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Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

77 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375713712
ISBN-10: 0375713719
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Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word + The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why + The Souls of Black Folk (Dover Thrift Editions)
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Nigger is Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's ornate, lively monograph on what he calls the "paradigmatic" racial slur in the English language. A neutral noun in the 17th century, nigger had, by 1830, become an "influential" insult. Kennedy traces the word's history in literature, song, film, politics, sports, everyday speech, and the courtroom. He also discusses its plastic, contradictory, and volatile place in contemporary American society. Should it be eradicated from dictionaries and the language? Should it be, somehow, regulated? What is the significance of its emergence among some blacks as a term with "undertones of warmth and good will"? Do blacks have a historical right to its use or does that place the term under a "protectionist pall"? With courage and grave measure Kennedy has, in effect, created a forum for discussion of the word he calls a "reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience." --H. O'Billovitch --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The word is paradigmatically ugly, racist and inflammatory. But is it different when Ice Cube uses it in a song than when, during the O.J. Simpson trial, Mark Fuhrman was accused of saying it? What about when Lenny Bruce uses it to "defang" it by sheer repetition? Or when Mark Twain uses it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to make an antiracist statement? Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and noted legal scholar, has produced an insightful and highly provocative book that raises vital questions about the relationship between language, politics, social norms and how society and culture confront racism. Drawing on a wide range of historical, legal and cultural instances Harry S. Truman calling Adam Clayton Powell "that damned nigger preacher"; Title VII court cases in which the use of the word was proof of condoning a "racially hostile work environment"; Quentin Tarantino's liberal use of the word in his films Kennedy repeatedly shows not only the complicated cultural history of the word, but how its meaning, intent and even substance change in context. Smart, well argued and never afraid of facing serious, difficult and painful questions in an unflinching and unsentimental manner, this is an important work of cultural and political criticism. As Kennedy notes in closing: "For bad or for good, nigger is... destined to remain with us for the foreseeable future a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience." (Jan. 22)Forecast: This may be the book that reignites larger debates over race eclipsed by September 11. Look for a bestselling run and huge talk show and magazine coverage as the Afghanistan news cycle continues to slow; the book had already been the subject of two New York Times stories by early January.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 14, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375713719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375713712
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #128,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Cheryl D. Fields on March 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As someone who has spent nearly a decade writing about race relations in the U.S., I couldn't read this book fast enough.
Kennedy offers a well-timed examination of a word that appears to be experiencing a revival of public usage. I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, but the book certainly provokes critical thought. I especially appreciated the section that lays out how the word has been considered by the U.S. courts.
This book should be mandatory reading for all Americans. It is a worthy addition to any to high school or college social studies syllabus, and a good choice for book clubs that welcome heated debate.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Kevin J. Lang on February 25, 2005
Format: Paperback
What I expected was some sort of "Angry black man' book. What was interesting is that he let the facts speak for themselves; keeping a lot of his personal views out of it. His writing style definitely revealed a bad taste in his mouth but he kept true to why he was writing this. I read this cover to cover (repeating a chapter or 4) with in a week. Normally I read 3 books at a time but this one demanded my attention. I read that a lot of people find this book inadequate. If they want to think so - fine. However, no single 208 page book is going to be able to nail this subject down perfectly. He had made his point profoundly and left a person wanting more; which is a sign of a good author.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By WR on October 9, 2011
Format: Paperback
If the question is scholarship and clarity, no fault can be found with Randall Kennedy's [N-word]: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. And if that is so, what makes Kennedy's book so ultimately unsatisfying? Perhaps it is the sense that Kennedy, who is eternally fair-minded (at times, perhaps, even to a fault), never quite seems to get his arms entirely around his topic. Indeed, if Kennedy is always rational in pronouncing his phlegmatic judgments on various famous and infamous uses of the "troublesome" word, the fact is that his reasons for considering one episode defensible and identifying another as certifiably hateful and racist are not entirely coherent. To say it another way, if the reader were to ask Kennedy to define when, by whom, and under what circumstances "[N-word]" can be deployed legitimately, it is doubtful that he could express a practical philosophy, even in the broadest of terms. Or to put the matter in still other words, Kennedy is just like many of the rest of us: appalled by the use of the word in contexts in which it is clearly intended to injure, more than occasionally troubled by its prevalence in everyday discourse, ambivalent about its modern-day dispersal as a (quite literal) shibboleth, and intellectually muddled over how to confront the word in its undeniable position as both linguistic fingerprint and American literary instrument. But if that is the case, what purpose does Kennedy's book actually serve?Read more ›
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Anthony J. Wilson on March 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I decided to buy this book after seeing it on 60 minutes and Boston Public. I must admit that I had to buy this book on Amazon because I am white and I didn't feel comfortable buying a book with such a racially charged word as the title. None the less I am glad I bought this book. I will admit that when it comes to African American history I am pretty ignorant and this book helped rid me of some of the ignorance. I am not a racist person but I really need to learn more about African American culture. I was brought up in an almost all white area and many people in my family have racist views. This book gave me a look in a society that I would not have normally seen... I really recommend this book to any one of any race in any country.
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35 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Verne Robinson on January 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I learned of this amazing work from an interview with the author on National Public Radio while driving home. Couldn't get to a computer fast enough and logon to ... to order it.
I had no idea why this word is so bad. Now I do. Oh, my God! The author brought back memories of the horrible things done to blacks. He made it clear why this word is said only to harm and hurt. His presentation was like cold water dumped on me - I forgot what it was like in the south when I was a kid.
People get fired from jobs for saying it, sued, and worse! I am grateful to the author for a much needed and overdue book on this topic. Those of us in media and law desperately need this!
Everyone should be made aware that the N-word is a HATE word. It is meant only to injure a human being.
Interestingly, Kennedy trapped me with pages of N-word jokes from a KKKomedy web site. He makes it easy to see how seductive it is to laugh at these jokes. That is sobering in itself. His writing is so clear, easy to follow, and illuminating - a Rhodes Scholar, indeed! Bravo Kennedy! A perfect little book about a huge problem. Well done.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Joey Bagadoughnutz on February 24, 2014
Format: Paperback
Etymology. Humans need more education and less emotion on what they THINK is important. Yeah right, like that's gonna happen.

Great book. It actually had some jokes in it that I hadn't heard before, and are hilarious.

I was ejected from a bar last night because of this very topic and publication. On the bar's sound system, they were playing music that used this subject every other word or so. I then brought up this book and topic, and about 15 minutes later, was asked to leave. Ah, the hypocrisy, I enjoyed it tremendously.
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