Advanced Search
Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy
Nigger:  The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
ISBN: 0375421726
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
Nigger: it is arguably the most consequential social insult in American history, though, at the same time, a word that reminds us of the ironies and dilemmas, tragedies and glories of the American experience. In this tour de force, distinguished Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy author of the highly acclaimed Race, Crime, and the Law put[s] a tracer on nigger, to identify how it has been used and by whom, while analyzing the controversies to which it has given rise.

With unprecedented candor and insight Kennedy explores such questions as: How should nigger be defined? Is it, as some have declared, necessarily more hurtful than other racial epithets? Do blacks have a right to use nigger even as others do not? Should the law view nigger baiting as a provocation strong enough to reduce the culpability of a person who responds violently to it? Should a person be fired from his or her job for saying nigger? How might the destructiveness of nigger be assuaged?

To be ignorant of the meanings and effects of nigger, says Kennedy, is to render oneself vulnerable to all manner of peril. This book brilliantly and sensitively addresses that concern. —from the publisher's website

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
Program Air Date: March 3, 2002

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Randall Kennedy, when I was growing up, my mother said never use this word. How am I going to get through this interview?
RANDALL KENNEDY, AUTHOR, "NIGGER: THE STRANGE CAREER OF A TROUBLESOME WORD": Well, I'm not sure how you're going to get through this interview. Maybe you can use the word and mentally put quotation marks around it.
LAMB: I'm sure I'm not the first person who's said that to you.
KENNEDY: Well, with this book, yes, there's a lot of wonderment about how to talk about this particular book.
LAMB: If I calculated all right, you're a St. Albans graduate?
LAMB: Is that both grade school and high school?
KENNEDY: I went to St. Albans 8th through 12th grades. And I might add that it's the best school I've ever been to.
LAMB: In Washington.
KENNEDY: In Washington.
LAMB: Same school that Al Gore went to.
KENNEDY: It's the same school that Al Gore went to, yes.
LAMB: You're a graduate of Princeton.
LAMB: You're an Oxford Rhodes scholar.
LAMB: You're a graduate of Yale Law School, clerk to Thurgood Marshall, and now teach at the Harvard Law School.
LAMB: What are you doing writing a book with this title?
KENNEDY: I'm writing a book with this title because "nigger" is a very powerful, provocative word that is -- provides a very interesting window on American culture.
LAMB: Why?
KENNEDY: Well, it's a word that -- first of all, it has an interesting history. It certainly takes us -- it's a fascinating word. I mean, it's a -- first and foremost, a slur that provides a window on some of the ugliest aspects of American history. But it's not simply a slur. It is a word that means many things. It's been used in an ugly way, as a weapon, but it's also a word that has been used as a term of endearment. It is a word that has been used as an anti-racist weapon. So it's an interesting word, and that's why I found it worthwhile to spend my time and energy writing a book about it.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea?
KENNEDY: I think the thing that provoked me to write the book was a couple of years ago, on an afternoon, I was just working at my desk, and in my -- I teach a class on race relations law. And in that class, I often build lectures around key words -- so "discrimination" or "racism." Anyway, I was thinking about key words in American race relations, and the word "nigger" popped into my head. And I was at my desk. I put "nigger" into the LexisNexis computer data base, and I put in the commands to bring up any case that included the word "nigger," any federal case or any state case.

And thousands of cases came up. The citation list was a couple of thousand. And then I got the list, the citation list, and I just started reading through the cases. And after doing that for a couple of days, I had the sense that I was really onto something, that I could actually group these cases together, see what the various controversies were and have an interesting narrative on my hands.
LAMB: You also plugged in other words.
KENNEDY: I did. I plugged in other words. And as I developed this -- once I got the idea of writing about "nigger," as I started developing lectures, I thought, "Well, I mean, this word is not the only racial slur. What about others?" And so I started popping in others to see...
LAMB: What other words?
KENNEDY: Well, "kike" was a word, "wop" was a word, "dago" was a word, "chink," "gook."
LAMB: But nothing came close.
KENNEDY: Nothing came close to "nigger" in the number of citations in court cases, or, for that matter, in magazine or newspaper articles.
LAMB: Well, it turns out that you have one of the few African-American editors that edited this book, I understand. What's his name?
KENNEDY: His name is Errol McDonald.
LAMB: And I say one of the few because that's the way the newspapers have described it. Why are there only a few, from your experience?
KENNEDY: I'm not sure, frankly. I'm not sure why there's so few African-Americans in what I would describe as elite publishing, the New York elite publishing world. He is one of the very few. He's edited other books that I've written, and he was very supportive of this venture.
LAMB: What was his reaction, though, when you first called him?
KENNEDY: Well, I actually -- I sent him the manuscript. I just sent him the manuscript, and I heard through my agent that he was very enthusiastic about the project, and that was that.
LAMB: Then the publicity started. I mean, you had a major piece in “The New York Times” on December the 1st, long before the book was even bound. What was your -- I mean, for instance, they started, "A black author hurls `that word' as a challenge." And one of the first people they quote in here is Julianne Malveaux, who is in your book, also quoted. She says, "I don't think its use is taking the sting out of it. I think it's escalating at this point. You're just giving a whole bunch of racists who love to use the word permission to use it even more. Like, `I'm really not using it,'" and she says, "`I'm just talking about a book.'"
KENNEDY: Well, she's got a point. I don't doubt that there will be people who will use this book in the way that she suggests, as an excuse, as a cover, as permission to use "nigger" in very hurtful ways. That's true. Or at least, that's what I think will happen. Hopefully, that consequence of this book will be superseded by another consequence. I think that a lot more people, a lot more readers will be enlightened by the book, will develop a sensitivity that they might not have had before. I think there will be readers who will be strengthened by the book.

