“‘N’ — the Elephant That Won’t Leave the Room” – a book review by John Kendall Hawkins

May 24th, 2022

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“N” – the Elephant That Won’t Leave the Room

by John Kendall Hawkins

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“To Bigger and his kind, white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark.”

-Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)

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…..The memoir, N  by James Henry Harris, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Theology & Homiletics at Virginia Union University, is confrontational, even fiery from the get-go. Wonderfully in-your-face, no-holds-barred prose that gets right to the heart of the matter about critical race theory (CRT) and the controversy over banning books – and specifically and intentionally makes the white reader squirm as Harris holds down and interrogates the talismanic, racially-charged Forbidden Word. You know which word.

…..One of the first things that Harris reminds us about is that the trump card word from a stacked deck culture occurs “220 times” in the Mark Twain novel he’s confronting.  The same word occurs in his memoir 177 times.  What’s most bolshy about the word is that Harris makes the point – over and over – that white people don’t have a right to use it. And by the time I reach 177, I feel punished for my sins, and, worse, feel like I deserve it. But, at the same time, I’m totally on his side; I get it,  I think. The stridency and militancy recalls Miles Davis’s Tribute to Jack Johnson, a tower of strength seemingly warning the listener: “I’m Black; they’ll never let me forget it. I’m Black alright; I’ll never let them forget it.” Fight’s on.

…..The full title of James Henry Harris’s memoir is N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic (Fortress Press, 2021). The classic is, of course, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It is (and has been for quite some time) the focal point of inquiry for any understanding of the importance and totemic value of the forbidden word. No other word in American history has such power and carries such weight. It is suffocating for all around and yet unresolved; the heavy baggage of the slaver’s legacy brought forward into the continuous and pronounced socio-economic and judicial inequalities of our common heritage as Americans.  Only African-Americans see new migrants come to America – Koreans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, etc – and be able to separate themselves from one subculture (and thereby gain an advantage) by the use of the black magic word.

…..This nonsense has been going on for a long time. There have been periods in our recent history when we’ve made faint attempts to get past the surface level of our group thinking, to make fun of our bigotry, and to try to move on more enlightened, or at least “woke.”  The 1970’s was like that to some degree.  A lot of progressives took succor in humor during that time to relieve the tension of our extended blues brought on by so much before us gone wrong.  Dylan didn’t really help salve anything; he reinforced the depths of our insight and left us largely depressed and looking for ways to get laid.  But Jews did come to the rescue.  Nobody knows how to do stand-up comedy on the gallows better than the Jews, who have seen so much horror in their diasporic millennia that dark comedy oozes from their kosher pores.  Regarding the politics of the ‘N word,’ I don’t know if anyone did a better job than Mel Brooks setting up a scene that captured the tension embodied in the white-Black dialectic of power – the celebration of law and order that civilizes us all, as long as it’s not a Black man – than that welcoming the new sheriff to the frontier scene. All’s gleeful anticipation until the white townspeople see that the new badge in town is a “Schvartze,” the Yiddish N-word.

…..It’s telling that only a member of a parallel diaspora could have pulled it off and got away with it. And who didn’t feel sorry for the way the sheriff was treated in the end?

…..But Harris is not much amused by this kind of tomfoolery. Or, at least, he has no intention of letting the reader off that easily.  N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic is a memoir about a 53-year-old academic guy who signs up for a graduate Mark Twain seminar at a Richmond college that’s focused on the politics of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book he’ll be reading for the first time, only to discover that he’s the only Black person in the class. What’s more, he’s a got a thing about whites using the “N word” – at all – and now he’ll have to listen to each of them read aloud passages from Twain’s novel over a long semester, in which no page of the classic novel goes without dropping the bomb.

…..He sets the scene of the weeks-long inter-course to come.  He’s not taken with the white professor teaching African-American intellectual values. He notes his physical environs:

The room was, in fact, an old dining room converted into a classroom in a building that was an antebellum plantation mansion. In my mind’s eye, the room became a mirror of old sins and transgressions.

