hope you have already read N-Word Part 1 in
which the N-Word author asks for an apology. When you have finished
reading Dr. Kilson's commentary, we invite you to read the N-Word
Part 3 in which
calls for the repudiation of the N-Word author.
our July 8th issue we published the following e-Mail message from
N-Word author, Randall Kennedy:
I have space in your publication to respond to the charges that have
been aimed at me and my work by you and Professor Kilson?
was the subject of a June 27 Guest Commentary
in these pages by Harvard's Dr. Martin Kilson and an additional comment
in the July 11 issue. Although
The Black Commentator was under no obligation to Kennedy - moral,
ethical, or otherwise - we responded:
you requested, we will make space available in The Black Commentator
for your response "to the charges that have been aimed at me
and my work by you and Professor Kilson." Please use as much
space as you feel necessary. We will publish every word, as written.
promised our readers a very interesting issue. Here is Part 2, Dr.
KIlson's response, because the N-word author asked for it!
Kennedy: Black Intellectual as a Tramp
Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator
Randall Kennedy at the Harvard Law School concludes his reply of my
critique in The Black Commentator of his book, "Nigger: The Strange
Career of a Troublesome Word" with the following sentences: "The
treatment I have been given by Professor Kilson and The Black Commentator
is mistreatment. It should give rise to apologies." Let me say
straightoff that there is not one word in my critique of Kennedy's
book that warrants an apology, nor one word in my characterization
of Kennedy as a new-wave conservative Black intellectual who specializes
in trashing Black people's honor for the entertainment of White folks
that warrants an apology. I stand firmly by my original critique.
Kennedy represents a new variant or wave of the cadre of Black conservative
intellectuals that initially surfaced in the late 1970s into the 1980s
- figures like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, Robert Woodson,
Anne Wortham, among others. The initial wave of Black conservative
intellectuals might be called "conservative technocrats,"
as they were "conservative true believers," convinced that
problem areas in the modern development of African Americans into
parity social and political standing in our racist American democracy
could be resolved by fervent application of classical capitalist processes.
And as a corollary proposition the Sowells, Steeles, and Lourys believed
that racism was merely an aberration on the face of an otherwise perfect
American Republic, not, as I and other progressive Black intellectuals
believe, a deep-rooted pathology at the core of the American Republic
that must be activistically challenged in order to uproot.
the other hand, as what I call a new-wave conservative Black intellectual,
Randall Kennedy, I suggest, is merely a huckster-type Black conservative,
very much like the thousands of huckster-type Irish-American and Jewish-American
conservatives who surfaced from the late 1960s onward. Huckster-type
conservatives in American society have a hawk's eye for conservative
discourse that sells, and maximizing the market value of their
conservative discourse is their core obsession. The Anglo-Protestant
(WASP) core power group in American society since, say, the 1930s
has had a keen talent for anointing White ethnic intellectuals (Irish,
Jewish, Italian, etc.) willing to perform this crucial capitalist-hegemonic
role for the Anglo-Protestant power class. In our post-Civil Rights
era the American power class has extended the anointing of intellectuals
willing to serve this power class's capitalist-hegemonic purposes
to conservative Black intellectuals. Enter Randall Kennedy as a huckster-type
Black conservative intellectual - a type I view as tramps.
apology requested of me by Randall Kennedy at the end of his reply
was not the first time he's done so, by the way. Following a sharp
critique of Kennedy's book that I wrote and that the Boston Globe
printed in January 2002, Kennedy sent me a letter in which he said
that my observation that his core argument in his book was that free
access to usage of the vicious
epithet "nigger" by Whites would help purge their souls
of Negro-phobia was an erroneous statement. He demanded I send him
an apology. I threw his letter into my wastebasket! But let me reiterate
here that I still maintain that it's a reasonable interpretation of
Randall Kennedy's core purpose in his book that some kind of soul-liberation
among White Americans will result from freer usage by them of that
vicious epithet "nigger."
in the remainder of this reply to Randall Kennedy, I don't want to
speak to all of his numerous defenses of himself, for most of them
are not worthy of serious intellectual rebuttal. I say this because
most of his defenses are couched in a self-serving "straw-man"
context, as it were. For example, in one "straw-man" context
Kennedy pretends that opponents of that vicious epithet "nigger"
like Martin Kilson seek to wipe-out part of the historical record,
a claim that is just nonsense. Here's how Kennedy puts it:
In my book I proceed to argue
that a serious effort to erase
nigger altogether would have bad consequences that would supercede
the good that might be achieved. First, erasing nigger entirely
would obscure from view significant parts of the history of racism.
People should know, for example, that until recently major politicians
openly and without embarrassment or apology referred contemptuously
to blacks as niggers on the floor of the United States Senate and
House of Representatives. Obliterating nigger from books, movies,
plays, and similar productions would entail losing access to such
I read this passage in Kennedy's reply, I wrote the word "nonsense"
in the columnalongside the passage. That is, there is no pedagogical
or sociology of knowledge reason why contemporary persistence of the
vicious epithet "nigger" is a condition for the effective
recalling or rewriting of the historical record of racist practices
and processes in the American past. Not only is this argument
by Kennedy "nonsense," it is also "idiotic," as
I also wrote in the column alongside the above passage in Kennedy's
another part of his reply, Kennedy denies my charge that his choice
of the epithet "nigger" as the first word in his book's
title was purely a cynical, "money-grubbing" decision. Well,
my charge was based on an interview Kennedy gave to Boston Globe "Living
Arts" columnist Renee Graham, January 8, 2002. Graham asked Kennedy
if cynical, money-making concerns influenced his choice of the book's
title. Kennedy's reply: "I'm not ashamed.... This is a catchy
title that will get people's attention, yes." And indeed the
title did catch "people's attention," for in Spring 2002
the New York Times Book Review's "Best Seller List" had
Kennedy's book listed for several weeks.
