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Barrish, P. (2002). The Secret Joys of Antiracist Pedagogy: Huckleberry Finn in the Classroom. Am. Imago, 59(2):117-139.

(2002). American Imago, 59(2):117-139

The Secret Joys of Antiracist Pedagogy: Huckleberry Finn in the Classroom

Phillip Barrish

“Never say ‘nigger’ again. Never have I heard this word spoken by a white person—or a black one, for that matter—without feeling terribly angry and uncomfortable. Too much history and hostility are conjured up by this word. … I don't care how you use it. I don't care if you're quoting some horrible white racist you abhor—do not say it, and confront those white people who do.”

—M. Garlinda Burton, Never Say Nigger Again!

“Before change is possible, that is, we need to recognize how we get our enjoyment.”

—Dennis Foster, Sublime Enjoyment

This essay explores what I believe to be an unavoidable paradox encountered by white liberal professors who set out to practice antiracist pedagogy in mostly, but not entirely, white classrooms. The paradox derives from the inevitability of the professors’ (and, often, their students”) citing, and thus in a sense performing, the blatantly racist past—most emblematically, the racist past compressed within the word “nigger”—even while trying to move beyond its influence. This performative citing of the past occurs within a purportedly antiracist psychic and socioinstitutional “present,” but one that retains its identity as antiracist by turning away from its own dependence upon racial hierarchies and exclusions.

Among other aims, I hope here to offer a new purchase on certain oft-recognized dilemmas involved in teaching Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a brilliant and seminal American novel in which the word “nigger” appears over 200 times.

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