Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous

Journal: Southeastern Theological Review
Volume: STR 05:2 (Winter 2014)
Article: Book Reviews
Author: Anonymous

Book Reviews

James Henry Harris. The Forbidden Word: The Symbol and Sign of Evil in American Literature, History, and Culture. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. xiv + 132 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978–1620322604. $18.00 (Paperback).

Pastor and theologian James Henry Harris writes a witty, engaging book that centers on the use of the “n-word” in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in American society in general. Part literary exegesis, part memoir, Harris criticizes America’s racist past as he positions his own experience, growing up African-American in central Virginia during the 1960s, within that history. Harris argues that there is no essential difference between Twain’s copious use of nigger in Huck Finn and the use of nigga by African-American Hip-Hop artists: both have capitalized on the American creed of African-American inferiority. One major implication of this argument is that every African-American has his or her own history with “the forbidden word,” which also serves as an index of the collective historical experiences of all African Americans.

Harris uses his experience as a first-time reader of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the only African-American student in an English class on the book in 2006, as the gateway to his commentary on certain aspects of African-American social history as well as his own family’s history. Harris’ text weaves different themes of Huck Finn and African-American life in ways that are quite insightful at times, and disjointed at others. In chapter five, for example, Harris re-tells a colorful and enjoyable story about his father and uncle watching the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight in May 1965. However, there is no discernible connection between this chapter and the issues that swirled around the forbidden word. The reader is forced to work overtime to make a link (assuming that there is one).

Then there’s Harris’ keen perception in relating a seemingly mundane theme in Huck Finn, smoking, and African-American social life. Harris states that in Huck Finn everyone smokes (as did nearly half of the students in his class). “Huck Finn loved smoking,” writes Harris (p. 36). From this point, Harris rehearses his history with smoking and how the tobacco culture of central Virginia

pervaded every area of African-American life, producing an addicted and unhealthy society. Even though Harris makes this astute connection about the love of smoking in Huck Finn’s day and in his own, he fails to connect the history of tobacco cultivation in Virginia with African slavery. There was Harris, a young African-American man, working in a tobacco fact...

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