Racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in January 1885, has been severely criticized for its racist content. Though commended by Earnest Hemmingway as "one book" from which "all modern American literature" came, for Twain's critics, the novel is steeped in racism. The repeated use of the word "nigger" contributes largely to this assessment. The "N" word has been used over two hundred times in the book which has been condemned as offensive to black readers and, therefore, according to some critics, the book does not deserve a place in libraries and on bookshelves.

      Written at a time when slavery had been abolished but prejudice against blacks hadn't, the novel is Twain's attempt to expose the ruthlessness of society towards African Americans of the day. It is the story of a "white" boy, Huck, trying to save a runaway nigger trom captivity. Twain has steered the readers' attention from a tale of plain "boyish adventure" to a more serious moral content. Through the innocent fourteen-year old, Huck, Twain demonstrates his condescension for the pre-Civil War society and helps us take a critical look at the same.

      On the surface of it, the novel is bursting with characters that propagate racism. Early in the novel, we have a rendezvous with Tom's racist attitude. When he and Huck are trying to escape into the woods, Tom wants to play a trick on the sleeping Jim. He ties him up to a tree and demonstrates his complete lack of sensitivity towards the latter's feelings. Tom has an inherent thoughtlessness towards members of the black race - a fact that becomes evident, again, at the end of the novel with his announcement that Jim has been "a free man" tor two months. Why, then, did he play this hide-and-seek game of Jim's escape and make life miserable for him? For the sake of some plain fun and "adventure", Tom didn't flinch at the thought of torturing Jim. However, Tom's upbringing has taught him that a "nigger, being interior to the "white" man, does not deserve respect and consideration and, therefore, it is "right" to disregard his sentiments because he doesn't have any. Through the character of Tom, Mark Twain is trying to exhibit and satirize the foolishness.and outlook of the "civilized" lot - their bookish learning and tendency towards racism.

      The "God-fearing" and "religious lot like Miss Watson and the Phelpses are also not free from this streak of racial prejudice. While Miss Watson preaches to Huck that he should believe in Providence and do good to others, she doesn't find anything wrong in her decision to sell her slave to a trader and, eventually, separate him from his family for ever and ever. She doesn't recognize the fact that a "nigger", also a human being, needs to be with his family. It is, according to people like her, the prerogative of the superior whites.

      Mrs. Phelps, though an extremely kind old lady, doesn't flinch at thee news of the death of a "nigger" as long as no "people" were hurt in the boat explosion. Her relief, in this context, is extremely impolite and racist especially when she responds, "it's lucky because sometimes people do get hurt". After all, their upbringing has taught them that black people don't count as people, and it doesn't matter if they get hurt.

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?" she asks.
"No'm," comes the answer. "Killed a nigger."

      A discerning reader would be able to unearth the fact that Twain doesn't subscribe to this view. He is trying to accentuate the bitter truth about the perfectly "nice" people of the South, who, though kind and devout Christians, are insensitive to the death of a black person.

      Even the drunken, uneducated, and unemployed Pap, representing the lowest class of white Southern society shows, his racist inclination. In chapter 6, when he kidnaps Huck, he returns from town, livid at the government.

"And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself...but when they told me there was a state in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote ag'in.. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it's a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a-hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger..."

      It is preposterous how a useless and vagrant "white" man can claim his superiority over a well-educated "nigger" merely on racial grounds Through Pap's strong racist sentiment, Twain seeks to reveal his disgust at the irrationality of people's hatred towards those belonging to the black community. The nigger has done nothing wrong but Pap doesn't recoil when he calls him a "thieving, infernal nigger".

      Even Huck is not free from the racist sentiment. In the beginning (chapter 10), Huck, like Tom, disregards Jim's sentiments and plays several pranks, including the "rattle-snake" incident, on him.

      In chapter 23, Huck is surprised at Jim's display of emotion when he fondly talks of his family and daughter. Influenced by the racism that he has inherited from society, Huck has also been taught that a black man is not capable of such a degree of emotion.

"He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn't ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe that he cared just as much for his people as white folks does their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so."

      Huck's upbringing and exposure has taught him the ridiculous idea' that a "nigger" is inferior to a "white" man, not only in status but also in emotion and feeling. Twain shows his contempt for the corrupting and demoralizing weight that Southern civilized society has on Huck. The novelist displays his disdain for slavery through a character that has "learnt his lesson" and that character is Huck. After playing all those practical jokes on Jim, he realizes that slaves have feelings too. They also want to be with their family.

      During his journey down the Mississippi with Jim, Huck goes through emotional maturity. His attitude starts changing. He lets his own experience and judgment decide his course of action and does not succumb to what society claims to be "right" or "wrong". In the scene where the slave-traders catch up with the raft, they ask, "Is your man white or black?" After a great tug of war with the teachings of society, finally Huck blurts out, "He's white." This statement is a great milestone in Huck's character.

      Despite presenting a myriad of characters, who propagate the inferiority of the black man, Twain does not concur with their stance. He defies society's perspective and does not resent Jim on racial grounds. As Booker T. Washington points out how Twain "succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for Jim." Through the character of Jim he had "exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people."

      The entire novel is satiated with drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynches, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers and hypocrites. Interestingly, all these abominable people are "white", The only man, who is worthy of respect as a true human being, is Jim, the "nigger". Despite fear of life, Jim refuses to leave the wounded Tom alone. True humanity, which the others are devoid of, is an attribute of Jim. The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how, through Jim, Twain allows Jim's "dignity and human capacity" to surface in the novel.

      It is, therefore, high time that we absolve Mark Twain of the charge of being a racist writer and acknowledge his real purpose. With the portrayal of racially prejudiced characters, Twain drives home his contempt for the unfounded and groundless prejudice of the "whites" against the less privileged "blacks". As Twain wrote - "There are many humorous things in the world; among them is the white man's notion that he is less savage than all the other savages."

      Later, Twain wrote in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900): "I have no race prejudices.. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being - that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

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