Racism Debate Essay, Research Paper
By M. Odeh
There is a major argument among literary critics whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is, or is not a racist novel. The question comes down to the depiction of Jim, the black slave, and to the way Huck and the other characters treat him. The use of the word “nigger” is a main point raised by many critics, who feel that Twain uses the word too much and too loosely.
Although Mark Twain never presents Jim in a completely negative light, he is not considered a true equal. He does not show him as a drunkard, as a mean person or as a cheat. This is in contrast to the way Huck’s (white) father is depicted, whom is described using the all of the above characterizations.
He is however, very na?ve and superstitious. This may be taken to imply that all blacks have these qualities. When Jim turns to his magic hairball for answers about the future, we see that he does believe in some foolish things. However, both whites and blacks for answers to what the future holds would visit him. This depiction of Jim is not negative in the sense that Jim is stupid or inferior, and in this aspect of the story there is no clear racism.
It is necessary to analyze the way the white characters treat Jim throughout the book. In the South during that period, black people were treated less than human, and Twain needed to portray this. A few examples of Jim being denigrated were his being locked up, having to hide his face in the daytime and how he is generally derided. It is mentioned in the novel that the author did not necessarily approve of the way Jim was treated, but that it was necessary for historical accuracy.
Huck, however, does not treat Jim the way most of the white characters did though. Huck looks at Jim as a friend, and by the end of their journey disagrees that blacks are inferior. There are two main examples of this in the story. The first one is where Huck is disgusted by Jim’s plans to steal his own children, who are “someone else’s property.” While Huck is still racist here, Twain has written the scene in a way that ridicules the notion that someone’s children can actually be the property of a stranger just because the father is black. The second example is where Huck does not tell the whereabouts of Jim, which would return Jim to slavery. He instead makes the choice of “going to Hell” in order to keep his new friends freedom a secret.
The more obvious example that supports the notion that the novel is racist is the constant use of the word “nigger.” This is not a good reason because this is how blacks were referred to during that time in history. To use the word African-American would have taken away from the story’s impact.
On a superficial level Huck might appear racist. The first time the reader meets Jim; he is given a very negative description. The reader is told that Jim is illiterate, childlike, not very bright, and very superstitious. However it is very important to realize who is giving this description and of whom it is being given to. Although Huck is not a racist child, he has been raised by an extremely individuals who have, even if subconsciously, ingrained some feelings of bigotry into his mind. It is also important to keep in mind that blacks at the time were not permitted any form of formal education, were never allowed independent thought and were constantly maltreated and abused. Twain is merely portraying by the way of Jim, a very realistic slave raised in the South during that period. To say that Twain was racist because of his desire for historical accuracy is absurd.
Despite the few incidences in which Jim’s description might be misconstructed as racist, there are many points in the novel where Twain through Huck, voices his extreme opposition to the slave trade and racism. In chapter six, Huck’s father fervently objects to the governments granting of suffrage to an educated black professor. Twain wants the reader to see the absurdity in this statement. Huck’s father believes that he is superior to this black professor based on the color of his skin.
In chapter fifteen the reader is told of an incident, which contradicts the original “childlike” description of Jim. Throughout the chapter the reader is presented Jim as a very caring and father like image that is becomes worried when he loses Huck in the deep fog. Twain is pointing out the connection, which has been made between Jim and Huck. A connection, which does not exist between a man and his property. When Huck first meets Jim on the Island he makes a monumental decision, not to turn Jim in. Two opposing forces, the force of society, and the force of friendship confront him.
Many times throughout the novel Huck comes very close to rationalizing Jim’s slavery. However, he is never able to see a reason why this man who has become one of his only friends should be a slave. Through this internal struggle, Twain expresses his opinions on the absurdity of slavery and the importance of following one’s personal conscience before the laws of society. By the end of the novel, Huck and the reader come to understand that Jim is not someone’s property and an inferior man, but an equal.
Throughout the novel society’s voice is heard through Huck. The racist and hateful contempt, which existed now. Twain brings into the open the ugliness of society and causes the reader to challenge the original description of Jim. In a subtle manner, he creates not an apology for slavery but a challenge to it.