Racism and Huckleberry Finn: A Look Below The Surface

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“I see it warn’t no use wasting words—you can’t learn a nigger to argue. ” Says Huckleberry Finn, the central character Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain 78). This casually racist comment—which, in itself, embodies several of the racism-based arguments for the censorship of Twain’s 1884 novel—is one of many that pervades the forty-three chapters of the classic American work. However, the portrayal of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though it has not gone uncontested by critics and readers alike, is one that should not simply be disregarded as an insensitive depiction of antebellum race relations. In fact, under the guise of a boy’s adventure story, Twain’s satirical account of the pre-Civil War South, through which he also satirizes the Southern mentality that persisted long after the Confederacy’s surrender in 1865, succeeds in making several very strong statements about the race relations that existed, and even continue to exist, in society. Though on the surface Twain’s novel may appear to be an example of the “racist trash” that some critics have cited it as, it is clear that if one takes a closer look, he or she will realize that Twain is merely holding a mirror to the racist society of the past and perhaps even of the present.

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Despite this contradiction, however, one Twain scholar, Nat Hentoff, describes the pair’s relationship in a solely positive light, claiming that Huck’s ability to see beyond the barriers of Jim’s color is a prominent force throughout the novel: “Look at Huck Finn. Reared in racism, like all the white kids in his town. And then, on the river, on the raft with Jim, shucking off that blind ignorance because [he learns] this runaway slave is the most honest, perceptive, fair minded man this white boy has ever known. Another important instance in which Twain illustrates the offhandedly racist attitudes of the characters in the novel occurs when Huck learns that Jim has been sold to the owner of the Phelps Farm. Upon his arrival on the property, Huck lies to Sally Phelps about a steamboat cylinder- head explosion that hurt no one but “killed a nigger,” to which Aunt Sally responds with relief, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” (Twain 213). Despite the arguments of critics who claim that such a nonchalant display of racism on both Sally’s and Huck’s part is one that, once again, displays Twain’s own indifference when it comes to racist outlooks and attitudes, it continues to be unquestionable that the opposite is true.

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According to Kakutani, the “racist” aspects of the book are simply representations of a common regional patois and history itself – both of which are representations that help readers remember the past and allow them to better assess the present. In addition to this, the overriding themes in the novel, those that condemn the hypocrisy and immorality of racism, provide valuable lessons to the reader. With this in mind, it is clear that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a teachable book and should be included in high school American literature curriculums because, with proper instruction on the novel’s allegorical nature, its themes and dialects can help high school students see past the barriers of race that continue to exist today and put Twain’s satirical messages to use for the better. To the superficial eye, Twain’s descriptions of the customs, attitudes, and viewpoints that prevailed in the antebellum South may provide a false initial representation of the novel’s implications and message. Although the portrayal of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one that may ostensibly appear to distinguish the novel as racist altogether, if a reader looks below the surface, he or she will realize that Twain is simply seeking to alert his readers to the injustice of the racism that already existed in the society about which he chose to write.

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