Last Thursday, as part of the Uncomfortable Learning Initiative, Harvard Law Professor and author Randall Kennedy spoke about the use and history of the n-word. Professor Kennedy has done extensive research on the topic and published a book in 2002 called N—-: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. The full word is prominent on the book’s cover.
At the beginning of the lecture, Kennedy said he would try to keep his opening remarks brief because he wanted the evening to take the form of of “a real discussion” instead of a “monologue.”
Kennedy started with an explanation of his own interest in exploring the history of the n-word. To his surprise, when he searched for the word in the legal archives, he found “lots of thousands of federal cases with the word n—-.” He cited the word as “important in jurisprudence,” and referenced the O.J. Simpson murder trial, during which the officer who collected the evidence was called to the stand and asked if he ever had used the n-word.
When he denied using the word, the defense attorneys proceeded to play numerous tape recordings of the officer saying the n-word in order to portray him as a racist. Kennedy explained that in this sense the n-word continues to be deeply loaded and controversial even in the 21st century, despite the numerous advances in civil rights over the last several years.
Throughout the discussion, Kennedy explicitly used the n-word. Although he acknowledged that the word has historically been used “to put down and terrorize people,” he said it was “not the only way [the n-word] has been used.” Moreover, he claimed that any word can be “used in lots of different ways,” and that “no word has to mean any particular thing.” However, Kennedy acknowledged that the n-word “literally has blood dripping off it,” and that “the burden is on you” when one uses it.
Kennedy’s position prompted several questions from the audience. One student asked Kennedy if he thinks it is ever permissible for white people to use the n-word. In response, Kennedy said that it does not so much matter who uses the word, but instead how they use it.
He talked about two performers, black comedian Richard Pryor and white comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce, who he believes used the word with “great artistry” and social commentary. On the other hand, however, Kennedy also noted that “black people can use the word in a totally racist way,” which he believes to be unacceptable regardless of the race of the speaker.
Another student asked about the idea of speech codes at private institutions such as the College. Kennedy explained that he thinks it is acceptable for a private institution to set up its own rules and codes because no student is obligated to attend that specific private institution.
Kennedy, however, is still “extremely cautious of speech codes” at private universities, and strongly advocated for pluralism, especially in such an intellectual environment, in order to facilitate productive discussion.
At the end of the lecture, Kennedy discussed his book N—-: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, noting that of all the books he has published, this one is by far the most controversial. According to Kennedy, people have criticized him for his choice of title because of his public use of the n-word.
To this, Kennedy responded, “Guilty!” saying that every author wants the public to read his or her book and think about the relevant issues. Kennedy said he is “completely unapologetic” about the title.