Huckleberry Finn - Racism Debate


In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of the 
seemingly racist ideas expressed by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. In 
some extreme cases the novel has even been banned by public school 
systems and censored by public libraries. The basis for these 
censorship campaigns has been the depiction of one of the main 
characters in Huckleberry Finn, Jim, a black slave. Jim, is a 
"typical" black slave who runs away from his "owner" Miss Watson. At 
several points in the novel, Jim's character is described to the 
reader, and some people have looked upon the characterization as 
racist. However, before one begins to censor a novel it is important 
to separate the ideas of the author from the ideas' of his characters. 
It is also important not to take a novel at face value and to "read 
between the lines" in order to capture the underlying themes of a 
novel. If one were to do this in relation to Huckleberry Finn, one 
would, without doubt, realize that it is not racist and is even 

 On a superficial level Huckleberry Finn might appear to be racist. 
The first time the reader meets Jim he is given a very negative
description of Jim. The reader is told that Jim is illiterate, 
childlike, not very bright and extremely superstitious. However, it is
important not to lose sight of who is giving this description and of 
whom it is being given. Although Huck is not a racist child, he has 
been raised by extremely racist individuals who have, even if only 
subconsciously, ingrained some feelings of bigotry into his mind. It 
is also important to remember that this description, although it is 
quite saddening, was probably accurate. Jim and the millions of other 
slaves in the South were not permitted any formal education, were 
never allowed any independent thought and were constantly maltreated 
and abused. Twain is merely portraying by way of Jim, a very realistic 
slave raised in the South during that time period. To say that Twain 
is racist because of his desire for historical accuracy is absurd. 

 Despite the few incidences in which Jim's description might be 
misconstrued as racist, there are many points in the novel where
Twain through Huck, voices his extreme opposition to the slave trade 
and racism. In chapter six, Huck's father fervently objects to the 
governments granting of suffrage to an educated black professor. Twain 
wants the reader to see the absurdity in this statement. Huck's father 
believes that he is superior to this black professor simply because of 
the color of his skin. In Chapter 15 the reader is told of an incident 
which contradicts the original "childlike" description of Jim. In 
chapter 15 the reader is presented with a very caring and father-like 
Jim who becomes very worried when he loses his best friend Huck in a 
deep fog. Twain is pointing out the connection which has been made 
between Huck and Jim. A connection which does not exist between a man 
and his property. When Huck first meets Jim on the Island he makes a 
monumental decision, not to turn Jim in. He is confronted by two 
opposing forces, the force of society and the force of friendship. 
Many times throughout the novel Huck comes very close to rationalizing 
Jim's slavery. However, he is never able to see a reason why this man 
who has become one of his only friends, should be a slave. Through 
this internal struggle, Twain expresses his opinions of the absurdity 
of slavery and the importance of following one's personal conscience 
before the laws of society. By the end of the novel, Huck and the
reader have come to understand that Jim is not someone's property and 
an inferior man, but an equal. 

 Throughout the novel society's voice is heard through Huck. The 
racist and hateful contempt which existed at the time is at many times 
present. But, it is vital for the reader to recognize these ideas as 
society's and to recognize that Twain throughout the novel disputes 
these ideas. Twain brings out into the open the ugliness of society 
and causes the reader to challenge the original description of Jim. In 
his subtle manner, he creates not an apology for slavery but a 
challenge to it. 

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