So any time you write about something provocative, there's a danger. In fact, probably any time you write anything, there is a danger. Writing is a dangerous enterprise. But hopefully, the good will outdistance the bad.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many copies Pantheon's printing on the first printing?
KENNEDY: I don't. I'm sorry.
LAMB: Any range? Any -- normally, do you know what size books -- 20,000?
KENNEDY: My sense is probably about 20,000, yes. That's what I would think would be published.
LAMB: You talk about a person in the book by the name of, I believe, David Howard.
LAMB: From Washington, D.C. What's that story? And Julianne Malveaux is -- wasn't happy about that situation, either.
KENNEDY: That's right. That was a case -- one of the chapters in the book is about what I think to be pitfalls in fighting the word "nigger." And so I devote a chapter to episodes in which people were angry about what they perceived to be a racial insult.

So what happened in this -- the case that you mention, a white fellow, a white official in Washington, D.C., used the term "niggardly." And some colleagues heard him use the word "niggardly" and thought erroneously that "niggardly" was related to "nigger," was an offshoot of `nigger." So they said, "Well, what did you say?" And he said "Niggardly." They were insulted. There was a whispering campaign that was loosed against him.

And eventually, he -- this whispering campaign became such a big deal that he felt that he had to tender his resignation to the mayor of Washington, D.C., who accepted his resignation. This got out to the papers, and for a couple of weeks there was a big hue and cry about this episode. "Niggardly" has very different roots than "nigger," and so part of the hue and cry had to do with a sense that people simply weren't being careful enough or -- this was sort of a -- just an ignorant mistake that people were making. I think that part of the hue and cry had to do with a sense that people were being overly sensitive.

In any event, I describe the dynamics around this particular episode and suggest that this was a case where people were being just too quick on the trigger. There was too -- it was too quick -- to ready a willingness to be wounded, to be hurt.
LAMB: Julianne Malveaux, who is a black economist, columnist, says, "I have a bunch of dictionaries, and I understand that `niggardly' and `niggling' are not the same as the `N' word, but I am still annoyed, amazed, outdone by Howard" -- meaning David Howard. "He understands that perhaps there are other ways to indicate a tightness in budget, that one might say `parsimonious,' `frugal' or `miserly.' No matter how many times Teutonics attempts to trump Ebonics, the fact is that the `N' word, be it the `N' word or `niggardly,' rankle."
KENNEDY: Well, I mean, as a sociological matter, she's right, in the sense that there were a number of people -- of various hues, by the way, not just black people. I've talked with white people, too. There were white columnists, too, who suggested that he should have used a different word.

