- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by American author, Mark Twain is both considered one of the great American novels and one of the most frequently banned and contested novels due to its use of the N word and racial stereotype.
This has launched many debates as to if the work should even be taught in schools.
And the larger question of, is Huckleberry Finn racist?
Today, we are going to attempt to crack the case, is Huckleberry Finn an anti-racist work, or is it just plain old racist, or as in most things, is it a little bit more nuanced and complex?
Let's get it to it.
(upbeat music) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the second book in the Tom Sawyer literary universe, taking place after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Considered one of the earliest novels to be written in dialect.
The story brings us into the brutal world of Huckleberry Finn.
A young kid who finds out that his father, Pap Finn has returned to town.
Papa Finn is what we would call a rolling stone.
And has a history of violence and gambling and Huck is worried that his return means more abuse, both physically and financially.
Pap tells Huck to quit school and warns him not to put on airs of superiority by all that book learning.
I'll take you down a peg before I get done with you.
You're educated too, they say, can read and write.
You think you're better than your father now, don't you?
Because he can't?
I'll take it out of you.
Who told you you might meddle with such hifalut'n foolishness, hey?
Who taught you you could?
Huck continues to attend school just to spite his father, which good for you, Huck, fight him with knowledge.
But Pap kidnaps him and takes them to a small cabin on the Illinois shore.
There he is beaten constantly.
And so Huck fakes his own murder and escapes down the Mississippi river.
Huck Finn, the first Gone Girl.
During his escape hug stumbled across Jim, a runaway slave person who has left his master in order to avoid being sold down river.
Being sold down river, is a reference to one enslaved people would be taken to Louisville to be sold to cotton plantations in the states further south via the Mississippi river.
In it's 2010 history of the Mississippi River, Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, journalist Lee Sandlin, said, "The threat of being sold down the river was seen as tantamount to a death sentence."
Huck and Jim are now on adventure for freedom that ends with Jim being free because its former master released him in her will.
Huck Finn ends the novel saying, so there ain't nothing more to write about and I'm rotten glad of it, because if I'd known what a trouble it was to make a book, I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't gonna do no more.
Honestly, relatable, writing a book is hard.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, AKA Mark Twain.
That was his pen name.
See, call backs, so I get to watch all his videos.
You never know what's going to lead into what, was a Missouri boy raised in Hannibal, Missouri.
When his father passed away, 11, Twain became a printer's apprentice and eventually upgraded to a printer himself.
Despite all of this work in printing, his dream at the time was to be a steamboatman And eventually he got a chance to work on a boat before the civil war.
Speaking of the civil war, Twain did serve in the Confederate army, but quickly left and saw no real combat.
This will become important later.
Eventually, Twain became a writer and publisher becoming responsible for the publication of President Ulysses S Grant's memoirs as well as eight novels of his own, including four other novels in the Tom Sawyer extended universe, along with several unfinished fragments in said universe, dozens of short stories and essays as well as his own autobiography, because who knows you better than you.
Politically, Twain got a lot more radical the older he got.
His daughter died before 1899, Twain was an imperialist, but that opinion followed the Philippine-American war where he said the following, I wanted the American Eagle to go screaming into the Pacific.
Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself?
I said to myself, Here are people who have suffered for three centuries.
We can make them as free as ourselves.
Give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific.
Start a brand new Republic to take its place among the free nations of the world.
It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves, but I have had thought some more since then.
And I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American war.
And I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.
We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.
Despite having been enlisted in the civil war on the side of the Confederacy, Twain was against slavery, but was notably not great about American Indian rights in his early writings.
But one of the things about him having written so much, is that we were able to see his thoughts fully evolve with the times.
And all of this informs the way that we in the modern era read and consume Huck Finn.
Huck is probably along with predecessor, Tom Sawyer, Twain's most well-known insightive book because of the controversy concerning race and racial stereotypes in the novel.
The character of Jim is an enslaved person and written in a very stereotypical way.
And the N word is used a lot in the texts.
And Jim is sometimes referred to as N-word Jim in the book.
This has led to educators and others attempting to either censor the book or ban it outright and has sparked that question that is at the top of this very video, is the book racist or not?
Let's look at what academia has to say about this very, very, very notable topic.
A lot of academics, especially black academics take issue with Jim's characterization in the last few chapters of the book.
Professor Forrest G Robinson at the university of California at Santa Cruz makes this observation.
- [Lindsay] More recent critics have been strongly inclined to contrast the submissive slave who appears in the closing chapters with the more complete human being who moves to the central sections of the narrative.
Modern observers are in broad agreement that this simpler, more passive Jim is radically out of character.
Joseph Sawicki has observed that the Jim of the final chapters is "reduced to a stock character."
- For clarity about this very convoluted part of the book, Jim is taken by plantation owners, Silas and Sally Phelps.
