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The N-word’s rich history

It’s called the “n-word.” Bigots have used it for centuries as a tool of racial harassment. Its use in the mass media, including this and many other newspapers, is all but forbidden.

But, in what most consider vulgarity, Randall Kennedy found opportunity. Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, visited USF on Thursday night to discuss the result of his research and subsequent book Nigger — The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published last year.

Kennedy, invited through a collaboration of the Black Emphasis Month committee and the University Lecture Series, said he gave his book the controversial title to let readers know what it is about and also as an attention-grabber. He told approximately 80 guests in the Marshall Center Ballroom that the idea of studying the word “nigger” occurred to him one day in his office. His intention was to explore the history and usage of the word throughout time.

On consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, Kennedy said he found three pages of entries for “nigger,” which is thought to be derived from the Latin word for black. The word was first used merely as a descriptive, Kennedy said, but became a full-fledged racial insult by the 1800s.

Pointing out that many other derogatory words are derived from it, Kennedy referred to “nigger” as the “gold standard” of racial slurs.

“One of the things that I try to bring across to audiences is how powerful a racial insult this has been, how destructive a racial insult this has been, how cruel a racial insult this has been,” Kennedy said.

He said “nigger” is a signature word in American racism and gave examples of famous persons who had encounters with the slur. For instance, acclaimed 1920s black actor Paul Robeson, prior to his film career, enrolled at Columbia Law School and asked a secretary to take dictation for him one day. The secretary replied, “I don’t take dictation from niggers,” and stormed out. Robeson decided on a career change.

Almost every black celebrity, Kennedy noted, has had some experience with the word, but Kennedy said not all its usages are inherently bad.

“Can ‘nigger’ be put to other uses? Answer: yes,” he said.

Kennedy told of Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory, who titled the first chapter of his memoirs “Nigger” because he wanted people to come face-to-face with racism. Also, Richard Pryor’s spoken-word album “That Nigger’s Crazy” is a great piece of satire, Kennedy said. Kennedy also said “nigger” was used 210 times in Huckleberry Finn, which he does not consider a racist book.

“Nigger” is used as a term of endearment and a gesture of solidarity, especially between blacks and sometimes Asians, Kennedy pointed out.

“So, this is a word that can be put to many uses, and that’s not unusual,” he said. “It’s not idiosyncratic. The fact of the matter is … that in this sense, ‘nigger’ is like all other words. That is to say, any word can be put to many uses. Any word takes on its meaning from the surrounding context.”

However, Kennedy was careful to explain that he does not encourage anyone to use “nigger” in conversation.

“I don’t want anybody to leave here thinking that I’m urging people to use this word. I’m glad the word has been stigmatized,” Kennedy said. “But, I do think we ought to be careful and recognize that this word, for good and for bad, is part of American culture. And, to that extent, I don’t want to eradicate this word.”

USF student Jasmine Jones said she doesn’t believe whites should use the word in any context, but said she is slightly more tolerant of blacks’ use of it.

“I don’t think white people should use it at all, even in a non-offensive way, just because of the specific history between the word, between white people and black people,” Jones said. “It’s a term that they used before they lynched us, and before they broke out fire hoses and started spraying us when we were marching.”

Another attendee, Shane Moreman, said he has no easy answer to whether the word should be used.

“As a non-black, I look for cues of approval,” Moreman said. ” I don’t know if I’ve ever used that word, but I’ve been in conversations where my black friends have used the word. So I don’t have an easy answer, either. I wish there were one, though.”