Maybe he should have used a different word, but the point was -- or at least, my position in the book was this man should not have lost his job over the use of a word, especially insofar as he explained what he was up to. I mean, he said, "Well, I certainly didn't intend to hurt anybody's feelings. The word `niggardly' is different than the word `nigger.'" Once that came out, people should have backed off, and maybe Mr. Howard the next time around would use the word "parsimonious" instead of "niggardly," knowing that there might be someone close by who might get the wrong impression of the word he was using.
LAMB: What eventually happened to him?
KENNEDY: Well, eventually, he got his job back. I don't know if he's still in the D.C. government, but there was a lot of controversy. I think the mayor felt embarrassed about having so quickly accepted his resignation. He was offered his position back. And I think he went back into the government. Again, he may have left it -- I'm not sure, ultimately, what happened. But he was offered his job back.
LAMB: Has the word ever been used, the word that describes this -- the title of your book -- ever been used at you?
LAMB: When was the first time you can remember?
KENNEDY: I don't remember the first time it was used. The fact of the matter is, this is a word that has been with me throughout my life. I probably heard it -- I'm from Columbia, South Carolina. The first time I heard the word "nigger" was probably in my house with relatives using the word "nigger." I've heard the word "nigger" used in many, many different ways. It has been directed at me in a loving way, in an ironic way, in a hurtful, hateful way. I've heard the word "nigger" used in -- across the spectrum of ways.
LAMB: What about in a hurtful way? When was that?
KENNEDY: Well, in a variety of instances. The first day that I went to Boston -- the first day that I went to Boston, I flew to Logan Airport, took a cab to the Harvard Law School. In the tunnel, the cab that I was driving in cut in front of another cab driver. These two cab drivers -- they were driving, but clearly, though their windows, there was some sort of altercation between them, verbal altercation. The guy in the back, a white cab driver, rolls down his window, sticks his head out the window and starts cursing not only the driver of my cab, who was black, but at me, as well. I turned around and looked him dead in the eye, and he was talking about "nigger" this and "nigger" that. That was an instance.

There have been many others. In Oxford -- you mentioned I was at Oxford. In Oxford, I remember on a Sunday, getting up really early, walking down High Street in Oxford. I was minding my own business. Car comes up beside me. Guy rolls down the window, says, "Nigger, go home." So I've had various experiences with the "N" word.
LAMB: You point out that the president of the United States can use a phrase that begins with an "A" and it ends with "hole"...
LAMB: ... about an individual but cannot -- if he used -- and get elected president. But if he used the "N" word, no way.
KENNEDY: That's right because the "N" word has been thoroughly stigmatized in American culture. A politician cannot -- no politician can be elected president of the United States if he is captured on tape using the word "nigger." I would set that forth as a -- just as an ironclad proposition. And I think it's a good thing. I think that if it's used well -- let me back up a moment. If he's using that term in a way that bespeaks either enmity or that bespeaks indifference or contempt, he cannot be elected president of the United States. And that's a good thing.
LAMB: Well, what about the reverse of that, though? Because you're talking about the instance or the incident during the campaign when George Bush and Dick Cheney was standing on a stage and referring to a "New York Times" reporter, Adam Clymer. And he called him the "A-H" word.
LAMB: How come that didn't hurt?
KENNEDY: Well, that's just a different word. And I think people -- it's a different word. It has different connotations. It's a word that doesn't have the history, doesn't have the baggage that the "N" word has. Again, "nigger" is a word that has a very violent history. There are many instances in the book where I talk about the violent episodes. I mean, it's a word that has violence. It has blood around it. It's a word that in many instances justly causes fear. It's a menacing word. And so it has connotations that are different than just your regular sort of curse words.
LAMB: Were you ever called this by any of your classmates at any of those places you went to school?
KENNEDY: I had a very interesting episode at St. Albans school.
LAMB: Explain what St. Albans is.
KENNEDY: St. Albans School is an all-boys school. It's a private school in the District of Columbia. It is an absolutely fabulous school, the best school not only that I've attended but the best school that I've ever seen. And I've been at some very fine institutions.
LAMB: Connected with the National Cathedral.
KENNEDY: It is on the grounds of the National Cathedral. It is the school that I attended from 8th grade to 12th grade. It's the school that really gave me my education. And it is the school that -- the education I got at St. Albans is an education that I go to time and time again. For instance, this book is called "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word." When I was a student at St. Albans School, I read "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" by C. Vann Woodward. And so the very subtitle of this book is yet another vestige of the education that I got at St. Albans.

At any event, I don't want to go on and on about St. Albans. It's just that it's such a fine school and has meant so much to me and continues to mean so much to me. At any event, when I was at St. Albans, I had a -- when I was in 12th grade, I was kidding around with a black classmate, actually, in the library.

And this black classmate -- and there were very few other black students. There were maybe five black students in my class of 70. In any event, this classmate -- at one point, we were just sort of joshing back and forth and he called me "nigger." And what was sort of interesting was that there were some white classmates around us, and I felt that I was a -- I was the president of the student body, and I felt that I could not allow this to go by the boards. And so I said, "If you call me that again, I'm going to give you demerits on the spot." And I think he was sort of taken aback by that, and he called -- and he said "nigger" again. I said, "Well, I'll see you here Saturday." I gave him demerits, and we spent Saturday morning together at St. Albans School.

That was an episode that I had actually forgotten about until I started writing this book.
LAMB: Did you ever hear the word at Princeton?
KENNEDY: Not that I can think of offhand.
LAMB: And what was your living environment there?
KENNEDY: I lived four years on the campus at Princeton, surrounded by all sorts of people, but...
LAMB: Live in a dorm?
KENNEDY: Oh, I lived in the dorms. Yes, I lived in the dorms for four years, and I can't think of an episode -- I can't think of a time when I heard somebody use the word "nigger," at least -- now, I should use the "nigger" as an insult.

