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January 22, 2002 — 3 PM

Le mot noir

At Salon.com Charles Taylor addresses the taboo of the forbidden word in a review of Harvard-scholar Randall Kennedy’s new book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.

The mere presence of the word ‘nigger’ in the title of the book reflects the common-sense approach Kennedy takes in tackling the subject. Taylor, for his part, touches on the, well, touchy politics surrounding the word and, by extension, the book. Among other examples, he questions people’s cries over the use of the word ‘niggardly,’ a term with no relation to nigger, yet use of which has caused the resignation of at least one (white) American political official who had “poor judgment.”

No other racial epithets have garnered the scorn or power of the dreaded N-word, to the end that it has superceded words even for other races. The radical French-Canadian nationalist Pierre Vallières once famously called his people the “white niggers of America,” a term that is only powerful as long as the loaded meaning of the original word is upheld.

But this loaded meaning — and it is a varied one, depending on who is speaking, and their tone of voice — is almost impossible to question or study because no discussion is permitted in society. As Taylor points out, Kennedy has a sort of implicit permission to tackle the subject, regardless of the merit of his work (and the indication is that the work is good), simply because Kennedy is black himself. Well, that may be a loaded comment in itself, but hurrah for Kennedy. Language is a fascinating tool, and it’s meaning and power should be studied, not locked in a vacuum-sealed vault.


Previously: Shudder

Subsequently: On Screen This Winter

January 2002
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