The Day-Glo Elephant in a Darkening Room

Image Source: Cover art for the book N: My Encounter with Racism and the FORBIDDEN WORD in an American Classic by James Henry Harris

Reading James Henry Harris’s N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic (Fortress Press, 2021) recalls, first, a vibe from Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940),

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.

This mythopoesis is gathered up, as if by moral right, in the forces of nature, and is startling enough to consider with a readerly-responsive mind. Verily, Wright gives us a snapshot of the legendary Mighty Whitey.

As I was uncorking my response juices, my associative processes kicked in, and I felt for some seconds like an AI evaluating some schmo’s algorithmic desires, and then thought of another allusion I’d read and had been stunned by. Back in the Civil War era, Clement Vallandigham, a leader of the Peace Democrat (opposed to the War, and desirous of political settlement) observed of slavers:

[T]here are two white races in the United States, both from the same common stock, and yet so distinct — one of them so peculiar — that they develop different forms of civilization, and might belong, almost, to different types of mankind. [my emphasis]

So peculiar. If Wright was establishing the Mighty Whitey metaphor, then, it seemed to me, that Vallandigham was conjuring up with this slaver the image of Cain, returned from exile and back at work beating down the Other. It’s confronting to think of our species this way, and it reminded me of what Nietzsche said about monsters — how you have to beware the abyss, and beware that in fighting monsters you don’t become one yourself. And yet, a monumental tussle seemed in that sobering light, necessary and imminent.

In James Henry Harris’s memoir, N, we get a glimpse of the abyss that racism in America represents, from its heady colonial days to its present post-Reconstruction dystopian ways. The book tells the story of the serious changes that Harris goes through as he sits a graduate course focussed on Mark’s Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Setting the scene, Harris describes an educational space that is a former plantation in Virginia, and a classroom that is the dining room of the former master’s mansion. This brings dread and tension immediately. He observes,

In my mind’s eye, the room became a mirror of old sins and transgressions. It began to speak of the past. I could see the slave master and his wife ordering breakfast and telling the Black servants that the floors needed to be swept and cleaned, and the pots and pans scrubbed, and the silver platters polished at least an hour before sunset. The images overwhelmed me. My mind became a matrix of past and present, and even the future was bearing down on me, causing me to tremble in my seat. (p.3)

Me, I’m thinking of a scene from Django Unchained, Leo loose and deceptively genteel. But Harris is already quaking in history.

First, he tells us he’s put off even reading Huck Finn until his 53rd year because he is put off by Twain’s excessive use of the N-word. As the class is filled with white people (including the instructor), hearing them utter the pejorative word is unsettling and, frankly, unacceptable. Harris, an academic at Virginia Union University and a pastor, counts Twain’s use of the word against him and the novel’s presumed “classic” status. He notes that Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has defended Twain’s approach and its linguistic verisimilitude approach, but Harris disagrees; he believes that the dozens of N-utterances is excessive. He sees Twain as a racist and tries to wake the white class to that premise. Harris isn’t buying into the cozy notion that uttering the N-word in an academic setting, protected by the presumed educational value involved, is valid. He notes,

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 nigger into America’s consciousness. (p. xv)

Suddenly, for the whites, the class has become an encounter group.

Similarly, Harris takes umbrage at the overly-idyllic portrait painted of life on the Mississippi, a familiarity built right into the author’s name (Mark Twain is a riverboating term indicating a safe, though still shallow depth). But Harris ain’t buying into the hokum that most river rhetoric is dressed in by sentimentalist readers. He writes,

The Mississippi is a metaphor for the power of escaping the destruction of slavery and the unending quest for freedom in Twain’s novel. It symbolizes racism and injustice in America; it is a cultural trope in American life. Not only that. I can also imagine the number of bodies and bones of Black lives buried at the bottom of the mighty Mississippi River. (p. xv)

Ouch. There are a whole lotta Emmett Tills at the bottom of the Big M, remember that as you’re eating your bottom-feeding catfish dinner tonight, ogling the giggling girls, Harris seems to say.

It’s an intense memoir, brilliantly rendered by a guy who knows what he’s talking about. His reflections have a significant bearing on any approach to Critical Race Theory. (Harris understands the need for such consciousness-raising, but is seriously skeptical that there are enough quality teachers available to deliver the goods, and he knows that screwing it up could bring blow back that would make race relations in America worse, if that’s possible.) And the book is full of homiletic writing, not preachy so much as hermeneutical.

In the Preface, Harris describes how the PC left-wing in America has essentially gone rogue weasel in its approach to the use of the N-word. In fact, Harris describes the dubiously framed transition of the forbidden word’s usage:

Nigger is the new N-word, and the N-word is the old nigger. Except, on January 6, 2021, the Black Capitol police officers who were holding back the cavalry of white supremacists were called nigger over and over again, their uniforms and guns be damned. They were called niggers in spite of the preference of the literati. (p. xiv)

It’s complicated, like the ol Mississip itself, and we must all strive to be more perceptive riverboat pilots on the shifting passage to the sea. Liberty’s a mighty muddy-bottomed business.


The book is highly recommended, but Amazon audio offers a short sample from N that captures the spirit of Harris’s work. One might give that sample a listen-to before purchasing the book at Fortress.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.