Now, again, I've been throughout our conversation thus far, I've been -- we've been hearkening back to "nigger" as insult. And of course, that's a very large part of the history of the word. On the other hand, one of the things that makes "nigger" interesting is that it's not simply an insult. It is also used amongst black people as a term of endearment, as a -- it's sort of turned on its head. It's use ironically.

Now, I can't help but think that during my time at Princeton, I must have heard the word "nigger" used in it’s -- you know, as a term of endearment or its ironic use with other black students.
LAMB: What does it mean, and where does it come from?
KENNEDY: In terms of just in general?
LAMB: Yes.
KENNEDY: Well...
LAMB: I mean, what's the -- where does that actual word come from?
KENNEDY: The word is derived from N-I-G-E-R, which was Latin for "black." And how it actually became an insult is unclear. The Random House Dictionary of American Slang has a very nice treatment of "nigger," as does the Oxford English Dictionary. And both of those dictionaries take the word back to the 17th century. So I mean, it's got a long lineage.

But one of the interesting things about the word is initially, it was not used, apparently, as a slur. How it actually became a slur is unclear. We do know, though, that by the early 19th century, certainly by the 1830s, it was a very well known slur. By the 1830s, the word "nigger" was -- first of all, it was prevalent, and it was well known as a slur. How it actually got that way is not altogether clear.
LAMB: You do have a case, though, in the book from 1997 in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
LAMB: A story about the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
KENNEDY: Yes. One of the controversies surrounding "nigger" is the question of, well, how should it be defined? Webster's Dictionary had a definition in which -- had a definition in which the -- "nigger" -- and I think the...
LAMB: I've got it here.
KENNEDY: Well, read it. Read the...
LAMB: "A black person." This is taken to be offensive. Second definition, "a member of any dark-skinned race, taken to be offensive." And third, "a member of a socially disadvantaged class of persons." "It's time for somebody to lead all Americans" -- I didn't understand this -- "all the people who feel left out of the political process -- Ron Dellums." I guess that's an example.
LAMB: It says, "Uses as in senses 1 and 2 can be found in the works of such writers past as Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens. But it now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English." But this person -- and I'm not sure I pronounce this right -- is it Delphine?
KENNEDY: I'm not sure.
LAMB: ... Abraham from Ypsilanti, Michigan, contacted John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and was not happy about this. And what happened?
KENNEDY: She was not happy about it because she thought that the dictionary was not accentuating enough the derogatory aspect of the word because the first -- they said "Nigger -- a black person." And she thought, well, you know, this is -- this makes it seem as though the word's OK. This makes it seem as though the word is simply a synonym for a black person. Of course, that's not exactly -- that's not really what the dictionary said. The dictionary went out of its way -- to listen to what you just said, the dictionary went out of its way to say, "This is a derogatory...
LAMB: Offensive...
KENNEDY: ...word”. It's an offensive word. “It may be the most offensive word in the English language." She thought that that should have been first, that the offensiveness, the derogatory nature of the word -- there should have been a sort of a big underlining of that, and only after that was stated should they have said it's, you know, used against black people.

So in any event, she wanted the dictionary to change the way they had -- the dictionary described the word, defined the word. The dictionary did not change it, so she wrote to the -- she wrote to a number of magazines. She wrote to the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ultimately, she said that this dictionary should be the subject of a boycott. And the dictionary, actually -- the officials at the dictionary created a committee. They did ultimately change their definition to some extent in their next edition. And she wasn't -- and she and others were not completely happy with the -- sort of the new definition that was given.
LAMB: I wonder if there's a contrast here because you say that Kweisi Mfume, who heads up the NAACP, said "Start a boycott."
LAMB: Contrast that with Roy Wilkins, who was the head of the NAACP, and his attitude toward the "Amos and Andy" television and radio show years later.
KENNEDY: Well...
LAMB: It's not quite the same thing, but I mean, it was -- there was a whole different attitude about how to deal with it.
KENNEDY: Well, it's sort of interesting. I do -- I talk about "Amos and Andy." "Amos and Andy" was a show first on radio, then on television, that was a comedy show, and it was a comedy show that was about black characters. The black characters initially were actually two white men who were playing black characters. Later, when "Amos and Andy" went to television, the characters were actually black actors.

Well, "Amos and Andy" was a very controversial show. Some blacks thought that "Amos and Andy" was a show that put black people down, and there were some black people that wanted to boycott, and in fact, did boycott "Amos and Andy" and urged other people to boycott "Amos and Andy," write to the people who advertised on "Amos and Andy" and tell them about their dislike for "Amos and Andy."

