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2. Obscenity and offensive language

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Photo credit: Wikipedia)“Nigger”


Randall Kennedy 

In 1984 Rhodes Scholar Randall Kennedy joined the faculty at Harvard Law School, teaching courses on race relations law and freedom of expression. In 2002 controversy broke out when Kennedy published Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. In the book, Kennedy explores the history of the controversial word – considered by some to be the most offensive word in the English language. He argues that paradoxically, among many black people it has become a term of affection and even empowerment.

The book raises issues about the implications of a word. “Should blacks be able to use “nigger” in ways forbidden to others? Should the law treat it as a provocation that reduces the culpability of those who respond to it violently? Should it cost a person his job, or a book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn its place on library shelves?”

It is clear that some critics regarded Kennedy’s work as “bringing about a consequence” rather than “expressing an attitude”:

“In regard to the sad Black-people-insulting events at Harvard Law School during the Spring Term 2002, Randall Kennedy’s “nigger” theory was tantamount to tossing a match at a gasoline-soaked building. (…) Randall Kennedy, it appears, has no sense of responsibility for the vicious racial fires he has cynically ignited.” (Martin Kilson, Frank G. Thomson Research Professor, Harvard University)

Despite the controversy, Kennedy has not been subjected to the equivalent of an Islamic jihad.

When asked by Kate Tuttle of Africana how he felt about the controversy over Nigger, Kennedy replied: “What’s the worst that happens? That someone writes a very long diatribe in The New Yorker excoriating me…. I’m not facing firing squads, I’m not facing exile, I’m not facing jail.” (as quoted in Wikipedia).

The question is, what to do about the word. Last year, a sanitised version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, replacing all instances of the word “nigger” with “slave.” Not surprisingly, Kennedy believes that eliminating the word will not eliminate the history of racism from the US.

Illustration of Jim and Huckleberry Finn, by E...Can the power of a word be changed? Kennedy says keeping “nigger” taboo only reaffirms its power to harm. He writes: “In stressing the ‘terror’ of verbal abuse, proponents of hate-speech regulation have, ironically, empowered abusers while simultaneously weakening black students by counseling that they should feel grievously wounded by remarks that their predecessors would have ignored or shaken off.”

The First Amendment of the US Constitution only requires that government “shall make no law” restricting freedom of speech. However, in the wake of the Nigger controversy, a student sent a racist email. A private organization, Harvard University Law School, then proposed to introduce a speech code banning certain words (guess which one would be top of the list).

For a long, in-depth and fascinating interview with Kennedy, go to Booknotes interview with Kennedy on Nigger, March 3, 2002.

“Hard words”

Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce was an American stand-up comedian of the 1950s and 1960s, with a brilliant mind and an obsession about defending his right to free speech. His stand-up routines were an unrelenting mockery of bigotry, religious cant and narrow-minded sexual morality. Lenny Bruce broke taboos. His punishment was to be convicted of obscenity, to be denied entry into Australia and the UK, and to go bankrupt, defending himself against the obscenity charges. This all culminated in mental disintegration and death by morphine overdose.

What Lenny Bruce stood for was: “His undying belief in the first amendment and standing up and speaking about racism and bigotry all the social viruses that existed and still do.” (Kitty Bruce, daughter).

For information about his life, pictures of him and details of recordings, go to: http://www.last.fm/music/Lenny+Bruce/+wiki


Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October 4th, 1961, he was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. The offence was the use of the word “cocksucker” in a public place.

Various other charges followed:

(Summarised from: http://www.lennybruceofficial.com/the-life-of-lenny-bruce/chronology-the-60s/

  • In March 1962, his first obscenity trial in San Francisco was held. He was charged with violating Section 311.6 of the Penal code of the State of California, which provides: “Every person who knowingly sings or speaks any obscene song, ballad, or any other words in a public place is guilty of a misdemeanor.” He was acquitted.
  • In September 1962, Lenny Bruce was officially banned from Australia.
  • In December 1962, Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity at The Gate of Horn in Chicago. He was released on bail and returned to work at the club.

Variety wrote: “The prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce’s indictments of organized religion as he is with them more obvious sexual content of the comic’s act.”

  • Under conditions of bail in Los Angeles, Lenny was unable to attend court in Chicago and was found guilty of obscenity “in absentia”.
  • In April 1963, he was barred from entering England by the Home Office as an “undesirable alien”.
  • In April 1964, he was arrested for obscenity twice in one week at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, New York City, and convicted.

Later on in June 1964 at his appeal, the verdict of guilty of obscenity charges was unanimously upheld by the Illinois State Supreme Court.

Mugshot taken of Lenny Bruce, taken following ...

Mugshot taken of Lenny Bruce, taken following his arrest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In July 1964 the Illinois State Supreme Court dropped the affirmation of guilt before it’ was referred to the United States Supreme Court, who had just declared that the film The Lovers was not obscene because it was “of social importance.” (Note: this test is referred to by Tom Lehrer in “Smut”)).

Lenny Bruce died on August 3rd, 1966.


Poster for Lenny Bruce's last series performan...

Poster for Lenny Bruce’s last series performances, which took place at The Fillmore in San Francisco on June 24 and 25, 1966. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


For a punchy, entertainingly written article by Gary Kamiya, paying tribute to Lenny Bruce and giving a detailed account of his legal cases, the background to US obscenity law and its current state, see: “http://www.salon.com/2003/08/26/lennybruce/singleton/”

It may be just a joke, but it is said that one of the judges quoted used to judge whether material before him was obscene according to whether it gave him an erection. It is also said that his judgments became more liberal as he grew older.

On December 23, 2003, 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki, following a petition filed by Ronald Collins and David Skover with Robert Corn-Revere as counsel, the petition having been signed by several stars such as Robin Williams. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state’s history. Pataki said his act was ”a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment.”

“Niggers, kikes and spics.”

Lenny Bruce’s confronting use of language can be seen especially in his routines about racial epithets.

For a video of one of his most famous routines (“Is there a nigger in the house?”) see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOnkv76rNL4 . Despite its electrifying effect on the audience, this use of language did not attract prosecution.

D.H. Lawrence

Novels, now considered classics, which were originally banned include D. H. Lawrence’s erotic novel, The Rainbow (1915) banned in Britain under the Obscene Publications Bill of 1857. Other important censorship trials in the United States and England involved Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928).

This sounds strange to me – I studied Sons and Lovers and Women in Love at high school in the mid-1960s. However, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is still the archetypal banned dirty book.

“Obscenity” is still alive

Dirty is in the mind of the beholder

This year, in 2012, a children’s picture book was banned from elementary school libraries in Pennsylvania, USA.

What is it with Pennsylvania? First they declare it to be the Year of the Bible, then the atheist billboard put up in protest has to be taken down, then there was the matter of the judges jailed because they had a financial interest in a private juvenile detention facility, and and had a nice little earner sending kids down…

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