In the sequel to his Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain evolves from the colorful adventures and travails of childhood to the major challenges and issues of adulthood in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His transition brought himself and his readers face-to-face with the insidious evils of racism, a contentious topic that until today continues in its debatable nature, though the nature of this controversy has undergone positive changes owing to the depth of understanding acquired by society surrounding race. From the point of view of the ahistorical 21st century reader, the book contains unequivocally racist material. However, one must not be tempted to merely interpret “racist” 19th century vernacular at face value and thus, a profound understanding of the nature of this material is important to establish the milieu with which it was written and in turn, broaden the modern understanding of racism.
Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of Tom Sawyer’s friend, Huck, and a runaway slave named Jim. As the story progresses, the reader witnesses Huck possessing virtually no sympathy for Jim, thoughtlessly referring to him as a “nigger” and to himself as a “nigger-stealer,” showing 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 downplayed or denied the importance of his relationship with Jim.
Imperative to point out, however, is 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 19th century wherein racism and dehumanization of blacks was the standard rather than the anomaly, such a premise is plausible enough to justify racism, so 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.
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.
Ideally, the criteria set forth 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. Why? It is beyond argument that of late the issue of racism and its variants have risen to 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?
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. 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 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 to 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 21st 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 19th 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.