Early on, interestingly enough, Roy Wilkins, who later became the head of the NAACP -- but in the 1930s and the 1940s, when he was a newspaper man, Roy Wilkins voiced displeasure with those who wanted to boycott "Amos and Andy." In fact, he said "Amos and Andy" is a perfectly OK show. In fact, black actors and black comedy writers should try to duplicate the success of "Amos and Andy." Later, when he became the president of the NAACP, he argued in favor of a boycott of "Amos and Andy," and in fact, was helpful in -- or he was instrumental in getting "Amos and Andy" yanked from its position on -- from its place on network television.
LAMB: It was quite a surprise to me, because I grew up watching them, that they were only on two years.
KENNEDY: They were only on for -- "Amos and Andy" was actually only on for two years, though -- on television, though for several years afterwards, it ran on reruns. And as a rerun show, it was very popular. So I think most people think of "Amos and Andy" as having had a life on TV that was significantly longer than two years.
LAMB: What's your own position on use of the "N" word?
KENNEDY: My own position is a complicated position.
LAMB: I mean, how -- as a person, not as a theory, but how do you use it in your own life?
KENNEDY: In my own life -- in my own life, there are -- do I ever use the "N" word? One of my favorite albums, comedy albums, is an album by Richard Pryor called "That Nigger's Crazy." I talk about that album in my book. I repeat -- I have repeated on many occasions jokes from "That Nigger's Crazy." I think that that album is a wonderful album that tells us a lot about black American culture, a lot about American race relations. It is a -- as far as I'm concerned, one of the treasures of American culture. And I think that it is part of our cultural inheritance. I use it. I have repeated jokes from it.

I like -- another instance would be Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." I have talked about -- I've repeated what Mark Twain had to say in "Huckleberry Finn." Mark Twain uses "nigger" on over 200 occasions in "Huckleberry Finn."

So do I -- have I repeated the word? Have I used the word? Yes, I've used it. I don't think -- I don't use it as a term of -- I don't use it as a word to wound people. I don't use it as a word of racial put-down. But do I think that the word "nigger" has a place in American culture? The answer would be yes.
LAMB: Chris Rock is another comedian that you talk about.
LAMB: Uses it a lot.
LAMB: Successful -- let me ask you about this, though. Sinbad -- I may be wrong about this. I've watched him on several occasions. Never swears, never uses this word and never tells a dirty joke and looks to me to be hugely popular.
KENNEDY: He is, and I like Sinbad, and that's fine. And that's great.
LAMB: But what would be more popular, say, in the black community only?
KENNEDY: It's tough to tell. Remember -- one of the points I make in the -- the black community, first of all, is many communities. It's not one big monolith with people thinking the same thing. The fact of the matter is, there are going to be lots of different views of my books, of my book, among black people.
LAMB: What's Bill Cosby going to say about it?
KENNEDY: Bill Cosby, whom I respect a great deal, is not going to like my book, or at least he's not going to like large portions of the book. I hope that he likes the book, but there are going to be certain positions that I take in the book that he's not going to like. For instance, Bill Cosby believes that black comedians should never use "nigger" in their jokes. He thinks that it's a very bad thing to use "nigger" in entertainment. And so he would like Sinbad's, you know, never using the word "nigger," and he would be profoundly critical of black comedians who do use the word "nigger," especially the younger ones that use the word "nigger" actually quite a lot.

And I defend the use of the word "nigger" in jokes not -- I mean, my position with the word "nigger" is "It all depends." It all depends on how somebody's using it because "nigger," like every other word, is a -- takes its -- its meaning from the circumstances. You know, you can insult somebody calling them "sir." I can insult you by calling you "sir." It all depends on how I use the word "sir." It all depends on the inflection of my voice. It all depends on the other words that surround my use of the word "sir."

