The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac
_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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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
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
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
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
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.