Martin Kilson, a Harvard research professor of political science,
was the first African American to be granted full tenure at the college,
in 1968. He retired from Harvard's Department of Government three
years ago, and is now completing 22 years of work on the two-volume
study, "The Making of Black Intellectuals," to be published
his study, which is excerpted below, Dr. Kilson describes Harvard
Law School professor Randall Kennedy, author of "Nigger: The
Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," as a "Black-rejectionist."
In Dr. Kilson's view, Black-rejectionists represent "a style
of Black conservative discourse that views African-American ethnic
or cultural group patterns as the main obstacle to a colorblind society."
feature of Randall Kennedy's Black-rejectionist outlook is a cold
indifference to typical sensibilities of African-American citizens,
such as their deep dislike for public expression in American media
- newspaper, radio, television, magazines, and books - of the epithet
"nigger." This indifference on Randall Kennedy's part was
announced in an article in the New York Times (December 1,
2001) titled, "A Black Author Hurls That Word As A Challenge,"
which reported that Kennedy would publish in January 2002 a book titled
"Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" (New
York: Pantheon Books).
the Times article noted, the use of "Nigger" in the
book's title is a matter of major concern to African-Americans, given
the N-word's cruel and vicious epithet history. The decision by Kennedy,
concurred in by the director of Pantheon Books, Erroll McDonald -
who is also an African-American - sparked sharp reactions from a variety
of African-American intellectuals, among whom was Professor Houston
Baker of Duke University. Prof. Baker characterized Kennedy's use
of the N-word as a cynical, money-making, "crude marketing"
month after the Times column on Randall Kennedy's new book,
the Boston Globe's Living Arts
section carried a report on Kennedy's new book by correspondent Renee
Graham. In his interview with Ms. Graham, Kennedy crudely embraced
the money-grubbing cynicism underlying his decision to use "nigger"
as the first word in his book's title. This struck me as a morally
and intellectually astonishing admission by Kennedy. "I'm not
shamed," he told Ms. Graham. "[T]his is a catchy title that
will get people's attention, yes!" And indeed, the title did
catch "people's attention," for by Spring 2002, Kennedy's
"Nigger" had been on New York Times Book Review's
Best Seller List for several weeks.
title" hardly goes far enough to characterize Kennedy's rather
venal, money-grubbing choice for his book. From my perspective, his
choice at bottom amounts to a twisted and horrifying insult to Black
people's honor. And interestingly enough, the editor of Kennedy's
book at Pantheon Books, Erroll McDonald, articulated an indifference
to the sensibilities of African-American citizens in regard to the
N-word that was even more twisted than Kennedy's. For, as the Times
reported on December 1, 2001:
McDonald enjoyed the reactions of colleagues, almost all of them
white. He carried a piece of paper around the office with the word
"nigger" written on it, asking people to pronounce it.
Presenting the idea [for the book] at a planning session in January,
he asked about 45 editors and other executives to say it [nigger]
in unison. In both cases, some refused. "I think it is pretty
fun[ny]," Mr. McDonald said, imagining customers asking a bookstore
clerk, "Can I have one 'Nigger,' please?" He added, "I
am not afraid of the word 'nigger.'"
should also be noted, by the way, that Kennedy's core purpose in producing
"Nigger" was to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable
with using the epithet "nigger," once they understood from
his text how the epithet was used among African-Americans in their
interpersonal tete-a-tete. Here Kennedy has a theory - one quite idiotic
I believe - that the more freely Whites employ the epithet "nigger,"
the better they'll be able to purge Negrophobia from their souls.
This, I suggest, is as idiotic as the suggestion, say, that the more
today's citizens of Germany employ anti-Jewish epithets the more effectively
Germans will finally purge anti-Semitism from their souls.
is at minimum a most bizarre intellectual behavior that Kennedy, the
African-American legal scholar, felt compelled to probe the historical
patterns associated with the epithet "nigger" to help free
up White America's verbal usage of this vicious Black-people tormenting
word, a term that White Americans have for centuries
freely taken liberty with whenever they desired. At maximum, Randall
Kennedy's intellectual compulsion to assist White Americans' contemporary
usage of the epithet "nigger" reflects a deep-seated Black
self-negating or Black rejectionist behavior on Kennedy's part.
from where I sit, it is quite strange that in our post-Civil Rights
era, with its history of riveting struggle by ordinary African-Americans
to smash our country's White supremacist patterns and uproot its racist
heritage, there are leading figures among the Black professional class
- like Kennedy and McDonald - who can find a sense of special status
for themselves. In their own minds, they are immune-to-racist-insult
Black personalities, so to speak. Interestingly enough however, such
immune-to-racist-insult Black professionals cannot be underestimated
by African-American intellectuals who are politically to their left,
as I myself am. These particular conservative Black professionals
are highly resourceful in regard to mainstream American power structures.
One sphere of the American power structure that bookseller Erroll
McDonald is clearly masterful about is the media. In early 2002 Fox
Television Network produced a subplot episode in its situation drama
"Boston Public" that revolved around Kennedy's book, "Nigger"
- resulting, of course, in a major advertisement for the book.
