With a title primed to court controversy, Randall Kennedy's latest from Pantheon, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, has indeed done so. However, despite the blatant word that many find objectionable, Nigger has also succeeded commercially to a surprising degree. "We went back to press for a seventh time after it was featured on Boston Public," said Pantheon editorial director Janice Goldklang shortly after the Fox program aired February 25. "We're up to 50,000 copies in print." Just two weeks later, Pantheon marketing manager James Kimball reported, "We've had eight printings, and there are over 70,000 books in print." Within that brief span, Nigger appeared at #8 on the New York Times bestseller list, #1 on the Barnes & Noble College list and in various slots on lists compiled by, among others, the Wall Street Journal, BookSense and the Boston Globe.
It is, of course, exceedingly rare for fictional TV to feature an individual book so prominently. On Boston Public, Nigger was the topic of a heated classroom discussion, a vital part of which concerned whether it was proper for a white teacher to use the word in a debate probing the relationship between races. Kennedy's name was also cited in the show's script. In addition, the author was interviewed on Fox News in major markets immediately following Boston Public, and he made an appearance on Politically Incorrect later that week. What's more, to capitalize on the growing public awareness, the Nigger episode of Boston Public is being rebroadcast March 25, and the book and author will be on a segment of ABC's 20/20 Downtown scheduled for March 27.
"It also became clear to us that the book is reaching well beyond general readership and into a younger market," said Goldklang. "Teachers around the country have been calling in to say, 'I deal with this issue every day in the classroom.' So, with Randy's help, we've put together a teacher's guide to Nigger." Those wanting copies can check Pantheon's Web site or call the publicity department at (212) 572-6030.
Because of all the attention, we wondered about Nigger's fate in bookstores. The reactions varied, but most were positive. "Following the Boston Public program, sales were up across the board in Boston," said Random House rep Ron Koltnow, who conceded that the book did raise sensitive issues among booksellers and sales reps. "I think the letter from Randall Kennedy went a long way toward calming people," he said. In that message sent to booksellers just after the January pub date, Kennedy commented in part, "I am aware that this book, particularly its title, will give rise to complaints. I believe, however, that the best way to examine my important, albeit volatile, subject is to do so directly. I wrote my book to delineate the history of America's paradigmatic racial slur, to assess controversies stemming from its use, and to examine ways that have been proposed to diminish its toxicity."
"We put his letter and the less-than-favorable review from the New Yorker together with a cover sheet and displayed them with the book, which we have at the front desk," said Dana Brigham, co-owner of Brookline Booksmith in the Boston suburb. "Customers have been very interested in the material. A couple of people have objected, but no one has been outraged. We've reordered four times."
In nearby Cambridge, Mass., Carole Horne, manager of Harvard Book Store, noted, "We always sell Randall Kennedy's books well, but, of course, he's a Harvard author. [Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School.] We had an event here in February, and we were selling 15 copies a week. It fell off just a little, but now it's up to a dozen copies, so something probably happened as a result of Boston Public."
"There was definitely a spike in sales at all my accounts in the week following Boston Public," said Julie Kurland, Random House's rep in the Washington, D.C., area. Kennedy's scheduled reading at the city's Politics & Prose was standing-room-only, she said, and she also noted the book's success at Olsson's Books and Records, which has nine stores in the D.C. metro area. Scott Wythe, manager of D.C.'s Reprint Bookshop, also witnessed a new burst of interest: "There was a big positive response after the television show. The next morning we sold nine copies within the first few hours of opening the store." Wythe continued, "It's been our number one nonfiction title since it came out, and we had to reorder twice." However, not all sentiment was positive in the nation's capital. Faye Williams, owner of Sisterspace and Books, said, "We made a decision not to order the book at all. It was a title that was very offensive to me."
In the deeper South, Boston Public seemed to have little effect on demand. "Sales have been slow and steady for us," said Lynn Roberts, manager of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. "We probably sold about 10 copies. We didn't see any response to the show." In Orlando, Fla., Jim Smith, manager of Montsho Books, reported, "We never did order it, although I am planning to. I'd thought I would order copies if I got requests, but I never did, not even after the television show."
Milton Pettis, co-owner of Jokae African-American Bookstore in Dallas, similarly reported little interest in the book after Boston Public aired. "It has raised no controversy in the store," he said. "We really haven't had any calls or demands for it either. We started with four copies, and we still have three."
"We had modest sales of the book, which we put in our sociology section," reported Margaret Maupin, buyer at Denver's Tattered Cover. "We did have a couple of copies put on hold, which was perhaps because of Boston Public." Nevertheless, the matter of the title itself was, said Maupin, "a non-issue. After all, it wasn't such a big thing. There have been so many titles using that word." Among the books she referred to are Dick Gregory's Nigger: An Autobiography (Dutton, 1964; Pocket Books, 1995); its sequel, Up from Nigger (Stein & Day, 1976); and Die Nigger Die! by H. Rap Brown (Dial Press, 1969; Lawrence Hill, 2002). Within Nigger, incidentally, Kennedy points out its previous and frequent use in book, play and song titles.
"We had people asking for it after the author was on Politically Incorrect," said Lecia Warner, manager of Basic Black Books in Philadelphia. "Boston Public is the favorite show of the sister of one of our co-workers. She had to have the book, and she's 14 years old. That's become an everyday word for the younger community, who have taken a bad word and made it mean other things. We did have one customer who got all upset, saying, 'I can't believe you sell that book.' We told her that it was a book that got people talking. It's really done pretty well for us—for a hardcover."
"We published the book with no trepidation at all," said Pantheon's Goldklang. "We'd published Randy's Race, Crime and the Law a couple of years ago, which was rather an academic work, but he did Nightline and almost every other major show and got quite a bit of attention. More recently, Randy had been giving lectures on the topic and it struck him that there was something in the air. There was even the Jennifer Lopez song, in which she used the word 'nigger.' We were very sensitive to the issue, and I haven't heard of any problems in any stores.".
"My subject is the American racial discourse," Kennedy told us, "and I've found that my students enjoy talking about issues. I'd thought that booksellers might be afraid to put the book out there, but that has not been the case. From my peers who write reviews, the response has gone from out-and-out denunciation to mixed to very positive. What I'm hoping is that people will understand that I'm attempting to shed light on an important facet of American culture by using 'nigger' as a lens through which to view it."