Kennedy's slick term, "catchy title" doesn't go far enough
to characterize his venal, money-grubbing title choice: Nigger. At
bottom, Kennedy's title choice amounted to a twisted and horrifying
insult to Black people's honor. To the honor of Black mothers, fathers,
grandfathers, grandmothers, great grandparents, sons, daughters, grandsons,
granddaughters, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. But as what I call
the "tramp-type" Black conservative intellectual, Randall
Kennedy can never recognize this, I'm afraid.
Randall Kennedy would have readers of The Black Commentator believe
that only mad-hat leftist Black intellectuals like Martin Kilson and
Glen Ford have produced critiques of his book. Well, this is wrong.
Perhaps the sharpest critique of Kennedy's book was an article by
the conservative Black literary and art critic Hilton Als. Titled
"More Harm Than Good: Surviving the N-Word And Its Meaning,"
the critique appeared in The New Yorker, February 11, 2002. Unlike
Professor Kennedy, Hilton Als' conservatism doesn't cause him to
have contempt for Black people's honor.
Als argues that, having run the risk of horribly insulting Black people's
honor by using the cruel epithet "nigger" as first word
in his book title, Randall Kennedy might at least have fashioned an
intellectually and analytically viable discourse on that epithet's
history. This, Als tells us, Kennedy failed to do. For one thing,
says Als, the initial questions used by Kennedy as conceptual rudders
for his discussion "are disingenuous." Those questions were
should nigger be defined...? Is it a part of the American cultural
inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate
such powerful reaction? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than
insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook? Am I
wrongfully offending the sensibilities of readers right now by spelling
out nigger instead of using a euphemism such as N-word?
for Hilton Als, the bid by Kennedy to use these queries as conceptual
rudders lacked candor and seriousness. As Als put it:
The questions are disingenuous. Instead of trying to answer them
- by writing about the moral and psychological repercussions that
the word has for blacks and for whites-Kennedy simply accumulates
data, data that never quite add up to an idea. His book is aimed
at a large readership... but it would attract little attention...
were it not for the nearly pornographic weight of the six lower-case
letters that are centered on the book jacket. The word appears
in his book not as it is used within the complex fabric of epithets
that blanket this country but as show-biz rhetoric, as a star turn
that demands our attention rather than our engagement. To use
'the N-word' would of course, have been infinitely less impressive,
less of an event. 'Nigger' is Muhammad Ali. 'N-word' is Pee-Wee
Herman. (Emphasis added.)
regard to Randall Kennedy's theory that as White Americans use the
epithet "nigger" more freely they will more readily purge
Negro-phobia from their souls, Hilton Als - as I do - begs to differ.
Kennedy puts forth this view in a discussion of the friendship back
in the 1920s to 1940s between the White literary impresario Carl Van
Vechten and the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Of the friendship,
Kennedy informs his readers that Van Vechten "wrote of 'niggers'
in correspondence with his friend Langston Hughes, and Hughes did
not object.... Should Hughes have objected? No, Van Vechten, a key
supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, had shown time and again that
he abhorred racial prejudice... and treasured his black friends."
for Hilton Als, Randall Kennedy's has a pathetically shallow understanding
of the Van Vechten/Hughes friendship back in the 1930s era - and by
extension of the Black/White friendship in general, I should add.
As Hilton Als put it:
ignores the complicated distribution of power between Van Vechten
and Hughes. Van Vechten, when he met Hughes, was already rich and
well connected. Hughes was obscure and ambitious. Imagine Hughes
jeopardizing everything by contradicting Van Vechten. 'Listen, Carlo,
I object to this and all racial epithets. You are using it simply
as a test to see how far you can go in our relationship, and as
a means of identifying with what you can never be.' The commissions
and the parties would have dried up faster than you can say Brer
to reinforce his critique of Kennedy's naivete regarding the place
of racial-power dynamics that surrounded the Van Vechten/Hughes friendship
in the White Supremacist Age, Hilton Als refers his readers to Langston
Hughes' own understanding of that friendship. "In 'The Big Sea'
[Hughes' autobiography] Hughes wrote - 'The word nigger, you see,
sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and
struggle in America.'" Hilton Als then continues this searching
[Hughes'] silence with Van Vechten was simply the price that every
black artist and intellectual pays: to climb out of obscurity, he
must endure the language of whites whose humor and cocktail party
chatter is still drawn from the well of Reconstruction.
never mind, Hilton Als suggests to his readers. In my words, Randall
Kennedy "is a tramp." Or in the words of Hilton Als: "Kennedy's
belief that it's possible to convert the [N] word from a negative
to a positive is not only naïve but dangerous."
(August 22, 2002)
now invite you to read N-Word Part 3 in which
calls for the repudiation of the N-Word author.
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