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Harvard law professor speaks on race and conversation

Randall KennedyHarvard University law professor Randall Kennedy, one of the premier scholars on race and ethnicity in America, gave his audience a historical tour of nomenclature related to Americans of African descent during his Kenan Lecture in Haggin Auditorium on February 16.

Kennedy’s talk revealed how a range of words and phrases have fallen in and out of favor in the history of African Americans. Black, Negro, African American, Afro American, Americans of African descent, colored, people of color, colored citizens, and oppressed Americans were all discussed and placed in historical and philosophical context.

For instance, Kennedy said that references to African heritage went out of favor with many blacks when the American Colonization Society was formed in 1816 to send free blacks back to Africa. “Negro” was used by prominent blacks such as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., then gave way to “black” in the 1960s from leaders such as Stokely Carmichael. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, said Kennedy, is given credit for bringing “African American” to prominence in 1988, which he characterized as the most influential recent development in the nomenclature.

In the end, Kennedy said he uses all of these terms in his writing and speaking. “People have all sorts of views on nomenclature related to race,” he said. “It is a subject in which intelligent, well-intentioned people will continue to have divergent points of view.”

During the question-and-answer session following his address, Kennedy responded to a query about a new edition of the 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, in which the word “nigger,” which appears 219 times in the book, has been replaced with the word “slave.” Creation of the edition (NewSouth Press) was overseen by Alan Gribben, an English professor and Twain scholar at Auburn University Montgomery, with the intention of making it more palatable to modern readers. Kennedy felt the editing was well intentioned but wrong-headed.

“We should not repress the inclusion of ‘nigger,’” Kennedy said. “Twain put a lot of thought into the words he used. That’s what he did—he was a writer. Don’t cover it up. Don’t deodorize it—let’s grapple with it. If we remove the word, we will not know what Twain was trying to get us to see.”

Kennedy authored the best-selling book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, which sparked a firestorm of national debate. He is also the author of Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal and Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption.

The lecture was part of Transylvania’s William R. Kenan Jr. Lecture Series and was funded by a grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust.

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