Racism: Perception vs. Reality The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's critically acclaimed novel, has drawn vast criticism from educators and parents, alike. The racist depictions and attitudes in the novel are at the core of the ongoing controversy in the rural South. Recently, an onslaught of articles and books has appeared in an effort to smooth out the long-standing contention. Critics of the novel, however, have been lobbying for the past century to censor the novel from certain districts.
Despite the consistent efforts to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, due to the many racist attitudes and overtones inherent to the setting of the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains an accurate depiction of life in the South during the 1800's and allows the reader to experience and study a turbulent era in America's past. The examination of Jim's characterization, the setting of the novel, and the opinions of parents and students, each help the educated reader comprehend the racism intrinsic to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel has allowed students to read first-hand about the racism that plagued the South. Mark Twain's portrayal of the runaway slave, Jim, has spawned much of the criticism regarding the racist attitudes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
As Jim and Huck venture down the Mississippi River, the pair realizes they share the common goal of freedom. Huck is merely running from the restraints of civilization; however, Jim is attempting to free himself from the confines of slavery. He is not only a slave, but also a human being, who expresses his desire for freedom, his loyalty, his capacity for friendship, and his love for his family (Ellison). African-American poet and author Langston Hughes observes, "a conscious (re) visioning of the South and a Southern slave... the character of Jim is considered one of the best portraits in America fiction of an unlettered slave clinging to the hope of freedom" (Chadwick-Joshua 3). In contrast, critics of the novel state that Twain portrays Jim as both gullible and obtuse, causing critics to proclaim the text as, "the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written" and see African-Americans as dehumanized, objectified, and stereotyped (Wallace).
Author Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua retorts, "Jim is no murderer; Jim is no rapist; Jim is not a thief. He is not gangsta'; nor is he gullible and stupid. Jim is nobody's fool. He endures, and he overcomes" (Chadwick-Joshua 13). Jim perseveres in challenging situations and wins Huck's love and trust (67). Huck's integrity and love for Jim are apparent when Huck writes a letter to Jim's owner, Miss Watson, with the intention to return Jim, yet he ends up ripping the letter and wishes to free Jim: "'All right, then, I'll go to hell'- and he tore it up" (Twain 180).
Jim's easy-going, unpretentious attitude eventually wins Huck's admiration and trust. Jim's character represents a resiliency, tenacity and a strong passion for freedom-characteristics that overshadow the racism he endures. The novel's detractors, both on a literary and moral basis, have often overlooked the historical background of the novel. The novel is set during the 1800's in the South, a time when African-Americans were not educated and many were born into slavery, rarely even learning the alphabet (Chadwick-Joshua 111). The lack of education forced the slaves in passive tolerance, allowing little say in their future. In comparison, Jim is considerably adept in his society.
He has a clear sense of honor, ethics and loyalty, including faith that extends into a deep friendship for Huck and a conscious awareness of risks (Bellamy 18). In the 1800's slaves were not treated as endearing and respectful individuals. They were derided, stereotyped and oppressed. (25). Many believe Twain exaggerates the harsh lives of the slaves (Kesterson). In reality, Twain does not pull punches; his novel represents the reality that the slaves endured, including lynching and continual uses of the derogatory term, "nigger." Twain's realistic depiction of race relations in the South continues to prevail in a modern society that is still divided along racial lines (Zwick).
The historical time, in which the novel was written and set, justifies the racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and provides further evidence of Twain's eloquence and attention to detail. A growing number of parents have expressed their negative feelings regarding the racial content of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Many parents oppose the novel in order to circumvent their child's learning of the racism in the South (Chadwick-Joshua 1). In 1994, Cathy Montero, a parent of a student in Tempe, Arizona, held a picket sign that stated, "We " re tired of Nigger Jim, sittin' in" (2).
In the winter of 1995 and the spring of 1996 a concerned parent in a Texas school district sought to ban Twain's works (19). She stated that his work has no intellectual value, is largely fiction, and describes a past we would like to forget. The same parent added, "That time is gone... This is a new day" (19). Ironically, in Mississippi, the state adjacent to Texas, the Mississippi House of Representatives only officially voted to end slavery and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment in March 1995 (20). The critical biases of parents are not always justified by the novel; such parents have pre-conceived prejudices and fear the novel will portray the discrimination they advocate.
Their children will realize the injustice and see past their parents' bigotry (Barksdale). Other parents are attempting to alleviate their children's discomfort at confronting the painful and debilitating effects of racism and slavery (Chadwick-Joshua 22). Parents should allow their children to be subjected to the reality of the racism that was prevalent in the South in the 1800's. Despite the opinions of their parents, many students have developed an array of opposing views on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Students oppose the novel not only because of the racism, but also due to the subjective renderings of African-Americans.
Doron Flake, an African-American student at a New Haven, Connecticut, public school contends: "Blacks are the murderers, the rapists, the gang-bangers, where everything that is negative is [sic] society, why do I have to go to school and be Jim too Because whenever I read about the slave who is gullible and stupid, that (stereotype) becomes a reflection of me, too" (Bell). Isabel Culpepper, an African-American student at Bell view High School, in Jacksonville, Florida, retorts, "Most of the kids are always [sic] listenin' to rap music and hip-hop, it's all full of obscenities and racial slurs like 'nigger'. What does it matter if we see the same stuff in a book for school" (Scott 23). Despite the differing opinions, it is clear that the novel is invaluable to students, regardless of their backgrounds. Huck's distance and lack of familiarity with Jim's experiences, hopes and feelings are similar to those of today's adolescent's (27). Not only do students gain a clear understanding of the problems facing the South, but also into the moral dilemma regarding the treatment of African-Americans in today's society.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides students and educators with insight into a society where many of the past problems still exist. Although the novel centers on Huck's adventures, in retrospect Jim's character has a greater impact on the reader. Jim's character reinforces the values of this country, including his pursuit of freedom, enduring friendship and love for his family. The racial slurs and negative depictions that originally began the controversy can be justified by the historical setting of the novel. The parents who are urging censorship of the novel are worried their children will learn the truth, exposing their parents' prejudices. Regarding the criticism The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn received, Mark Twain once said, "and I shall like it, whether anybody else does or not." Although Twain discerned that his novel was controversial, he did not alter any element of the novel in order to please his critics.
Both Twain and Jim remained true-allowing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to defy the efforts of censors and to provide future generations with a realistic view of the extent of racism in the South. Bellamy, Larson D. "Huckleberry Finn." Novels for Students: Volume 1. 1997 edition. Bloom, Harold. Bloom's Notes: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
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