Huckleberry Finn: A Lesson in the Crumbling of Racism

November 21, 2017
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On a superficial level, Huckleberry Finn written by Mark Twain might appear to be a racial offense to people today, with its topic of slavery and excessive use of the N word. However, during the time that the story takes place, Huck's society held racial biases, used racial epithets, and owned slaves. It's important to note that what would horrify us today was unquestioned practice and accepted as normal. Twain was just writing in accordance with the times, reflecting society as it was then. Whatever people might say, the novel is not inherently racist; instead, Huckleberry Finn gives a hopeful view of the possible tenuousness of racial biases. Twain executed this by first using a positive representation of a slave, showing the senselessness of racist beliefs, and then showing how a boy and eventually his society comes to terms with their prejudices.

The slave Jim is shown throughout the story to be a righteous individual with perhaps more quality as a person than any other character. His owner, Miss Watson, is a hypocritical person who preaches religion while treating blacks like dirt. Then there's Huck's Pap, who teaches him that "you can't learn a nigher to argue." In other words, an intellectual argument with a black person is pointless because they're too dumb to understand anything and it's best not to associate with them. Twain then brings out the best in Jim's character to eliminate any doubt that blacks would be suitable for integration, and can even surpass some whites in terms of civility. Pap is a useless drunkard who harasses his son and locks him in a shed. In contrast, Jim protects Huck's innocence when he refuses to show him Pap's body floating in the river. Jim's goodness as a father is further implicated when he tells Huck about his remorse for hitting his deaf daughter. By placing his characters in such a  stark perspective, Twain can show how ridiculous this society's racism is; this will break down the idea of a thoroughly racist society that comes with no cracks or exceptions.

As Huckleberry Finn progresses, it becomes obvious that it is not a racist book, but a reflection of a biased society that could be susceptible to change. Twain reveals the possibility of a blow to racist judgements through Huck's character development. The transformation of Huck's biases as he spends time alone with Jim provides insight into his society's hold on his beliefs and how ingrained they actually are. Once Huck is removed from land and a seemingly racist society, it is shown how his views of blacks and their inferiority begin to crumble. When he meets Jim on the island after running away from Miss Watson, he has a sense of relief that someone will be his companion. This marks the beginning of Huck's changing personality; he is willing to join up with the "dimwitted" slave in a risky hideout. When Jim makes him promise not to tell anyone how he escaped, Huck says he wouldn't tell a soul, even if someone were to call him a "low down abolitionist." Huck is still stuck in the racist mindset - being called an abolitionist is still a bad thing in his close minded view- but his intentions are good natured. Soon after, Jim portrays a lot of common sense by hiding their supplies in the canoe and then finding a cave just before a storm hits. Huck is then forced to admit that Jim is not as inept as he was conditioned to believe. The boys then talk about superstitions, the value of money, and generally have a good time bonding together. Jim emerges as more of an equal in Huck's eyes. When a boat passes by, giving Huck the opportunity to turn Jim in, he climatically overcomes his scruples and lies to protect his newfound friend. The rigidity         of the racist beliefs of people during this time is doubted as Twain shows Huck, a product of his prejudiced society, slowly changing.

Finally, when Jim is captured and sold to the Phelpses, Huck is determined to rescue him. His racist "programming" has fallen away and is replaced by genuine concern for Jim's well being. Huck's friend Tom Sawyer is shot during the rescue attempt and Jim is quick to take Tom under his care. Seeing this, Huck says to himself that he always knew Jim was "white inside." While he is still speaking the language of his baby food biases - "white" equals the utmost quality in a person - Huck's perspective on race has quite thoroughly changed. In a fundamental way, Jim is now not only a human being to Huck, but also a person with the capacity for kindness.

Most importantly, this relatively simple transformation is also experienced by the adults. A mob curses Jim as he is brought back to the Phelpses in chains, and they even threaten to hang him. But surprisingly, the doctor defends him for taking care of Tom: "Don't be rougher on him than you're obliged to, because he ain't a bad n*****...and I never saw a n***** that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was risking his freedom to do it... I like the n***** for that." The crowd suddenly stops cursing and Jim's chains are symbolically removed. Again, Jim has been "redeemed" in the people's eyes just for acting in a humane way towards a wounded child.  Racial distinction dissolves as this society's prejudiced front is lifted in this important scene. The reader must then question whether Huck and his society's change of heart could have occurred had the novel and the people in it been so inherently and unshakably racist.

Mark Twain's famous story gives an honest look at the influence of societal racism and how people can overcome it, even if it takes being stranded on a raft in the middle of the Mississippi. It is in no way a book that condones racism, but rather one that gives hope to humanity's ability to change for the better. 

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