…..You have a kind of flash – Leonardo Dicaprio turned pipe-smoking prof in Django Unchained. But Harris isn’t finished setting the scene:

This is where Black folk learned the ways of white folk. This is where Black folk acquired the necessary astuteness to speak, breathe, and exist without the Otherness that defined them… It is where the practices of smiling, “softshoeing,” and “cooning” were refined into a tradition of degradation and self-deprecation. This is the house in which Blacks learned to wear masks and store their anger in their hearts and souls until it could be unleashed like hellfire and brimstone.

…..It’s early in the memoir and already I’m marinating in a white man’s burden. And I probably deserve it: Not because I’m white so much as I never stop letting them forget they’re Black – when I look the Other way in academic exercises of their existential crisis.

…..Harris feels equally uncertain he should be there in that class during introductions, each student standing and telling what brought them there; what reader-response tableau they bring to the table.  He raises concern about a class filled with whites talking Black history and, most of all, using that dang-nabbit “N word.” He notes, “But nobody, not even the professor, seemed willing to acknowledge that there is an ‘otherness’ that must be heard if learning is to take place.” Already, Harris is experiencing that Ellisonian invisibility factor. Whites, even or especially educated whites, will be abstracting his very subjective and continuously felt experience. Right there in the classroom. It’s frisson at work; a chemical reaction, if you will.

…..As the semester wears on, Harris finds a way through the mind field filled with IEDs – white-expressed “N’s” always ready to take him to the hell of anguish and raw emotion, unfiltered by the privilege of having the right, white integument. A personal moment creeps in. I recall my first days at Groton not long after Nixon resigned, an elite boarding school in the outer burbs of Boston, where Teddy and FDR had been educated, and how nervous and frightened I felt –  a scholarship student from the Groton-Lowell Upward Bound program, wondering how I would fit in with the children of the highly privileged, who had produced champions of the Monroe Doctrine and the New Deal. I came from a poor background, but I wasn’t like the sprinkle of Blacks there, poor and Black. One could escape poverty, but you could never escape your skin color. When Michael Jackson tried to escape by bleaching his skin the results were disastrous, making him look like a reverse-Al Jolson singing “Billie Jean,” instead of “Mammy.” So, I get Harris’s point.

…..Over the period Harris begins to sift through his growing love/hate relationship with Mark Twain in general – his pioneering literary genius, his brilliant ability, Harris concedes, to capture the vernacular of everyday Missourians back in the day, and he seems to be quite taken with Twain’s narrative techniques and humorous flourishes. In an Explanation to Huckleberry Finn, Twain tells the reader:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last… I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

…..Harris accepts this readily enough, but not with the profuse use of the forbidden fruit of slavery and its aftermath – the Word.

…..The class seems to move towards an acceptance of Twain’s language, including the ahem, along the lines of what the great novelist Toni Morrison recommends.  No slouch herself with language and her portraits of country people, the Nobel prize-winning writer extols the virtues of Twain’s prose and defends his use of it. In her 1996 Oxford Edition Introduction to Huck Finn, Morrison sums up the issue so many have with reading the book in the current climate of resurgent primal racism:

In the early eighties, I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools. These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term “[n—–]”would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.

…..Indeed, Harris says he waited until he was 53 to read Huck Finn for the first time, and then as part of a college course. You can believe, from reading Morrison’s explanation, that he is similarly self-conscious while reading it.

…..However, it’s clear that Harris may not be as settled in his capacity to accept the word’s use along with the wonderfulness of Twain’s prose as Morrison is.  It’s a real struggle. And as Harris works his way in the memoir toward a thesis in the class, he provides us with keen insights, by way of childhood remembrances, of the use of the word, that provides nuanced context and emotional weight to his arguments and observations. His is not merely an academic adventure over a semester.  In his Intro to N, Harris tells us,

Twain himself was always protected by the professor and the rest of the students. White privilege. Nothing negative could be attributed to Twain. As far as the professor and the white students were concerned, Mark Twain was a god. And yet, I felt differently. I was not duped. In my mind, I placed Twain in the pantheon of Americans who, in one way or another, have sustained and emblazoned the word [n—–] into America’s consciousness.

