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The Racism In Huckelberry Finn Essay, Research Paper
Twain a racist? The answers to these questions lie in the examination of
Mark Twain?s life and historical era, incidents and character comments
throughout Huckleberry Finn, and reviews by critics of many races.
Researching the life and times of Mark Twain led to various facts that
negate the popular opinion that he was racist. Born Samuel Langhorn
Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Missouri, Mark Twain witnessed an era
of accepted slavery and racism (Roberts, 5). Growing up in the slave state of
Missouri, Twain’s father was a slave trader several times in his many
occupational ventures. After his father’s death Twain spent several summers
with his uncle, John Quarles, who owned twenty slaves which provided
Twain with an up close view of slavery in action. Twain was deeply affected
by witnessing the brutal murder of a slave by a rock-throwing white man for
the crime of “merely doing something awkward? (Smith). Twain completed
Huckleberry Finn in 1884, at a time when black identity in American society
was undefined. Even though blacks had been granted citizenship in 1870 by
the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Southern white society still looked
upon them as sub-human creatures without souls or feelings. ?However, for
his time Twain was liberal on racial issues.? The themes of Huckleberry Finn
portray Mark Twain?s unrelenting belief in the equality of all races.
(Mark Twain, 530)
Although Huckleberry Finn is primarily a novel about freedom and the
quest for freedom, through the portrayal of the characters, Twain depicts the
human qualities of all, regardless of color. It details the story of a slave, Jim,
who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with
his family. Jim is accompanied by a white boy, Huck, who befriends him and
aids in his escape. This storyline of a white boy helping a runaway slave, and
in the process, perceiving Jim as an equal, in no way depicts racism and, in
fact, lends credence to Twain?s argument for the equality of all, whether
black or white. In order to change Huck?s initial misconception of ?nigger?
Jim, Twain reveals Jim?s humanity in a profoundly moving story about a time
when Jim struck his four-year-old daughter, ?Lizbeth.
?One day she was a-stannin? around?, en I says to her, I says: ?Shet de
do?!? She never done it; jis? stood dah, kiner smilin? up at me. It make me
mad . . . Jim tells her again, but she still does not respond, so he ?fetch? her
a slap side de head dat sont her a?sprawlin?.
Jim is unaware that his daughter?s recent scarlet fever has made her deaf. He
orders her to get to work one more time, but she still does not respond. Just
as he is about to strike her again, Jim notices that she does not react to their
cabin door slamming shut from a gust of wind: ? ?de chile never move!?. ?
Jim finally realizes that his daughter never heard him. He knows now that she
could not respond to him because ? ?she was plumb deef en dumb?. ?
Overcome with deep remorse, Jim tells Huck:
I bust out a-cryin? en grab her up in my arms en say, ‘Oh, de po? little
thing! de Lord God Amighty fogive po? ole Jim, kaze he never g
wyne to fogive hisself as long?s he live!’ (Twain, 337-338)
Huck is silent at the end of Jim?s story, leaving the reader to acknowledge
Jim?s humanity on their own. But, nowhere in the novel is Jim?s humanity
more apparent than when he offers the ultimate sacrifice, his freedom, to save
Tom?s life. Huck and Tom help Jim escape from the Phelps? Farm, and in the
process, Tom is wounded. It soon becomes apparent that his injuries are
serious. Jim volunteers to stay with Tom while Huck fetches a doctor, even
though he knows that he will probably be captured and forced back into
slavery. Believing that Tom would do the same for him if he were in that
situation, Jim says:
Ef it wuz him dat ?uz bein? sot free, en one er de boys wuz to git shot,
would he say, ?Go on en save me, nemmine ?bout a doctor f?r to
save dis one? Is dat like Mars Tom Sawyer? Would he say dat: You
bet he wouldn?t! Well, den, is Jim gwyne to say it? No, sah–I doan
?budge a step out?n dis place, ?dout a doctor; not if it?s forty year!
Through closer examination of Huckleberry Finn, it is revealed that
Twain relies on satirical passages to further express his non-racial emphasis.
