, another member of the Talented Tenth--W.E.B. DuBois' name for the black intellectual vanguard--Orlando Patterson says that whites moved to the suburbs because of the bad behavior of black school students, which doesn't explain why whites segregate themselves from model minorities like Cuban Americans. Randall Kennedy himself has played to irrational white fears by arguing that whites have a right to avoid young blacks because of crime statistics, yet, more than 75% of violent crimes against whites are committed by other whites. Given this fact, why aren't white women afraid to board elevators with white men? In an unscholarly fashion, the Talented Tenth often ignore facts that might challenge their premises. For example, Gates in his standard "tough love" speech, scolds "35-year-old black grandmothers living in the projects"; what he and his friends fail to mention is that the "out-of-wedlock" birthrate among black women has plummeted faster than that of any other ethnic group. It took conservative columnist Ben Wattenberg to comment about this trend.
Kennedy's book, "Nigger," is being sold on the basis of the questions it answers. "How should 'nigger' be defined?" Kennedy asks. "Is it part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? ... Should blacks be able to use 'nigger' in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view 'nigger' as a provocation strong enough to reduce the culpability of a person who responds violently to it? Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be ousted from his or her job for saying 'nigger'? What methods are useful for depriving 'nigger' of destructiveness?"
In other words, Kennedy's new book provides guidelines about when it's appropriate to use the word and when it's not. Under some conditions, he argues, whites should be able to use the word regardless of "the embarrassment and hurt feelings the term inflicts."
The short book, an expanded essay, includes four sections, of which two, "The Protean N-Word" and the "Pitfalls in Fighting 'Nigger,'" are sometimes interesting. All four sections include anecdotes, folklore and memoirs of celebrities about the use of the word "nigger." Its history is explored and the use of the word by famous comedians such as Richard Pryor are cited. Pryor stopped using the word after a trip to Africa. We learn that Lenny Bruce used the word to weaken its potency, to "defang" the word, a strategy of which Kennedy approves. He also analyzes the motives of whites and blacks for using the word.
Most of the analysis is light. For blacks, he argues, the term can be a positive, but it can also reflect self-hatred. If Kennedy believes that self-hatred is unique to African Americans, he knows very little about the United States' other ethnic groups. Attributing certain attitudes exclusively to blacks is a common practice of the black intelligentsia for whom African Americans are the most homophobic, misogynistic or anti-Semitic of all ethnic groups. This approach exposes the one-dimensionality of their thought. They just haven't studied other American ethnic groups.
Kennedy also accuses blacks of being oversensitive about the use of the word "nigger." If they're oversensitive, they're not the only ethnic group to be offended by ethnic slurs. In fact, based upon my reading, I would say that blacks are the least thin-skinned of American ethnic groups. They are constantly ridiculed in Hollywood movies and on television. Booker T. Washington complained about the press coverage of blacks almost 100 years ago. To expose the warts of others--even in ridicule--is considered by some to reveal the secrets of the community or provide the enemy with ammunition, but it is done to the African American community with relative impunity.
I found reading through the section "'Nigger' in Court" to be rough sledding. Kennedy discusses cases in which jurors, lawyers or jurists have referred to blacks as "niggers." (Whites who deny that racism exists in the criminal justice system will be shocked by this, just as they were shocked by the revelation that some Los Angeles policemen plant evidence.) In addition, he examines cases in which a black person used the "fighting-word" defense when charged with assaulting a white person who used the word, and cases in which racial slurs are used on the job or in commerce and, finally, cases in which witnesses or litigants use the term. Kennedy contends that a white person's calling a black person "nigger" is no excuse for harming that person and that blacks should show Ellisonian patience when assaulted by the term. When I read this line, all I could think of was what Julian Bond once wrote, "Look at that girl shake that thing/We all can't be Martin Luther King."
Kennedy believes that if a black person and a white person are intimates, then it's all right for the white person to call his friend a "nigger": "Can a relationship between a black person and a white one be such that the white person should properly feel authorized, within the confines of that relationship, to use the N-word? For me the answer is yes."
He also approves of Harry Truman's and Lyndon Johnson's use of the word because they inaugurated programs that were beneficial to black people. (He could have included Abraham Lincoln who, according to historian Lerone Bennett Jr., used "nigger" often and loved minstrel shows so much that sometimes he would miss appointments to attend one.)
Kennedy's comments about the use of the word by rappers show the isolation of Talented Tenth. They live in academic settings, white enclaves, such as Cambridge, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., and don't have a clue about Compton. Ice-T, in a recent interview, said that some of the rappers were former criminals who condoned the drugging of African Americans from 1984 until recently, so long as they could make a profit from it. He said that with hip-hop, they became legitimate.
In his film "Images of Hip-Hop in the Bay Area," author Cecil Brown interviews some rappers. They come across as cynical, amoral capitalists who know what turns on their white suburban audience. This audience seems to need their "nigger" fix. Rather than being heroes who use the word as a sign of independence, as Kennedy would have us believe, these rappers are merely marketing a product.
"These entertainers don't care whether whites are confused by blacks' use of the term," he writes. "And they don't care whether whites who hear blacks using the N-word think that African Americans lack self-respect. The black comedians and rappers who use and enjoy 'nigger' care principally, perhaps exclusively, about what they themselves think, desire and enjoy--which is part of their allure." Whatever.
A few years ago novelist Charles Johnson and I were sitting in the rear of a room where white professors were arguing about whether Mark Twain had a right to use the word. They used the word with what I felt to be excessive enthusiasm, as though they were high on something, as though the word were some form of verbal crack. Johnson turned to me and said. "What am I doing here?" Many black readers will probably feel the same way when reading Kennedy's book.