…..It’s a split consciousness, between seeing Twain for his literary value and questioning his use of the word and its implications for his moral balance. Harris struggles with such protection of a canon figure.

…..His struggle pushes him at one point to ask the class of whites if anyone there had ever been called the word.  Harris seems to take impish delight in provoking the white students, who respond to his rhetorical pose with silence – even the proverbial pin that dropped seems gagged and bound.  Harris writes, “My Black skin had, for once, given me the advantage to pose a question that not a single white person in the room could answer in the affirmative.” His is an existential crisis that they can’t really relate to – he might as well be Mersault in Camus’s The Stranger.  He invokes W.E.B. Dubois’ well-known  reference to “double-consciousness.”  Living two lives at once. Bifurcated and compartmentalized and chewed up inside.  Harris writes,

Double consciousness was a state of being for me. I was a self divided. It is also the stuff that makes for some forms of depression, schizoid and paranoid behavior. And, at times, I’m a bona fide paranoid African American male thinking that everybody is out to get me—Black people included.

…..One recalls here the Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing’s critique of society that produced divided selves, where the norm could be seen as “crazy.”  As Laing put it, abnormal behavior in an abnormal world is normal, and such fracturing can account for the Good German, or looking the other way when white knees sink into Black necks to the sound of the brassy Star Spangled Banner. O say can you see.

…..While it’s clear from the real world observations of someone like Laing (who depressingly seems to follow in the tracks of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and, maybe worse, The Future of An Illusion with serious and deeply-considered pessimism) that such psychological division is common; it is no bromide or rationale or excuse. There is that growing element out there that accepts, with a shrug at last, the continuing deterioration of our lot with “It Is What It Is.” Cultures that accept a glad return to the Dark Ages – before the Magna Carta provided the first light of a brave new Enlightenment – and lurk behind omerta masks in wait for the return not of Jesus but chaos re-ordered by goon squad enforcers for the elite.  In short, civilization is worth fighting for, and the hallmark is not just the terrible beauty of a Gothic cathedral’s interior, but human language. It is what sets us apart from the other animals, homo sapiens instead of merely australopithecines. “N—–” is a big step backward into fascist feudal darkness.

…..Harris’s N is full of goosy surprises.  His best bit might be eschewing the Shelley Fisher Fishkin consideration that Huck Finn might have been Black. Harris can do better and wonders aloud, to his tense but open-minded collegial scholars, whether Huck and Jim weren’t, in fact, an item:

Was Huck gay? Had anyone ever thought about this? It seemed like a reasonable area of inquiry, devoid of any moral judgment. What was to be made of the fact that Jim often called Huck “honey”? I asked. I continued, “And many days and nights Huck and Jim lay naked on the raft smoking and talking about all kinds of things as they drifted up and down the Mississippi.”

There was silence in the room, so I went on pressing my case to the point of annoyance. Like a gadfly or a philosopher like Socrates or Plato. I pointed out that Huck did some crossdressing with Jim’s help. And he practiced how to walk and talk like a girl—although he was not too good at it.

…..This feels like Harris has a gratuitous go at academia, more than a fully argued feeling about the two raftsmen.

…..N is a fantastic read, welcomely confrontational. I should be antsy. I accept that. Why am I antsy? Harris’s strategy of having the memoir correspond to a semester-long seminar struggling with a loaded word is really a clever tactic. The pay-off comes in Chapter 15, a chapter that alone makes the book worth purchasing, when Harris, the student, presents his thesis to the class (they all must) and draws his conclusions about Twain and the use of the word by whites. He quotes from his thesis,

“The ubiquitous use of [n—–] by Twain is the basic reason why his novel has attained the status of an American classic. [N—–] is an American invention and its use by whites describes the nature and meaning of American democracy, constitutionality, and culture. In short, white Americans’ use of the word [n—–] is tantamount to describing what makes America, America. Mark Twain knew this, and he too capitalized on it. This made him complicit in propagating America’s white supremacist and capitalist culture.”

…..Moments later, while his classmates are still “gasping for air,” he comes right out with his conclusion: “Mark Twain was a racist.”