So "nigger" -- it all depends on how you use it. It can be -- you can assault somebody with it, but you can also embrace somebody with it.
LAMB: Out front in this book, you had a dedication -- it's hard to read, but there are lots of names. "This book is dedicated to the board," and that's "Gary E. Bell, chairman for life."
LAMB: Who is Gary E. Bell?
KENNEDY: Gary E. Bell is my first cousin. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina. And he is the chairman of a group of people that we call "the board." They are mainly my cousins, although there are some others, as well. And this book is dedicated to that group of people -- these are my cousins. These are dear friends of ours, mainly located in South Carolina, which is where I come from. And these are people who have guided me throughout my life. Gary E. Bell is the self-appointed chairman for life, and his reign has not been challenged by the other members of the board.
LAMB: How old is he?
KENNEDY: Gary is probably a man in his early 50s.
LAMB: What's he do?
KENNEDY: Gary Bell is a certified public accountant. He has been a public servant in the state of South Carolina. He's taught in the state of South Carolina.
LAMB: How's he related to you?
KENNEDY: He's my first cousin.
LAMB: Which way, though?
KENNEDY: I'm sorry. He is -- his mom is my mother's sister.
LAMB: There's also a Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., on this list.
KENNEDY: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., is my older brother. Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., is a United States District Judge here in the District of Columbia. He was a judge on the D.C. Superior Court. In fact, I think he was the youngest judge ever on the D.C. Superior Court. He was appointed to that court when he was only 31 years old.
LAMB: Who appointed him?
KENNEDY: He was appointed to that court by Jimmy Carter, I believe. He was appointed to the United States District Court by Bill Clinton. Before that, he was a United States -- an assistant United States attorney.
LAMB: And who is Angela S. Kennedy Acree?
KENNEDY: Angela S. Kennedy Acree is my younger sister. She, too, is an attorney. She works for the public defender service in Washington, D.C. So there -- my younger sister, my older brother and myself we’re all lawyers. We all went to Princeton, by the way.
LAMB: So how did all this happen? I mean, go back to Mom and Dad.
KENNEDY: My mother is -- was -- is a retired school teacher.
LAMB: What...
KENNEDY: She taught at Chevy Chase elementary school for over a quarter of a century. In the D.C. area, I'm always running into people who were taught by my mother at Chevy Chase elementary school. My father is a retired postal clerk. He was a mail carrier, a mail handler for over a quarter of a century. He's from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My mother is from Columbia, South Carolina. They are very hard-driving, religious, socially conservative folk, Southern folk, who had a -- a real deep-seated belief and yearning for and faith in education. And they are people who were and are great parents.
LAMB: What did they do, though? I mean, here you're -- there are three kids in the family?
KENNEDY: Three kids in the family.
LAMB: All with law degrees?
LAMB: All graduates of Princeton.
LAMB: You've -- Rhodes Scholar, all that. How did that all happen?
KENNEDY: Well, they created a very loving family. They created an intensely loving family. They created a family that told the kids that they were dearly loved, no matter what. They also told the family, the kids, to be ambitious and to go out into the world and do what you want to do. They were not people who stood over us every minute. They did have one rule, which I think is a great rule. They did have a rule that said to the kids, especially once we turned 11 or 12. "You have to be interested in something. You have to have a particular passion. Frankly, we don't care what that passion is, but you have to have a passion."

So for my older brother -- actually, for all three kids, tennis became a passion. And their idea was that they -- they didn't want to stand over us every minute of the day. They wanted us to do something where we would, in a sense, discipline ourselves. And so all three kids played tennis. My younger sister was very interested in music. My older brother, before he became a tennis player, was a swimmer. But we all had to something to sort of wrap our lives up into a discipline. And for me, it was tennis for a long time and then school took over.
LAMB: And how -- I mean, let's go back over the pedigree.
LAMB: St. Albans, Princeton, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School, now teaching at Harvard. Takes more than love to get through all that. What did you do?
KENNEDY: Well, my parents made sure that -- one thing I should add. My parents never made a lot of money. And one of the most -- when I look back, one of the most extraordinary things about all this -- they sent us to very elite schools. They were expensive schools. But through their saving money -- they were very frugal people...
LAMB: Did they pay for all that?
KENNEDY: No, they didn't pay for all. They always paid. I mean, these schools -- there was never a free ride. They paid to the extent that they could pay. And they all -- we were scholarship kids, to a large degree.
LAMB: When did you know that you had this talent to learn and to do well in school?
KENNEDY: Well, for a good long time, I had trouble in school. When I went to St. Albans, it was not all peaches and cream. I was -- especially in math at St. Albans, I needed help and they gave me help. I had some difficulties there, but I got over those difficulties. There -- if there was -- my parents were always on the lookout for putting us around good people. They always made sure that we were around good people. So my church was a place that there were excellent people.

I remember my ministers were very important to me. There was one in particular, Reverend Frank Williams, who was very important to me. He's a great -- great minister, gave great sermons. And that meant something to me. Those sermons went deep into me. At St. Albans, there were a number of just great teachers. Foremost among them for me was a gentleman by the name of John F. McCune. He was a history teacher. He introduced me to history. And the lessons I learned through John F. McCune have stayed with me.

The historians he introduced me to -- C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter, James McPherson at Princeton, my thesis adviser. These were people that wrote books that made a difference for me.

