Reading Room: Randall Kennedy ’77
Martha Stewart

As a prominent Harvard Law School professor and author of several books, including Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002), Randall Kennedy ’77 doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. Like that book, his new one, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (Pantheon Books), also might ruffle some feathers. In it, he analyzes how race has influenced American voters and the Obama presidency, and how voters of all races have responded to Obama and his administration. In doing so, Kennedy examines the racial issues Obama has confronted and critiques the president’s handling of them.

A Rhodes scholar and later a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kennedy has made a habit of writing books that address the complicated way in which race collides with politics, history, and the law. “The goal with all of my books is self-clarification,” says Kennedy. “I enjoy approaching complex intellectual knots, and unloosening them for myself and my readers.” 

In The Persistence of the Color Line, Kennedy takes Obama to task for often sidestepping discussions of race, gender, and liberal concerns. Kennedy argues that Obama is overly cautious about supporting liberal views. When the president appointed Sonia Sotomayor ’76 to the Supreme Court, Kennedy writes, he “should have been more forthright in admitting that race and gender played a role in his selection.”

In his chapter “Obama Courts Black America,” which looks at the relationship between the president and African-Americans, Kennedy shows how the Ivy League-educated, biracial candidate took pains to demonstrate his black authenticity to the larger black community while still holding onto white supporters. 

The Persistence of the Color Line is the most personal of Kennedy’s books. The first chapter opens with his own attendance at the Obama inauguration; the author reveals his amazement at the history-changing event. Kennedy weaves in experiences of his family, particularly of his father, who faced racism as a child in segregated Louisiana, then as a soldier in the Army, and later when he was humiliated by the police. In another chapter, the author speaks critically about the remarks of Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but he also shows empathy for Wright by discussing how his own father — and other African-Americans of that generation — “eschewed any sentimental bond with the American government or the American nation. He rejected patriotism.” 

While Kennedy bluntly details many of the president’s limitations, he admits, “I am yet unembarrassed to say that I admire Barack Obama.” He says he is inspired by the courage that Obama displayed in believing that America could select a candidate who did not look like most of the nation’s voting population.

Lawrence Otis Graham ’83 has written 14 books and is a former student of Kennedy.

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination by Alondra Nelson

What he likes about it: “It is acquainting me in a compelling way with an aspect of the Black Panthers that I had not previously appreciated.”

In American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists (Pegasus Books), CHRISTOPHER L. WEBBER ’53 explores the life of Pennington, an illiterate slave in Maryland who escaped to freedom in 1827 and eventually became a preacher, educator, and abolitionist and fought for equal rights in America. Webber is an ordained minister. ... Jules, a Princeton student who sells her “pedigree” eggs to help save her father from addiction, is one of the main characters in JENNIFER WEINER ’91’s latest novel, which explores issues around surrogacy and the creation of a modern family. Then Came You (Atria) tells the story of four women and a baby, including the legal mother of baby Aurora and a struggling housewife who serves as the surrogate. ... In Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies (Princeton University Press), HOWARD WAINER *68, a research ­scientist at the National Board of Medical Examiners and a former research scientist at Educational Testing Service, uses statistical evidence to support his view that some ­education policies are misguided. Among his findings are that colleges that make the SAT optional for applicants end up with underperforming students and inflated national rankings. … DENISE GIGANTE *00, an English professor at Stanford Uni­versity, examines the “bifurcated paths in life” of the English poet John Keats and his brother George in The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Gigante describes George as a confidant to the great poet, revealing George, who left England in 1818 for America, to have been a devoted brother who aimed to provide a better life for both of them.