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Racism In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn


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 anti-slavery. 

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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