N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic. By James Henry Harris. Fortress Press, 2021. Pp. 181. Softcover. $18.99. ISBN 978-1-5064-7916-3. Ebook: 978-1-5064-7917-0.

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The following review appeared 1 August 2022 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

This volume is a revision of The Forbidden Word (2012), Harris's earlier book about Mark Twain's use of the word "nigger" in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a new preface that takes into account the state of race relations since the publication of that book. Harris describes his hard-scrabble childhood, growing up in a house with no indoor plumbing and no electricity, and surrounded by "sex, lies, drinking, liquor, and gossip" (67-68). There was no health care, and the only books in the house were a defective Bible and whatever textbooks he and his nine siblings brought home. These sparse details don't begin to convey the relentless grinding poverty or the crushing weight of the confusions, injustices, losses, and tragedies of his childhood years. As if this noxious brew needed seasoning, a heavy dose of racism was stirred into this miserable mix.

Harris survived, but not without scars. Now a Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Theology & Homiletics at Virginia Union University, more than a decade ago he decided to pursue a Master of Arts degree in English literature at the age of 53, and enrolled in a class on Huckleberry Finn. He was the only black student in the class, in fact the only minority member of the class (xv), and immediately found that reading the word "nigger" on the printed page was one thing, but hearing the word read aloud and bandied about on the lips of the white students and his white professor was something quite different, and not merely offensive or humiliating, but profoundly painful.

Hearing the word triggered Harris's memories of being called a "nigger" as a child, which felt "like the sharp jabs of a dagger" (25), which had laid the foundation of his lifetime reaction to the word, knowing that "when you hear whites use the word, you know in your spirit that it is intended to harm" (151). Although Mark Twain is not calling Harris or any of his readers a "nigger," Harris's life-long conditioning explains what some may consider his overreaction to hearing it spoken from the pages of Twain's novel. Writes Harris, " . . . nobody can tell me I am a nigger . . . nobody has the right to do that, and Mark Twain is no exception" (ix-x). Harris even describes his violent physical reaction to hearing the word spoken by his fellow classmates (18). Harris also feels that when anyone, including "Black intellectuals," substitutes the phrase "N-word" for "nigger" that this is the equivalent of "nigger" and therefore equally disturbing (xiii-xiv).

For Harris, Twain's satire often backfires; he writes that "satire works too well for Black people. It reinforces the stereotype it was intended to obviate" (156). But he also acknowledges his admiration of Twain's use of satire and irony, especially in the portrayal of whites in the novel, and praises Twain's "marvelous" use of words and phrases (147). Harris makes clear that "any author willing to send his dear protagonist Huck Finn all the way to hell on behalf of one of my African American ancestors is certainly worthy of my acclamation" (47-48), but he still objects to Twain's use of the word "nigger" and describes his "dialectical relationship with the writer and the novel" as "Love and hate. Admiration and disgust" (150).

At times he seems to confuse Twain's putting the word into the mouths of his characters with Twain uttering the word himself, but either way it makes no difference to Harris (148-149). However, this distinction is no small distinction, and is a valid explanation of Twain's utilization of the word, but Harris explicitly rejects that argument (xv). To Harris, Twain is a racist because he uses the word "so flippantly. So cavalier-like. So wrenchingly and so unashamedly" (31) and that "there is a persistent racial and cultural hierarchy that permeates the written and visual texts in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and that "this does mean that Twain was a racist, and he certainly took advantage of being white" (152). Harris is either ignoring the satire or simply missing Twain's point; perhaps both. Even at key moments in the novel, Harris does not soften his objections to the word, asserting that Aunt Sally's revealing expression of relief that the steamboat explosion only killed a "nigger" was an example of "racism and white supremacy" and not a moment of "literary genius" (155). Likewise, although Harris accurately cites Pap Finn's racist rant about "niggers" and the government as Twain's way of showing "the racism of the times" he nevertheless concludes that "it is symptomatic of the reality of white supremacy in both Pap, the character, Mark Twain, the writer, and Huck the protagonist" (171).

Harris refuses to distinguish the racism of Twain's characters from their creator, and is consistently confrontational and defiant, or else a provocateur (130). At other times he is admittedly mischievous (136), and admits that his imagination sometimes may be getting the better of him (132). He questions his own sensitivity to the word, and addresses the very different attitude among younger blacks today, but defends his position (35, 165-166). In class he swallows his anger and instead contributes mostly "good trouble" to classroom discussions, sometimes getting jaw-dropping reactions from his fellow students, and sometimes their understanding.

At the end of the "brutal and uncomfortable class" (177) which he also describes as a "slug-fest" that left him feeling "battered" (46-47), each student was required to recite a one-hundred-word excerpt from the novel in front of the class. Unable to bring himself to say the word "nigger" in front of a classroom of white students, Harris instead recites two poems, ending with Langston Hughes's "Refugee in America'`:

There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom sings
All day everyday.
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why.

The recitation brings him to tears and hushes his classmates into a "gaping silence" (178).

The arguments Harris makes have been raised before by black writers; John Wallace's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Adapted (1983), and Sharon Rush's Huck Finn's "Hidden" Lesson: Teaching and Learning Across the Color Line (2006) come to mind. Most Twainians familiar with Huckleberry Finn will disagree with Harris's indictment of Twain as a racist, his assessment of how the word "nigger" functions in the novel, and his conclusions that "the ubiquitous use of nigger by Twain is the basic reason why his novel has attained the status of an American classic" (141) and that "Twain's use of the word nigger . . . is so much a part of his being white that he does not have to think twice about its use" (147).

Readers might conclude that Huckleberry Finn was poorly taught in Harris's class, or more likely, that Harris's visceral but understandable response to hearing the word spoken in class clouded his perception of Twain's deliberate use of the word to signify the racism of the characters in the novel. Some readers might also notice that while Twain puts the word in the mouths of his characters more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, Harris himself uses the word more than 175 times in his own book. But how else could either man show his readers the evils of a systemic racism that has continued to infect American culture from Twain's era to our own?

Readers who find it difficult to understand why Harris (and others) react this way to the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn will find the answer in the last two lines of Langston Hughes's poem. White readers may question Harris's arguments, but not his black experiences. This white reviewer cannot imagine very many black students willing to express themselves in front of other students--especially white students--as candidly and emotionally as Harris does in the pages of his memoir. For that reason alone, anyone, black or white, who teaches Twain in the classroom to students, black or white, will profit from reading Harris's account.

T. S. Eliot, commenting on Huckleberry Finn in his introduction to the 1950 edition, said that "Huckleberry Finn, like other great works of imagination, can give to every reader whatever he is capable of taking from it" (Eliot xiv). Black and white readers each bring different experiences to the table, each capable of taking things from this novel that the other will not, each necessarily viewing the book through black or white-tinted spectacles. But none can be excluded from the table if a meaningful discussion is to take place.