…..This would be depressing enough, since I do so like my Twain readings. But I admit, my morbid feelings of guilt and sin at that moment must have resembled those of his white classmates, who’d come to share a co-produced enlightenment and were given, instead, a lecture on “enwhitenment.”  This conclusion is probably the biggest difference between Morrison and Harris. (The reader would find it fruitful to compare Morrison’s Huck Finn Intro to Harris’s Chapter 15.) She does not see him as a racist, but as part of a culture that was. Did she sell her soul to be canonized among the relativists? Or has Harris maybe overstepped the mark? I don’t think either is true.  But then their experiences as a Black woman and a Black man are historically, but significantly, different – if for no other reason than the male, white or Black, was the “breadwinner” who must negotiate in the social sphere for jobs and respect, while the woman, traditionally, was the homemaker, and thereby, to some miniscule degree, was shielded from the daily abuse a Black man must negotiate. I can understand how there might be less “forgiveness” from a Rodney King who gets a knee in the neck for asking, Can’t we just get along? Harris does a nice job dealing with this divide in his book.

…..Reflecting on his presentation in the grad literature class, Harris adds,

Without ever using the term, I had introduced the allwhite class to critical race theory by claiming that Mark Twain, the book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the society and culture that constructed the word [n —–] are all grounded in racism.

…..No prisoners here.

…..Harris dislikes the use of the word altogether and is not enamored of its use by Blacks in general and rappers in particular. (Don’t ask him what he thinks of Eminem.) Aside from the vulgarity implied, Harris argues that stylin one’s beat with the peppershnippel of dramatic tension the word brings also reinforces the differences.  Back in the days of The Last Poets it might have been argued that its use by the artists was deliberately and honestly confrontational – like the Miles Davis “I’m Black Alright theme” -but Harris, when he confronts young Blacks today, is told he’s “too sensitive,” which works his nerves some.  At the same time that Blacks continue to be beaten (and shot) to death by neo-fascists in America, too many of these youngsters are not employing the word out of militancy as much as monetary gain.

…..Interesting enough, and in a really important section of the memoir, Harris, instead of calling for a ban on the book for linguistic reasons, acknowledges that the real problem in reading Huckleberry Finn is the lack of qualified guidance. He writes,

Everybody agrees that not every English literature teacher is qualified to teach such a novel to youth. It’s too complicated. Too emotional. I understand the debate because I’m in my sixties now and the word [n —–] throughout the novel troubles me mightily.

…..For Harris, it is important that the book be taught with the sensitivity it requires and the competence of good teaching. He notes throughout the book flaws in the teaching of the book at the graduate level, and you can almost hear him shaking his head at the quality of the approach to the word at elementary and high school levels. Harris implies, then, that the successful implementation of critical race theory in the classroom is a matter of teaching competence and cultural sensitivity. A white southerner will teach Huck Finn differently than Harris, himself an educator.  His section on education is interesting, and his critique of Black educators in the mainstream is well-noted, but, as with Noam Chomsky, he would probably agree that we are all held back by ignorance to some degree and can only be rehabilitated by education.

…..The book is not all doom and gloom, as they say and say. In fact, it’s inspiring. There are lots of noteworthy subsections, such as the immersion into Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” which resonates with Harris. “Rich’s poem is about the quest for wholeness while being surrounded by both death and life. Idealism has been shattered by the reality principle,” he writes. “Isn’t that what has happened to Huck and Jim?” More Freud. Harsh stuff, that reality principle at work.

…..The book is as powerful and wriggly as a Mississippi eel.  It has the vibes of Richard Wright – self-consciousness on a journey: In this case, the semester-long seminar on Huck Finn and race in America. It’s playful, poignant, entertaining, and is one of the best takes on CRT and banned books and the seemingly endless need to address skin color in the world’s premiere democracy.  A highly recommended read.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American freelance writer currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary and reviews have appeared in publications in Oceania, Europe, and the US. He is a regular contributor to Counterpunch magazine. He is a former winner of the Academy of American Poets prize. He’s working on a novel.

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