I thoroughly disagree with Prof. Harris's reading of *Huckleberry Finn,* but
I have no trouble at all understanding how a Black man, having experienced
a bellyful of racist abuse and invective in childhood, could end up so
highly sensitized to the word "nigger" that he can't get past it to
appreciate, for example, the Aunt Sally scene in *HF*.
Likewise, more than a few Holocaust survivors solemnly assure you that (
*pace* Mel Brooks) there's nothing funny about the Third Reich. I wouldn't
argue with them any more than I would with Prof. Harris, and for the same
*Peter Salwen / Pe <https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/peter-salwen>*ter
Salwen Fine Arts <https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/peter-salwen>
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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.