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Professor Attacks Colleague’s Controversial Book Title

By Alexander J. Blenkinsopp, Crimson Staff Writer

The first black professor to receive full tenure at Harvard blasted Harvard Professor of Law Randall L. Kennedy in writing last week, blaming the professor’s recent book for inciting occurrences of racial tension at Harvard Law School (HLS) this past spring.

Thomson Research Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson, whose two-volume work The Making of Black Intellectuals is scheduled for publication next year, wrote a piece that appeared in the June 27 edition of the online periodical The Black Commentator.

In his piece, Kilson placed blame for the recent events at HLS—which included a web post that used “nig” and an e-mail that defended the use of the word “nigger”—upon Kennedy and his controversial book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, which was published earlier this year.

“Clearly, these Black-people-harassing-and-insulting events at Harvard Law School during the Spring Term 2002 were set in motion by Randall Kennedy’s ‘Nigger,’” Kilson wrote. “Kennedy crudely embraced the money-grubbing cynicism underlying his decision to use ‘nigger’ as the first word in his book’s title.”

The book has come under fire from some for its title, which some critics claim was a marketing ploy. It has received national attention and was featured as the subject of a classroom discussion on an episode of the Fox television drama “Boston Public.”

Kilson classified Kennedy as a “Black-rejectionist” and described his stances on the use of the word “nigger” as “idiotic.”

“Kennedy’s core purpose in producing ‘Nigger’ was to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet ‘nigger,’” Kilson wrote.

In an interview with The Crimson, Kennedy responded angrily to Kilson’s claims.

“Martin Kilson seems to think that all of America has the same view of this term. This view is palpably incorrect,” he said. “How does he know what my motive is?”

Kilson did not immediately return repeated phone calls to both his office and his residence.

“It seems to me that this commentary is a bad reflection on Professor Kilson’s skills as a commentator,” Kennedy said. “He simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Among Kilson’s claims about Kennedy was the assertion that his colleague did not do anything to calm racial tension at HLS this spring.

Kilson wrote that “Randall Kennedy, it appears, has no sense of responsibility for the vicious racial fires he has cynically ignited,” justifying his claim by noting that none of “a variety of news reports” indicated that Kennedy “surfaced to assist the officials of the Law School in managing the crisis and calming the waters.”

Kennedy, however, who was the leader of the section—the group of law students who take introductory classes together—in which the incidents took place, had in fact led a discussion with his section in response to the incidents.

“I think this is frankly pretty pathetic,” Kennedy said of Kilson’s accusation that the law professor had not assisted in managing the crisis.

“What I think is just so deplorable about what Martin Kilson wrote is that he didn’t check the facts,” Kennedy added. “He has simply not done his homework. He could have called me.”

“He acts like what appears in the Boston Globe is the truth,” said Kennedy, referring to Kilson’s use of news reports to support his claims of Kennedy’s inaction.

In the past, other professors at Harvard have drawn criticism from Kilson.

In a letter that appeared in a 2000 edition of West Africa Review, Kilson referred to DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates’ film series Wonders of the African World as “intellectually atrocious.”

In that letter, Kilson also expressed disappointment in other members of the Faculty, specifically naming former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74, Professor of History and of Afro-American Studies Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Tishman and Diker Professor of Sociology and of Afro-American Studies Lawrence D. Bobo and Boskey Professor of Law Lani Guinier ’71, among others, as members of “the younger age-cohort of progressive Black intellectuals at Harvard whom I thought would join” the scrutiny of Gates’ work.

Gates was unavailable for comment.

“Frankly, given what Professor Kilson has written about other of his colleagues, this is not surprising,” Kennedy said. “This isn’t the only time he’s gone off half-cocked casting aspersions on colleagues.”

The entirety of Kilson’s piece in The Black Commentator can be seen at http://www.blackcommentator.com/n_word.html.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu.

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