by James Henry Harris
Cascade Books: Eugene, Ore. 146 pages.
“The Forbidden Word” by James Henry Harris, is a good conversation stimulator for sensitive words used in our discourse with one another. His book takes on the “N” word as he gives an accounting of his growing up in Virginia and his experience as a graduate student in a classroom setting which dealt entirely with the classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. Harris acknowledges that the “N” word racial epithet is used to describe Huck’s traveling companion Jim more than two hundred and twenty times. In the final analysis, he concludes that regardless of its embedded existence in U.S. culture, it did not need to be used as often as it was in Twain’s book.
The frequent use of the word is and was a reflection of a society that has not come fully to the understanding that African-Americans are human and as entitled to God’s love and grace as is any other human. “The ubiquitous use of nigger by Twain is the basic reason why his novel has attained the status of an American classic. Nigger 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 nigger is tantamount to describing what makes America, America. Mark Twain knew this. He capitalized on it. This made him complicit in propagating America’s white supremacist and capitalist culture.”
Harris begins by saying, “The history and meaning of the forbidden word N-I-G-G-E-R in America is that of a vile pejorative slang term for a Black person.” He takes on the hip-hop culture that has transported the word internationally through its music, making it possible that an African-American might be approached by someone who thinks it is OK to call a black person “N.” He takes on the camaraderie that might exist between African-Americans who belief that they have transcended the word in some high-bred fashion by saying N-I-G-G-A instead.
The author juxtaposes his own early life of poverty and growing up with the word around him. He wonders if its use in the African-American community is to show they have not forgotten those who are still left behind among the disadvantaged. The word is one that is laden with complexities — almost a sacred icon for some and a profane image for others. He points to W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote that there is a “double life that every American Negro must live … such a double life with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals … .”
The book may lead to discussions of other sensitive words that are used as negatives against other segments of society. Should the name Redskins, the “R” word, which offends some Native Americans, be changed to something else? Both the N and R words need to be retired from our vocabulary. They are used as racial slurs against segments of the population. And while we are at it, let’s put that “B” word for women on the shelf as well.
ELENORA GIDDINGS IVORY is an honorably retired PC(USA) teaching elder and former director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness.