February 12, 2003: Reading Room

The “n” word
Randall Kennedy ’77 explores the history of “nigger”

Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy ’77 has tackled many tough questions about race and the law during his career, but no book he’s written has faced a tougher audience than his recent volume, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published last year by Pantheon. Kennedy argues that African Americans have a right to defang “nigger” by appropriating it for use as a positive appellation — something many hip-hop artists have done. And he suggests that whites — at least in certain cases —should be allowed to use the word as well.

A history major at Princeton and later a law clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kennedy discussed Nigger and his new book, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption (Pantheon), with PAW contributor Louis Jacobson ’92. For a longer version of this interview, go to www.princeton.edu/paw.


Why did you write Nigger?

I was in my office one day thinking about words like “discrimination” and “racism,” and all of a sudden this word popped into my mind. And I thought, my God, here’s a word that’s certainly familiar to me and familiar to lots of people. I thought, where did it come from? Who first used it? How did it become a slur?

The book sheds light on race relations, history, and the nature of language. They come together in a very vivid form through the prism of this troublesome word. The wide variety of usages and attitudes toward the word is part of what attracted me. What an interesting, remarkable, linguistic phenomenon this is, that people would be so self-conscious about it. There aren’t many words that prompt that sort of response.

Do you ever use the word yourself?

I have no problem using the word for purposes of pedagogy. In my courses, if I’m talking about the Jim Crow system, this word figures into it. However, do I use the word as a term of endearment or solidarity? No. People should have to bear the burden of explaining precisely why they’re using it.

What’s your new book about?

I try to show the extraordinary degree to which there has been interracial intimacy throughout American life. And I also try to show the extent that fear of interracial intimacy has been a factor in American law and American life.

Forty-two states have had antimiscegenation laws at one time or another. I talk about what happened when it was against the law for different races to intermarry or have sexual relations. Part of what I do is to try to relate information. But my more political, ideological point is that I’m against any state and communal impediments to interracial intimacy. Is this still an issue? Yes, in certain cases it is still an issue, especially adoption. Until recently, there was quite a strong, codified policy of racial matching in adoptions.

I attack that position tooth and nail. I think it has been very hurtful to children in need of parents, it’s been hurtful to people who want to raise children, and it’s been ideologically hurtful, because to embrace that position means suggesting that the racially homogeneous family is to be preferred.



The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone — Joseph S. Nye Jr. ’58 (Oxford). Nye argues that unilateral action is unwise at the start of the 21st century. America must balance its “hard power” with patient cooperation with other nations, and wield its influence through culture and values rather than bombs and embargoes. Nye is dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a former adviser to Presidents Clinton and Carter. For a story on Nye, go to www.princeton.edu/paw.

The Best American Political Writing 2002 — edited by Royce Flippin ’80 (Thunder’s Mouth). A collection of previously published essays by writers and scholars that address significant political issues, including the war on terrorism, global warming, and stem-cell research. Among the articles in this collection are Princeton professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s critical look at Alan Greenspan’s support of tax cuts and Henry Kissinger’s take on America’s foreign policy in the Persian Gulf. Flippin is a former senior editor of American Health magazine.

The Founding Fish — John McPhee ’53 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). McPhee shares his stories of shad fishing, weaving them together with the natural history of shad and the fish’s place in American history and economics. McPhee consults fish behaviorists, anatomists, and a master maker of shad darts — small fishing lures. In the appendix he provides tips on cooking the fish and recipes. McPhee is a professor of creative writing at Princeton and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World (1998). By Jeanne Alnot ’04

Return to Books Main Menu

Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary