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Racism in Huckleberry Finn

Racism means “the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and the belief of one specific race’s superiority”. This word plays a major role in history and in the novel ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. Many people and many facts lead you to believe Huckleberry Finn represents racism. I, on the other hand, believe Huckleberry Finn does not represent racism. Throughout history critics have criticized Mark Twain about Huckleberry Finn being a racist novel and Twain himself being a racist.

Mark Twain, through his writings in Huckleberry Finn makes it clear he does not support racism in any way. For example, Mark Twain portrayed Pap Finn, a racist, as an uneducated, alcoholic who beats his child. On the other hand, he portrays Jim, a slave, as a caring, loving father and a trustworthy companion to Huck. “In the nineteenth century, Twain’s work was significant in that it brought the ideas of African Americans, ideas shared by such writers as Anna Cooper, to a wide audience they could not hope to reach. ”

Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain nearly two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in America. Though this novel was written after slavery was abolished, Mark Twain set it several decades earlier, when slavery was still a fact of life. The novel is set in the South where the blacks were still slaves with no legal rights and were faced with high degrees of discrimination. Their status was lower than that of a white person, and Huck grows up debating that reality. It is a barrier at first between himself and Jim, which they eventually realize and overcome.

But even by Twain’s time, things were not much better for blacks in the South and in this light; we might read his novel as a depiction of slavery, an allegorical representation of the condition of blacks in the United States even after the abolition of slavery. Just as slavery placed the noble and moral Jim under the control of white society, no matter how degraded that white society may be, so too did the insidious racism that arose near the end of reconstruction oppress black men for illogical and hypocritical reasons.

In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, by exposing the hypocrisy of slavery, demonstrates how racism distorts the oppressors as much as it does those who are oppressed. The result is a world of moral confusion, in which seemingly ‘good’ white people such as Miss Watson and Sally Phelps express no concern about the injustice of slavery or the cruelty of separating Jim from his family. Huck a poor, uneducated boy and for all purposes an orphan is treated as an outcast by society. This society fails to protect him from abuse and thus he distrusts the morals and precepts of this society.

Thus Huck questions many of the teachings which he has received and in his growing relationship with Jim he questions the teachings on race and slavery. Huck prefers to ‘go to hell’ rather than follow the rules that he has been taught. This outlook of Huck is based on his own logic, his own conscience and his own experience. When he is on the raft away from the rules of society, he comes to his own conclusion by taking his own decisions without any restrictions from the so called civilized society. He is totally unaffected by the accepted rules and regulations of the Southern culture which as we see is often hypocritical.

By the end of the novel we observe that Huck has learnt to distinguish things around him, good, and bad, right and wrong, etc. Mark twain has depicted the society around Huck as that of degraded rules and precepts that defy logic. This faulty logic appears early in the novel when the judge allows Huck’s Pap to have his custody as he is the natural father of Huck without looking into the fact if he was capable of bringing up Huck without abusing him. This decision throws light on a system which prevailed, the white man’s right to his ‘property’—- non other than his slaves, thus curbing the freedom and welfare of the black men.

Comparing the plight of Huck at the hands of his father to the plight of the slaves at the hands of their owners we see a society where it is impossible for the owners of the slaves to be just to them, however civilized the society proclaims itself to be. Sally Phelps, a good individual is a prejudiced slave owner. Thus society as depicted by Mark Twain consists of good people but does not look to the collective welfare of all but is marked by prejudice , lack of logic and selfishness.

Ironically, Huck often knows better than the adults around him, even though he has lacked the guidance of a proper family and community. Twain also frequently draws links between Huck’s youth and Jim’s status as a black man, both are vulnerable, yet Huck, because he is white, has power over Jim but the affection Huck feels for Jim makes him tell a number of lies and he even fools a few people, especially the slave-hunters, to whom he makes up a story about a smallpox outbreak in order to protect Jim. Here Huck realizes that telling a lie can actually be a good thing, depending on its purpose.

This insight is part of Huck’s learning process, as he finds that some of the rules he has been taught contradict with what seems to be “right. ” The river, the Mississippi river was a symbol of freedom to both Huck and Jim, for Huck freedom from his abusive father and for Jim freedom from his owners; he is heading towards the Free States. Literally, Jim seeks freedom from slavery. Figuratively, Huck seeks to be free, and not have to live in fear of his father, or being civilized. Jim faces many struggles. He is constantly reminded of the dangers of running and is threatened by his capture.

He is also forced to accept the fact that his race makes him inferior to a white, and even a friend like Huck is still of higher status. Huck and Jim overcome the race barrier, only after Huck overcomes the inner struggle of whether to save Jim or not. Huck’s idea of racism is based on his upbringing, but he himself questions the validity of these statements of black inferiority. Like the river both are willing to change their attitude about each other with little prompting. However they soon discover that they are not completely free from the evils and influences of society as they embark on the shores of towns.

Moreover the river floods and brings them in contact with criminals and the thick fog causes them to miss the mouth of the Ohio River, the route of their escape towards freedom. Thus the river, which once seemed a paradise and a source of freedom, becomes merely a short-term means of escape, and it pushes Huck and Jim to further danger and destruction. This racist idea as depicted by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn has become a topic of increasing discussion in recent years. “Mark Twain has often met with resentment for his seemingly negative portrayal of black characters and the use of the word “nigger” in some of his works.

Partly because of an emotional reaction to this word, many people dismiss Twain as a racist and protest the use of his major novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a required text in schools”. The novel has been banned by many public schools and had been censored by many public libraries. Regarded as a classic, Huckleberry Finn has engendered controversy from the start. The Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned it shortly after publication. In reporting approvingly of this action, the Boston Transcript noted that members of the library committee found the book ‘trash’ and ‘rough’, ‘coarse’, and ‘inelegant.

‘ The Springfield Republican found the novel ‘a gross trifling with every fine feeling’ and ‘harmful. ‘ The more serious accusation, however, are the charges that the book encourages racism. In 1957 New York City junior and senior high schools dropped the novel from a list of approved books because it uses the term ‘nigger’ and allegedly stereotypes Jim. Ironically, the Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia, stated, ‘the book is poison…. It works against the idea that all men are created equal…. anybody who teaches this book is a racist. ‘

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