Fortress Press

N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic


My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic

James Henry Harris (Author)


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This book is about a Black man's experience of reading Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time while in graduate school. The story captures the author's emotional struggle with Twain's use of the racial epithet more than two hundred times in the text. Author James Henry Harris reports being relieved to come to the end of the semester of "encountering Twain's use of [the forbidden word] every week. . . . I was teetering on the brink of falling apart. . . . For the first time the class seemed to understand my painful struggle, and my plight as a Black man in class was a metaphor, a symbol of the past, present, and postmodern condition of American society."

This is a courageous memoir that wrestles with the historic stain of racism and the ongoing impact of racist language in postmodern society. The book is about Harris's flashbacks, conversations, and dilemmas spawned by use of the epithet in a classroom setting where the author was the only Black person. His diary-like reflections reveal his skill as a keen reader of culture and literature. In these pages, Harris challenges his instructor and classmates and inspires readers to redress the long history of American racism and white supremacy bound up with the N-word. He reflects on how current Black artists and others use the word in a different way with the intention of empowering or claiming the term. But Harris is not convinced that even this usage does not further feed the word's racist roots.

Healing racial division begins with understanding the deep impact our words can have to tear down or to heal. This book invites the reader into this important conversation.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781506479163
  • eBook ISBN 9781506479170
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Pages 181
  • Publication Date October 26, 2021


"James Henry Harris--reverend, thinker, professor, public intellectual, and social activist--has confronted one of the most fraught topics in American history and illuminated it with visceral power. An enthralling, moving, and emotional journey of encounter, suffering, and victory."

William C. McDonald, professor, University of Virginia

"This is an elegant, heartfelt rumination on America's crucible of race. Engaging, beautifully crafted, and analytically powerful. By blending the narrative voice of a memoirist and the sharp insights of a true scholar, Harris achieves a remarkable literary triumph."

Tim Wise, author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

"James Henry Harris offers an outstanding analysis of the pain and degradation caused by using the n- word. His compelling story will stir your emotions, challenge your thinking, and keep you reading."

Jacqueline Madison-McCreary, pastor, First Baptist Church of New Market, Piscataway, New Jersey

"Harris's courageous memoir confronts the long debate over Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its use of the N-word. Marshaling critics from Hegel to bell hooks, and calling on a family history of resistance, Harris challenges his instructor and classmates, and in turn inspires his readers, to redress the long history of American racism and white supremacy bound up with the epithet."

Mark A. Sanders, University of Notre Dame

"James Henry Harris masterfully takes the reader on an experiential journey with an American classic as both analysis and memoir. N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic articulates the gravitas and visceral effects of the singular word in the English language, a word that still holds America in the grips of its nebulous struggle to traverse its path of liberty and justice for all. As Harris speaks from the heart, the reader will be forever transformed by his impassioned words."

Lisa Baldwin-Wilson, DMin student, Samuel De Witt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University

"Incendiary in the cleanliness of its outrage, N by James Henry Harris gives the real-life account of a Black man blindsided by the most insufferable word in the American lexicon, and his attempt to symbolize the ensuing trauma of being ambushed by it in the halls of academia. In this pursuit, Harris offers a winning critique of race and place, with the grace of an aging scholar trying to make sense of the forbidden word."

Tony Baugh, author of Groan in the Throat Vol. 1: "White Supremacy Is a Religion" and Other Essays on Being Black, Keeping the Faith, and Surviving America

"How do we resist a sign of evil without promulgating it? Mark Twain saturated and satirized the racist word; hip-hop tries to appropriate and 'flip' it. They both risk making it more pervasive and global. James Harris's way is to locate the word's cruelty in a memoir of childhood, education, and ministry--and of surviving a graduate seminar on Huckleberry Finn. The forbidden word is out there, as hostile as ever. His gripping, startling narratives show how and why."

Larry D. Bouchard, University of Virginia

"Harris combines the passion and power of personal experience with a masterful display of historical and literary criticism, and the finished product is a book that goes beyond Twain's painfully derogatory stereotypes, racial epithets, and persistent myths to expose race as the enduring and central dilemma of the American experience. In compelling terms, Harris helps us understand why our claims of a post-racial society remain open to serious question and debate."

Lewis V. Baldwin, emeritus professor of religious studies, Vanderbilt University

"In N, James Henry Harris presents a striking account of the psychic dislocation and spiritual pain caused by the forbidden word--encountered here in the absurd racism of Mark Twain's Pap Finn and as a tool that continues to express and enforce systemic inequity throughout American culture. Interwoven in this examination is Harris's profound testament to his family as a crucible for identity and a source of comfort and strength in the face of injustice. This is a moving and important work."

Andrew Blossom, College of William & Mary