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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 1 Aug 2022 20:37:21 +0000
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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"Railton, Stephen F (sfr)" <[log in to unmask]>
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Thanks very much, Susan.  This happened in 2015, is that right?  Does anyone on the forum know if they were any reports about the tray being dropped in the local media?  Your account is clear and convincing and I'm very grateful you shared it with us, but I just wonder if the drama of the moment, or the feelings of the server, or any more reactions from the audience got reported.
"Was it something I said"?!?  In this context, that line sure resonates... Thanks again, Steve
From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Susan Bailey <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Monday, August 1, 2022 4:18 PM
To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: BOOK REVIEW: _N: My Encounter with Racism_ by James Henry Harris

Steve Railton,
The following is my take on that day. It may differ from what others
remember but I was at the head table so had a birdís eye view of a few

The president of the University and the other dignitaries looked very
uncomfortable but no one said anything. I believed Hal remarked from the
podium, ďWas it something I said?Ē Everyone laughed and he moved on with
his speech, using the same word a few more times as I recall. But then
anyone who knew Hal Holbrook knew he didnít mince words, not even that one.
He once told me that Twain had no other word to use in his time.

After the luncheon was over he was surrounded by reporters but he told them
he had to get to another appointment, pushed me off on them by telling them
I could answer their questions (which I could not) and he left the
building. He and Ryan did hold the car for me until I was able to extricate
myself from them.

On Mon, Aug 1, 2022 at 10:54 AM Railton, Stephen F (sfr) <
[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> Kevin, I appreciated the thoughtfulness of your review.
> Susan, that was a very powerful story you shared, but I sure would like to
> know more about what happened.  Especially: what happened next? was there
> any discussion of the event?
> There's no question of how difficult this subject is to talk about, but I
> believe the more we talk about it, the further we can get.  Thanks, Steve
> Railton
> ________________________________
> From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Susan Bailey <
> [log in to unmask]>
> Sent: Monday, August 1, 2022 9:06 AM
> To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
> Subject: Re: BOOK REVIEW: _N: My Encounter with Racism_ by James Henry
> Harris
> This review is very interesting to me and explains some things that I am
> aware of but didnít 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!
> Iím 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.
> Regards
> Susan Madeline Bailey
> On Mon, Aug 1, 2022 at 8:26 AM Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
> wrote:
> >
> > The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin
> Mac
> > Donnell.
> > ~~~~~
> >
> > _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 <
> > >.
> >
> > 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.
> >
> --
> Susan Bailey
> Co author
> The Twain Shall Meet
> <
> >
> Twain Page <>
> Greenville, SC
Susan Bailey
Co author
The Twain Shall Meet
Twain Page <><>
Greenville, SC