Discussion of Racism in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Essay Literature
Sep 26, 2019

An essay is a type of written coursework whose purpose is to discuss a central message, claim, or idea. This paper is usually composed of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, which in turn are held together by the thesis statement . Essays are staples in composition and literature classes. This sample essay on literature discusses the issue of racism brought against Mark Twain’s classic novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s sequel to his phenomenally successful Adventures of Tom Sawyer , the author shifts focus from the colorful adventures and travails of childhood to the major challenges and issues of adulthood. His transition brought him and his readers face-to-face with the insidious evils of racism, a contentious topic that until today continues in its debatable nature. However, the nature of this controversy has undergone positive changes owing to the depth of understanding surrounding race acquired by the society. From the point of view of an ahistorical 21st-century reader, the book contains unequivocally racist material. However, one must not be tempted to merely interpret 19 th century vernacular at face value and dismiss it as racist. Rather, a profound understanding of the nature of this material is important to establish the milieu with which it was written, which in turn should broaden the modern understanding of the novel itself.

Classic literature being branded as racism in the modern era is neither rare nor new in this modern age. As society changes over time and inches more towards expanding social justice, its view of works from the past is inevitably reexamined. Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird , for instance, has been branded as racist by some modern readers and critics, making it one of the most widely contested and banned books in American libraries (Saney 101). Similarly, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has remarked as carrying racist undertones (Jamieson 334). Like these authors, Twain has not escaped social criticism for Huck Finn. Indeed, the perceived racism in American literature remains a relevant topic to this day.

Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of Tom Sawyer’s friend Huck Finn and a runaway slave named Jim. As the story progresses, the reader witnesses Huck possessing virtually no sympathy for Jim, thoughtlessly referring to him by the n-word and to himself as a “[n-word]-stealer.” Huck shows plain disdain towards Jim, himself, as well as Jim’s friend. This angle perhaps best serves as the fulcrum upon which rests the book’s overt racism: the conflict within Huck Finn over his relationship with Jim. One can describe this as a state of moral regression as Huck continually downplays or denies the importance of his relationship with Jim. The liberal use of the derogatory term in the novel as well as Huck’s conflicted feelings toward Jim have been among the reasons why the novel has been tagged as racist (Carey-Webb & Hengstebeck 23).

It is reasonable to assert that those parties who view the book as racist and call for its ban in the academic curricula generally do not possess a sophisticated understanding of the novel and the dominant cultural norms under which it operates. If anything, the novel generously reveals both the prevailing racist attitudes of Southern society and the budding enlightenment that was struggling for recognition of the fact that blacks and whites shared the umbrella of humanity. A rather skeptical perspective on the other hand can claim that racist tendencies existed even within the mind and heart of Huck Finn—an astute yet embarrassingly fleeting perspective for it is naturally presupposed that Huck Finn lived under the clout of racism, even prior to meeting Jim. By studying the nature of racism in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a deeper understanding of racism within oneself can be reached, yielding to the truth that it actually transcends racism to a vast extent and it is therefore worthy of scholarly study.

Furthermore, it is imperative to point out that while Huck initially failed to recognize Jim as an equal, such perspective was not strange even among educated Americans of the time, notwithstanding the aftermath of the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation. A staggering majority of the white populace viewed blacks as generally inferior even decades after the abolition of slavery. In the 19 th century, where racism and dehumanization of blacks were the standard rather than the anomaly, such a premise is plausible enough to justify racism (Levy 225). Hence, it is morally satisfying that Huck eventually reaches the understanding that Jim is, indeed, human and an equal, albeit this recognition is unsurprisingly obscured by the racist zeitgeist in the South where Huck and Jim lived.

Ideally, the criteria outlined in choosing a particular reading in Literature or English should hinge on the merits of the work itself. Yet today, there exist only two hardly encompassing questions when considering any material: is the reading socially significant and does it foster the development of mutual respect among students? Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have failed this test more than a hundred years ago when society was fraught with racism, but now it is more relevant than ever, for it is beyond argument that of late the issue of racism and its variants have risen at an alarming rate, necessitating the need to study the timeless elucidation of the evils of racism in American literature in works such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin among others. Thus, with respect to the questions that need to be met apropos of the recommended reading for students, there ought to be an addendum: does the book foster a conscious understanding of today’s times? For a more colloquial approach: does it forge real-world connections? As one critic stated, Twain’s novel “is not only a study on the race relations of 1830. The work equally talks about the racist cruelty that still prevailed in the post- Reconstruction era. It exposes the cruelty and senselessness of white racists. The novel, undoubtedly, is an antiracist work and is an extraordinary work of literature” (Laila 43).

Without a doubt, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more than satisfactorily meets this criterion. It firmly establishes a solid sociocultural perspective of historical racism, providing a knowledgeable construct from which to understand the roots of racism, particularly when juxtaposed with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s morose depiction of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Correspondingly, a real-world connection is crafted in two ways: the first being the ceaseless debate of historical literature such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, secondly, society’s continued efforts to address race relations that historical events continue to influence today.

A most fantastic source of bafflement is the persistence of calls for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be banned in the curricula (Apstein 13). Arguments favoring censorship of the book would have been valid, valid back in 1884 when the United States could have used such measure to protect the well-being of its black citizens still reeling from two centuries of utter dehumanization from slavery. While from thereon America has made monumental strides in terms of racial harmony, its bitter history of racial unrest seems to be undergoing a terrifying renaissance in the past few years. Now is the time for the unfettered power of great literature to come into the picture.

Works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin aren’t racist as much as they are capable of exposing the evils of racism. It is perplexing why these works perfunctorily surface in the collective consciousness of American society when the discourse shifts to racism in American literature when it is clear that they can bring to light the evils of racism and slavery; their literary eminence is just as needed in the 21 st century as they play a crucial role in comprehending why genteel society responds the way it does on issues like racism and slavery. If such understanding ceases, arguments opposing racism and slavery regress into unsupported claims of morality and social justice; claims that in reality will forever trace their strength and moral validity to novels like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yes, Huckleberry Finn represents past racism in American literature but it also conveys the truth that 19 th century America was racist. In light of today’s racial tensions, it serves to remind society to avoid going back to a time of moral ambiguity. All posterity ought to take note of and it can be done by reading and rereading such literature.

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Works Cited

Apstein, Barbara. “Masterpiece or Racist Trash? Bridgewater Students Enter the Debate over Huckleberry Finn.” Bridgewater Review , vol. 19, no. 1, 2000, 12-14.

Carey-Webb, Allen & Marylee Hengstebeck. “Racism and Huckleberry Finn: Censorship, dialogue, and change.” English Journal , vol. 82. No. 7, 1993, pp. 22-33.

Jamieson, Erin. “Systemic Racism as a Living Text: Implications of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Fictionalized Narrative of Present and Past Black Bodies.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 22, 2018, pp. 329-344.

Laila, V. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - An Expression of Anti-racism.” International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, 2015, pp. 40-44.

Levy, Andrew. Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Saney, Isaac. “The Case Against To Kill a Mockingbird.” Race & Class , vol. 45, no. 1, 2003, pp. 99-110.

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