This review is very interesting to me and explains some things that I am
aware of but didn’t quite understand.
When Hal Holbrook received his honorary doctorate degree from the
University of Missouri, he used that word a few times at a luncheon speech
while quoting Twain. A Black server dropped her tray with all the food on
it. It was a dramatic moment!
I’m a token member of a private all Black group centered in Hannibal and
there are members that admire Twain for his writing and for what his
presence did for Hannibal; Others believe him to be a racist because of the
liberal use of that word in his writings. I understand this better now.
Susan Madeline Bailey
On Mon, Aug 1, 2022 at 8:26 AM Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> BOOK REVIEW
> 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.
> Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
> the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
> that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <http://www.twainweb.net
> 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
> 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.
The Twain Shall Meet
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