In one scene, for example, Aunt Sally hears of a steamboat explosion.
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?” she asks.
“No’m,” comes the answer. “Killed a nigger.”
?Well, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.” (Twain, 213)
Anyone who believes that Mark Twain meant this literally is missing the
point. Rather, Twain is using this casual dialogue ironically, as a way to
underscore the chilling truth about the old south, that it was a society where
perfectly “nice” people didn’t consider the death of a black person worth their
notice (Salwen). In further support of Twain?s satiric intent, during a recent
interview between David Gergen, editor-at-large of “U.S. News & World
Report,” and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of American studies in
English and author of ?Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark
Twain and American Culture?, Fishkin stated:
In ?Huckleberry Finn?, the word “nigger” is used over 200 times.
Twain understood that if you?re going to satirize racists, you have to let
them speak the way they would have spoken. You have to show them
convincingly to show what?s wrong with them.
Although satirical references run rampant throughout Huckleberry Finn,
Twain’s character portrayals can often be seen in a more serious light. Jim is
never presented in a negative way. He is not portrayed as a drunkard, as a
mean person or as a cheat. This is in contrast to the way Huck’s father, Pap, is
depicted, whom is described using all of the above characterizations and
more. Jim is seen as a good friend, a man devoted to his family and loyal to
his companions. In the South during that period, black people were treated as
less than human and the examples of the way Jim is denigrated: by being
locked up, having to hide his face in the daytime and how he is generally
derided, needed to be portrayed for historical accuracy. Huck, however, does
not treat Jim as most whites do. Huck looks at Jim as a friend, and by the end
of their journey, disagrees with society’s notion that blacks are inferior. An
example of this is when Huck is faced with a decision to tell of Jim’s
whereabouts, which would return Jim to slavery, ?he wrestles with his
conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be
damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friend? (Salwen).
Throughout the years, hundreds of critics have dwelled on the
controversy over the racial epithets in Huckleberry Finn. Booker T.
Washington, who has known Samuel Clemens for a number of years,
believed Clemens? interest in the Negro race is expressed best in Huckleberry
Finn. He stated in his Tribute to Mark Twain:
I do not believe any one can read this story closely, however, without
becoming aware of the deep sympathy of the author in Jim. In fact,
before one gets through with the book, one cannot fail to observe that
in some way or other the author, without making any comment and
without going out of his way, has somehow succeeded in making his
readers feel a genuine respect for “Jim,” in spite of the ignorance he
The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim’s
“dignity and human capacity” to emerge in the novel.
Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only
a slave but a human being and a symbol of humanity . . . and in freeing
Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil
taken for civilization by the town. (Salwen)
Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out that, in interpreting Jim’s superstitions as
evidence he is simple-minded, for example, modern readers might be
revealing more about their ignorance of his culture (and arrogance towards
folk culture in general) than about the inherent simple-mindedness of Jim’s
beliefs. And she argues that many of the stories in which a white person
seems to get the better of Jim have a second reading in which Jim remains the
hero of his version of the story, in spite of the white world’s attempts to
A thorough examination of Mark Twain?s life and times,
characterizations throughout Huckleberry Finn, and critiques by literary
experts, reveals that Mark Twain was not racist, nor was his intent to
perpetuate racism through his novel.
I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices.
All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough
for me; he can’t be any worse. — Mark Twain. (Neff)
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. ?Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American
Voices.? 6 April 2000. *www.yorku.ca/twainweb/reviews/whb.html*.
…?Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American
Culture.? By David Gergen. U.S. News & World Report.
Neff, Jim . ?Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn.? 12 April 2000.
Roberts, James L. Cliff?s Notes on Twain?s Huckleberry Finn. Lincoln: Cliff?s Notes,
Salwen, Peter. ?Is Huck Finn a Racist Book?? 4 April 2000.
Smith, Russell. ?Was Mark Twain a Racist?? 10 April 2000.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Toronto: Bantam Books. 1965
?Twain, Mark.? The World Book Encyclopedia. 1988.
Washington, Booker T. ?Tribute to Mark Twain.? 6 April 2000.
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