Their nephew is Tom Sawyer.
So Huck decides to pretend to be Tom Sawyer in order to sneak in and help Jim escape.
That's part one.
Then part two, the real Tom Sawyer shows up and then pretends to be his own older brother in order to help the ruse.
Long story short, Tom comes up with a really convoluted plan to help Jim escape and ends up getting shot.
Jim, rather than escaping, decides to stay by Tom side, giving up a chance for freedom.
Professor of English, Neil Schmitz, points out that Jim absurdly decides to sacrifice his life and the family who professes to love, for Tom's sake.
What makes this worse, so much worse, is that Tom knows that Jim has been freed from slavery this whole time, the whole time.
And rather than say anything, he comes up with this ridiculous plan because it's more fun and he's a dumb teenage white boy.
And so the stakes are very low for him, even though they are the highest for Jim.
When that is revealed, Schmidt's notes of Jim's character, that he is "denied the privilege of wrath, even resentment, Jim hardens into a piece of statuary" Yet despite this writing for Jim, something that is acknowledged to be limited at times, there are black academics who very much still see Huck Finn as an anti-racist text.
David Smith, Professor of English at Williams College settled the controversy.
It is therefore ironic that Huckleberry Finn has often been attacked and even censored as a racist work.
I would argue, on the contrary, that except from Melville's work, Huckleberry Finn is without peer among major Euro-American novels for its explicitly anti-racist stance.
Those who brand the book "racist" generally do so without having considered this specific form of racial discourse, to which the novel responds.
Furthermore, Huckleberry Finn offers much more than the typical liberal defenses of "human dignity" and "protests against cruelty."
Now this is on a universal take as Dr. Bernard W.Bell makes this following point about Twain, born and bred in the antebellum Southwest, a volunteer in the Confederate militia and advocate for the delightful accuracy of minstrelsy, Twain, as we will see, struggles valiantly, like Huck, to reject the legacy of American racism and to accept his personal share of responsibility for the injustice of slavery, but never in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, does he fully and unequivocally accept the equality of blacks.
So, good intent, but more work could have been done in the book to make the politics clear.
Personally speaking, in reading Huck Finn, the writing for Jim reminded me of the equally jarring depictions of enslaved people in uncle Tom's cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Another book that is anti-racist in intention, but it feels a little bit more minstrelsy than anti-racist in context, especially in a modern-day era.
Depicting a character like Jim in an infantilizing way and the need to strip his humanity to let a white boy get the best of him is in a way comforting to white readers of the time.
Let's not forget that Finn came out 20 years after the civil war ended.
So that was really fresh in the minds of white readers, even more so than today where, you know, they still somehow forget that they lost, but whatever.
It was a very big deal.
And even this much depiction of an enslaved person being freed might have still been seen as radical.
Ultimately these choices are meant that white people can feel empathy for the realities of enslaved people.
This is why the book is so hard for black readers, especially in a school setting.
The late great author, Toni Morrison, wrote the introduction to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford University press edition.
In it, she says the source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear and imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses.
Huck Finn's, estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child, the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim's and his relationship and the secrecy in which Huck's engagement with, rather than escape from, a racist society is necessarily conducted.
It's also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant.
It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim's shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck.
My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflicted society is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain pulls that maze, that risk.
The book is traumatic, but there are valuable lessons to take out of reading it in academic setting.
And yet I feel like the following statement really sums up how I feel about teaching Huck Finn.
We think that Huck Finn is an important work on art that should be available in every library in the world, but we don't think it should be required reading in any predominantly white high school where African American students are in a small minority.
In a way you are marginalizing them even more to have all of these white classmates be asked and required to show a level of racial maturity when discussing the N word.
I mean, we can't even get Congress to acknowledge racism in this country.
And then we're going to ask teenagers to do it without giving them the necessary tools to do so.
Reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to actively teach the history of racism.
And that requires putting a lot of work to put that book in conversation with other works and a time period, not simply rushing through it because it shows up in the SATs or geographies as a required text in American reading.
It is an educational experience.
I don't believe in banning books, but I believe that if we're going to teach Huck Finn, then that means teaching the America that Mark Twain was writing about and the audience he was writing for.
I want to end with these words by Associate Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, when we teach the adventures of huckleberry Finn, To kill a Mockingbird, and other classics of American literature, do we provide room for contemporary voices?
What would it mean to pair Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with selected excerpts from Huck Finn?
How about teaching the Scottsboro trial and screening speeches from Civil Rights-era thinkers during our To Kill a Mockingbird literature units.
Or is it time to revisit the cannon completely, rethinking how we tackle the narrate our national story through the literature that we teach?
Our collective answers to these questions has significance not only for the contemporary moment but also for English teaching and learning in the decades to come.