N-word at Harvard
there have been other, less benign, spill-over events associated with
"Nigger," events that have occurred at Randall Kennedy's
front door - as it were - the Harvard Law School campus. As a direct
consequence of Kennedy's published work, hundreds of African-American
law students at Harvard University were viciously harassed in what
amounted to a crude, racist assault. The Boston Globe reported,
on April 20, 2002:
controversy began in early March when a first-year student posted
online class notes [at a Harvard Law School website] that included
an offensive phrase - "Nigs buy land with no nig covenant;
Q: Enforceable?" - in a summary of a 1948 Supreme Court case
about racially restrictive housing contracts
. The student,
reported by the Harvard Crimson to be Kiwi Camara of Hawaii,
later apologized and the notes were removed. But a black female
classmate who had complained [to Harvard Law School officialdom]
about the notes soon received an anonymous e-mail in which the author
[a White American] promised to use the word "nigger,"
and advised her to "work hard" if "you, as a race,
want to prove that you do not deserve to be called by that word."
That e-mail was traced to a different classmate, reported by the
[Harvard] Crimson to be Matthais Scholl, who also later apologized
A week later, two unrelated incidents further angered black students.
offended by such blatant anti-African-American racist posturing, leading
figures among the Harvard Black Law Students Association - Joshua
Bloodworth, Michelle Simpson, Nicola Lawson, Dimeka Nichols, Murad
Kalam - organized a protest rally during the second week in April.
As reported in the Boston Globe (April 20, 2002), the protest
class walk-out that drew several hundred students and professors.
Although Dean Robert Clark met with association members last weekend,
some students say Harvard has developed a reputation as an unfriendly
place for minorities and needs to work harder to make itself known
as a tolerant environment
. Today, about 11 percent of Harvard's
550 first-year law students are African-American, as are seven of
the school's 80 full-time, tenure-track faculty members, a spokesman
these Black-people-harassing-and-insulting events at Harvard Law School
during the Spring Term 2002 were set in motion by Randall Kennedy's
"Nigger," by the intellectually bizarre idea propagated
in this book that White Americans' and other non-Black Americans'
greater use of the epithet "nigger" will aid the cultural
health of America's cruel racist legacy. In regard to the sad Black-people-insulting
events at Harvard Law School during the Spring Term 2002, Randall
Kennedy's "nigger" theory was tantamount to tossing a match
at a gasoline-soaked building.
searched through a variety of news reports on the events at Harvard
Law School during the Spring Term 2002 to see if Randall Kennedy himself
surfaced to assist the officials of the Law School in managing the
crisis and calming the waters, but I could locate no such reports.
Randall Kennedy, it appears, has no sense of responsibility for the
vicious racial fires he has cynically ignited. Clearly, for Randall
Kennedy the protesting Black law students should surrender their Black
ethnic sensitivities - their fidelity to Black people's honor - and
join the Black self-negating ranks led by Kennedy and Erroll McDonald,
whose members are special, "immune-to-racist-insult" Black
Letter to the Times
the New York Times first reported on the forthcoming publication
of Randall Kennedy's book, I was moved to make public my own reactions
to this version of what I called Kennedy's Black rejectionism outlook
on African-American cultural group patterns. I wrote a letter to the
Times, dated December 4, 2001:
Professor Houston Baker of Duke University viewed my Harvard University
colleague Professor Randall Kennedy's new book title - "Nigger:
The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word" - as a money-making
"crude marketing" ploy (and no doubt it is this), I view
it additionally as something so much worse: a cynical and horrifying
insult to Black folk's honor. Equally horrifying is the Kennedy/McDonald
notion that the more White Americans mouth the N-word the greater
will be the purge of Negrophobia in their souls, as if by comparison
the more today's Germans mouth the K-word the greater will be the
eventual purging of Jewish-phobia in German society. If I may say
so, this is just idiotic!
as I read the effort of Randall Kennedy and Erroll McDonald to rationalize
the book's insults to Black people's honor, what also came to mind
was the long tradition of African-American leadership personalities
educated at Harvard who dedicated their careers to redeeming Black
people's honor from the vicious ravages of America's slavery and
racist heritage. I thought of activist scholars like W.E.B. DuBois,
Carter G. Woodson, Rayford Logan, Ralph J. Bunche, John Hope Franklin,
Adelaide Cromwell Hill; activist Harvard Law School trained lawyers
like William Hastie, Charles Houston, Benjamin Davis, Raymond Pace
Alexander, William T. Coleman, Walter Carrington, Charles Ogletree,
Christopher Edley, and Lani Guinier; and activist intellectuals
like Robert Moses, Randall Robinson, and Cornel West. Without these
African-American products of Harvard, the plight of Black people
today would still be marred by the worst oppressive features of
our country's racist heritage. What a pity my Harvard colleague
Randall Kennedy thinks his "crude marketing" of the N-word
amounts to a comparable contribution.
Frank G. Thomson Research Professor
letter was not published and, rather incredibly I thought, not a single
letter on this topic was published in the Letters section of the New