There is a major argument among literary critics whether
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is or is not a racist
novel. The question boils down to the depiction of Jim, the
black slave, and to the way he is treated by Huck and other
characters. The use of the word "nigger" is also a point
raised by some critics, who feel that Twain uses the word
too much and too loosely.
Mark Twain never presents Jim in a negative light. He does
not show Jim as a drunkard, as a mean person or as a cheat.
This is in contrast to the way Huck's (white) father is
depicted, whom Twain describes using all of the above
characterizations and more. We see Jim as a good friend, a
man devoted to his family and loyal to his companions.
He is, however, very naive and superstitious. Some critics
say that Twain is implying that all blacks have these
qualities. When Jim turns to his magic hairball for answers
about the future, we see that he does believe in some
foolish things. But all the same, he is visited by both
blacks and whites to use the hairball's powers. This type
of naivete was abundant at the time and found among all
races-the result of a lack of proper education. So the
depiction of Jim is not negative in the sense that Jim is
stupid and inferior, and in this aspect of the story
clearly there is no racism intended.
It is next necessary to analyze the way white characters
treat Jim throughout the book. Note that what the author
felt is not the way most characters act around Jim, and his
feelings are probably only shown through Huck. In the South
during that period, black people were treated as less than
humans, and Twain needed to portray this. 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, are necessary for historical accuracy. So, Mark
Twain had to display Jim's treatment in this manner, even
if it is not the way he felt.
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.
There are two main examples of this in the story. The first
one is where Huck is disgusted by Jim's plans to steal his
own children, who are "someone else's property." While Huck
is still racist here, Twain has written the scene in a way
that ridicules the notion that someone's children can
actually be the property of a stranger because the father
is black. The second example is where Huck doesn't tell
Jim's whereabouts, which would return Jim to slavery, and
instead chooses to "go to Hell" for his decision. This is
again Twain making a mockery of Southern values, that it is
a sin to be kind to black people.
Another reason that is given to say this novel is racist is
the use of the word "nigger." This is not a good reason
because this is how blacks were referred to then. To have
used the word Negro or African-American would have taken
away from the story's impact and make it sound stupid. If
Twain wanted to write an historically accurate book, as he
did, then the inclusion of this word is totally necessary.
These claims that Huckleberry Finn is racist are not simply
attempts to damage the image of a great novel. They come
from people who are hurt by racism and don't like seeing it
in any context. However, they must realize that this novel
and its author are not racist, and the purpose of the story
is to prove black equality.