I remember the history book that I read as a 10th-grader at St. Albans. That history book -- it was RR Palmer and Joel Colton. “A History of the Western World” is a book that I still own and that stayed with me. And I think that my teachers and my parents had -- gave me books. I was always around books. They gave me a sense of possibility, and they sort of encouraged me. They gave me a lot of encouragement.
LAMB: Hanging in your office is a -- I understand, a photograph of Louis Armstrong?
LAMB: Why?
KENNEDY: Louis Armstrong is one of my heroes.
LAMB: Why?
KENNEDY: I mean, here's a person who, you know, was sort of born in the grip of deprivation, who became one of the greats of American culture. And his virtuosity was an -- is an inspiration to me. And also his attitude. Here's a man who could have been bitter. There was a lot for him to be bitter about. Was not bitter, smile on his face, optimistic, was -- had a sort of a can-do attitude and was open to new experiences, open to the world, was never intimidated. Royalty didn't intimidate him. Presidents didn't intimidate him. He was a person who felt very comfortable in his own skin. Those are among the reasons that Louis Armstrong is one of my heroes.
LAMB: Now, what would Thurgood Marshall, a man you clerked for at the Supreme Court, think of this book?
KENNEDY: Thurgood Marshall would really like this book.
LAMB: Why?
KENNEDY: Thurgood Marshall would like the book because Thurgood Marshall was a person who I think was very open to the wide range that is the story of African-Americans in American life. He knew that the story of African-Americans is a varied story. It's a story that's full of paradox. It's a story that's full of irony. Thurgood Marshall, by the way, I may add, is a person who loved jokes, told lots of jokes. And a very appreciable number of those jokes figured in a very -- in an appreciable number of those jokes, the word "nigger" figured very prominently.
LAMB: Subtitle of your book today, the one that people can buy, is "The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word." Originally, the subtitle planned for this book was to be "A Problem in American Culture."
LAMB: And if you look at this book up close, and you can see what would happen if you put right under the word "A Problem in the American Culture" -- why did you change it and whose idea was it to change?
KENNEDY: Well, I think that the fear was that if you just had "Nigger: A Problem in American Culture," it might sound like a document put out by the, you know, Ku Klux Klan. I think there was a -- it was a feeling that that might be misunderstood. And so my -- it was sort of a joint decision made by myself, my editor, Errol McDonald, and his colleagues at Pantheon Books. Near the end -- we always knew "Nigger" was going to be the title. That -- there was no two ways about that.
LAMB: It's not the first time it's happened, either.
KENNEDY: No, it's not the first time it's happened. I think people have forgotten, but there's been any number or books where "nigger” has figured into the title. In fact, I did a search of the Harvard library for titles where "nigger" appears, and there are hundreds, if you, you know, include short stories, poems, plays. So it's -- this is not the first.

But to go back to your -- to the point -- we didn't know what the subtitle would be until very late in the production of the book, and finally, we thought, Errol and I, that this particular subtitle would probably be the best.
LAMB: Who decided that the cover would be black?
KENNEDY: The people at Pantheon Books. I didn't -- they sent me the cover and asked me what did I think of it.
LAMB: Actually, it's subtle. You can even see it on the screen there. It's actually brown in here and then black around the edges.
KENNEDY: They sent that cover to me and said, "What do you think?" And I said, "It looks like a very catchy cover that I think alerts consumers to what this book is about."
LAMB: Tell the story about the coach.
KENNEDY: The story about the coach is one of the most interesting stories in the book. There was a coach at Central Michigan University, Coach Dambrot, who was coaching a basketball team. The basketball team was mainly black. There were some -- white guys on the team, but it was a mainly black team. And at halftime, they were losing a game. So they come into the locker room at halftime, and Coach Dambrot really wants to put a fire under these guys. And so he says to the guys, "Listen, you all use a term in your practices, the `N' word. And I really want to talk with you all. Can I use the `N' word?" And they nod and say, "Yes."

And so he says, "Listen, we're losing out there. You're not playing with enough intensity. You're not playing with enough heart. You guys need to play like niggers out there."

Now, the way in -- the reason why he said that was because he noticed that the players would use the word "nigger." And when they used the word "nigger," they meant -- when you were playing a like a "nigger," that meant that you were playing with intensity. You were playing with heart. And so he was saying to them, "I want you to play with that" -- you know, "I want you to play with intensity."

And so then he goes around, and he says -- he points to people. And in fact, he points to one of the white players, and he says, you know, to whatever the white player's name was, "So-and-So here is playing like a nigger." Then he points to one of the black players, and he says, "So-and-So here's playing like a nigger." And then he points to the others, and he said, "But you guys aren't."

