Language's poison power: Making the N-word polite?

The Argument

Words have the capacity to be acts of hate, rather than simply expressions, and that ugliness won't easily die.


April 07, 2002|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

Some of my oldest friends still use the N-word in private and even in public. They don't say N-word, of course. They say "nigger." Randall Kennedy doesn't mind. He just wishes nonracists would use the word with them.

That might seem strange coming from Kennedy. He is an African-American. He teaches in a hub of liberalism, the Harvard Law School. And he is not especially concerned about the freedom of expression of white racists, in some abstract ACLU-style way. So why does he feel that way? Here is what he says in his controversial new book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Pantheon, 226 pages, $22).

"There is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank "nigger" from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative into a positive appellation." Not with racists' venom and derision but affectionately, respectfully or at least neutrally.

He believes that yanking voyage is under way, and the desired new world safe harbor is just beyond the horizon. It seems to me I've heard that song before. Sung in the key of hope, not of experience.

Kennedy's little book is a good read. Its brevity and casualness and focus on its few main points make it read like introductory lectures by a provocative teacher. In 170 small folio pages of text, it explores the origin of the word, its development and its uses (lecture one), the legal implications of its use (lecture two) and missteps along the way in fighting its use in academe and popular culture (lecture three).

Lecture one is a gem of condensation. Everything you ever wanted to know about the word in the English-speaking world is here in 50 pages. That's no small feat. Consider that the entry in just one of his sources, The Random House Dictionary of American Slang (1997), runs on for 3 1 / 2 double-columned pages.

He also consults other dictionaries, such as the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which devotes a dense four-column page to defining the word, and H. L. Mencken's classic The American Language. Also scholarly articles, biographies, journalism, song lyrics. And court decisions. (Kennedy is also the author of the 1997 Race, Crime and the Law, a fact-packed report of 538 pages.)

There is no real agreement on precisely when the word entered the English language. Probably in the 1500s. It comes from the Latin for "black." It appears to have been nothing more than a descriptive until it reached America. It soon took on its more pointed meaning, and, according to some lexicographers, especially in the years after the end of slavery, especially the early 20th century, it became not just "a troublesome word" or even just a word at all, but, as Kennedy puts in discussing the use of the word by Southern politicians, "a tool of demagoguery."

By treating a whole race with open, unrelenting, undifferentiated contempt, insult, hate and menace, such demagogues and their followers were able, in large part because of their common vocabulary, to reinforce a caste system only a few rungs above slavery on the ladder of American freedom and equality.

Of all the American ethnic slurs, only "nigger" was so persistently and widely and successfully employed. Not kike or mick, or polack or spic. The members of those groups were largely able to shrug off the slurs after a generation or two. Not blacks.

In his report on a trip through the South in the 1980s (A Turn in the South), V. S. Naipaul quoted a white Southern preacher with a thought that sums up the power of the word: "In the old days, if you saw 5,000 blacks marching around a court-house, and you asked them why they were marching, they would say because they weren't being registered to vote. Today, if you saw 5,000 blacks marching, the only thing they can say is 'We are marching because we are still niggers to you.' "

Even less powerful language can act as an instrument of oppression. In their new book, Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America (University of California Press, 260 pages, $27.50), Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner describe how false rumors about, say, black on white crime can be used to gain business of financial or political advantage. Sometimes at the cost of innocent life. Many a lynching followed inflammatory racist rumors.

Sometimes the mob was energized by language known by the rumormongers to overexcite even people who would not normally be violent. Fine and Turner note, too, that demeaning racial stereotyping in jokes can justify for some whites their beliefs that blacks are inferior morally and intellectually. Therefore they are responsible (and deserving) of their lack of economic and social success.

Such jokes allow racists to assert with "jocular humor" covert hostility. This suggests to the authors "that tolerance may only be a thin veneer" for many whites who no longer feel comfortable openly using "nigger" and other such insults.

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