They go out and they play the second half. By the way, they lose. They lose the game, go back to the campus. And there was a player who had actually been cut from the team, a black player who had been cut from the team, who learns about this episode in the locker room. This player writes a letter to the school authorities complaining about the coach's use of "nigger" at halftime. The athletic director pulls the coach aside and says, "Listen, don't ever use that word again. I mean, if you use that word again, you'll be fired."

And so the coach, Coach Dambrot, says, "OK. Fine. I won't use the word again." He thinks that that's the end of the story, but it's not. There's publicity about the fact that this guy, this coach, used the word "nigger." There are demonstrations. The demonstrations lead to more publicity. There are lawmakers in Michigan who talk about maybe yanking funding from the university unless something happens to this coach.

Initially, the coach was told that -- or was told that he would have to take an unpaid leave or, you know, take some sort of -- there would be some sort of fine, initially. He was also told that he would have to have a sort of a counseling session with the team. And he acquiesces to all of that. But then ultimately, that's not enough. Ultimately, he's drummed out of his job. Ultimately, he's fired.

When he's fired, he sues the school, asserting his 1st Amendment rights. And interestingly enough, the team sues the school. He was fired on the grounds that his use of "nigger" had violated the school's speech code. The irony is that the team wins their suit. The team attacks the speech code, and a United States district judge agrees with the team, says that the speech code is in violation of the United States Constitution, so the speech code is invalidated.

However, for legal reasons that we needn't get into here, Coach Dambrot loses his suit. And so he is thrown out of his job.

That is the long and short of that story. What interested me about the story is not so much the legal wrangling but, really, the politics of the story because I was interested in the -- sort of this irony. Here are the black players -- the black players, I might add, rallied around Coach Dambrot, and in fact, when he left, when he was thrown out of his job, a number of the black players left the school. A number of black coaches rallied around Dambrot. In fact, one coach wrote an affidavit saying that, indeed, Dambrot was right, that he had black players that use "nigger" in precisely the same way, that he had used "nigger" in this way in talking with the students.

So you had this scenario where there were some whites and blacks who wanted to get rid of Coach Dambrot. There were some whites and blacks who rallied around Coach Dambrot. But you had this tremendous controversy.
LAMB: You also told the story early about the 1944 incident at the National Cathedral.
LAMB: And what's the point?
KENNEDY: Now, that was a harrowing story of a murder. That was a case in which a white woman called a black janitor a "nigger." The janitor ended up -- it's unclear because we only have the janitor's story, ultimately. But according to the janitor, he initially hit the woman, sort of -- just sort of reflexively. And he ended up killing her. He ended up strangling her to death and -- because of her use of this word, "nigger." And that's what triggered it.

He was represented by a great attorney. He was represented by -- the killer was represented by Charles Hamilton Houston, a great attorney, one of the great attorneys in American history. He -- Charles Hamilton Houston was Thurgood Marshall's teacher and was at one point the leader of the -- of litigation at the NAACP, one of the great attorneys in American history.

In any event, Houston made the argument that this word had such -- was so provocative that it essentially made his client sort of just -- it drove his client insane, essentially, for a few minutes. It provoked him. What Houston tried to do was to use a sort of a variant of the doctrine of provocation to try to diminish the culpability of his client. He was not trying to get his client off entirely. He was simply trying to save his client from execution because at that time, anybody who was convicted of first-degree murder in the District of Columbia was automatically executed.

And this case, by the way, led to a Supreme Court decision. And the Supreme Court ultimately held against Houston's client and the man was ultimately executed. But Houston argued that this particular word with this particular client, given his upbringing, given all the baggage of "nigger" in the black community, was sufficient to trigger the -- a doctrine that should diminish the culpability of his client.

One of the reasons why I was attracted -- or prompted to write this book was that particular case. And by the way, I came across a number of other cases -- there was a case decided in the District of Columbia just a few years ago. A fellow got in an altercation -- two black men got in an altercation. One of the black men called another of the black men "nigger." The guy who was the target of the slur shot the other fellow and tried to get the -- his culpability reduced using the idea of -- using the doctrine of provocation. The court of appeals of the District of Columbia said, "No. In the District of Columbia, we still go by the `just words' doctrine, which holds that mere words" -- mere words -- it's the "mere words" doctrine. Mere words are not enough to diminish someone's culpability for a violent assault.

So again, that's -- this last controversy, the controversy with the janitor at the National Cathedral -- these are just one of hundreds of controversies trigged by the use of the word "nigger." And of course, people shouldn't forget about the O.J. Simpson case, probably the most famous criminal trial in American history. The word "nigger" figured prominently in that case. And there are hundreds of cases like it.
LAMB: We're out of time. If you want more, you're going to have to read this book. This is the cover. Our guest has been Randall Kennedy.

Thank you very much.
KENNEDY: Thank you very much.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2002. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.