Twain a racist? The answers to these questions lie in the examination of Mark Twainis life and historical era, incidents and character comments throughout Huckleberry Finn, and reviews by critics of many races.
Researching the life and times of Mark Twain led to various facts that negate the popular opinion that he was racist. Born Samuel Langhorn Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Missouri, Mark Twain witnessed an era of accepted slavery and racism (Roberts, 5). Growing up in the slave state of Missouri, Twain’s father was a slave trader several times in his many occupational ventures.
After his father’s death Twain spent several summers with his uncle, John Quarles, who owned twenty slaves which provided Twain with an up close view of slavery in action. Twain was deeply affected by witnessing the brutal murder of a slave by a rock-throwing white man for the crime of “merely doing something awkwardi (Smith).
Twain completed Huckleberry Finn in 1884, at a time when black identity in American Society was undefined. Even though blacks had been granted citizenship in 1870 by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Southern white society still looked upon them as sub-human creatures without souls or feelings. However, for his time Twain was liberal on racial issues. The themes of Huckleberry Finn portray Mark Twainis unrelenting belief in the equality of all races. (Mark Twain, 530)
Although Huckleberry Finn is primarily a novel about freedom and the quest for freedom, through the portrayal of the characters, Twain depicts the human qualities of all, regardless of color. It details the story of a slave, Jim, who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with his family. Jim is accompanied by a white boy, Huck, who befriends him and aids in his escape. This storyline of a white boy helping a runaway slave, and in the process, perceiving Jim as an equal, in no way depicts racism and, in fact, lends credence to Twainis argument for the equality of all, whether black or white.
In order to change Huckis initial misconception of Iniggeri Jim, Twain reveals Jimis humanity in a profoundly moving story about a time when Jim struck his four-year-old daughter, Lizbeth. One day she was a-stanninl aroundo, en I says to her, I says: Shet de dob! She never done it; jisl stood dah, kiner smilind up at me. It make me mad… Jim tells her again, but she still does not respond, so he Ifetchi her a slap side de head dat sont her alsprawlini. Jim is unaware that his daughteris recent scarlet fever has made her deaf. He orders her to get to work one more time, but she still does not respond. Just as he is about to strike her again, Jim notices that she does not react to their cabin door slamming shut from a gust of wind: 1 Ide chile never move!0. Jim finally realizes that his daughter never heard him. He knows now that she could not respond to him because she was plumb deef en dumbb.
Overcome with deep remorse, Jim tells Huck:
I bust out a-cryin en grab her up in my arms en say, ‘Oh, de po little thing! de Lord God Amighty fogive pol ole Jim, kaze he never go wyne to fogive hisself as longs he live!’ (Twain, 337-338) Huck is silent at the end of Jimis story, leaving the reader to acknowledge Jimis humanity on their own. But, nowhere in the novel is Jimis humanity more apparent than when he offers the ultimate sacrifice, his freedom, to save Tomis life. Huck and Tom help Jim escape from the Phelpsi Farm, and in the process, Tom is wounded.
It soon becomes apparent that his injuries are serious. Jim volunteers to stay with Tom while Huck fetches a doctor, even though he knows that he will probably be captured and forced back into slavery. Believing that Tom would do the same for him if he were in that situation, Jim says: Ef it wuz him dat luz beinl sot free, en one er de boys wuz to git shot, would he say, IGo on en save me, nemmine Ibout a doctor for to save dis one? Is dat like Mars Tom Sawyer? Would he say dat: You bet he wouldn’t! Well, den, is Jim gwyne to say it? No, sah-doan budge a step outon dis place, Idout a doctor; not if itls forty year! (Twain, 264)
Twain’s character portrayals can often be seen in a more serious light. Jim is never presented in a negative way. He is not portrayed as a drunkard, as a mean person or as a cheat. This is in contrast to the way Huck’s father, Pap, is depicted, whom is described using all of the above characterizations and more. Jim is seen as a good friend, a man devoted to his family and loyal to his companions. In the South during that period, black people were treated as less than human and the examples of the way Jim is denigrated: by being locked up, having to hide his face in the daytime and how he is generally derided, needed to be portrayed for historical accuracy.
Huck, however, does not treat Jim as most whites do. Huck looks at Jim as a friend, and by the end of their journey, disagrees with society’s notion that blacks are inferior. An example of this is when Huck is faced with a decision to tell of Jim’s whereabouts, which would return Jim to slavery, Dhe wrestles with his conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friendı (Salwen). Throughout the years, hundreds of critics have dwelled on the controversy over the racial epithets in Huckleberry Finn. Booker T. Washington, who has known Samuel Clemens for a number of years, believed Clemensi interest in the Negro race is expressed best in Huckleberry Finn. He stated in his Tribute to Mark Twain:
I do not believe any one can read this story closely, however, without becoming aware of the deep sympathy of the author in Jim. In fact, before one gets through with the book, one cannot fail to observe that in some way or other the author, without making any comment and without going out of his way, has somehow succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for “Jim,” in spite of the ignorance he displays. The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim’s “dignity and human capacity” to emerge in the novel. Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain, that Jim was not only a slave but a human being and a symbol of humanity… and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town. (Salwen)
Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out that, in interpreting Jim’s superstitions as evidence he is simple-minded, for example, modern readers might be revealing more about their ignorance of his culture (and arrogance towards folk culture in general) than about the inherent simple-mindedness of Jim’s beliefs. And she argues that many of the stories in which a white person seems to get the better of Jim have a second reading in which Jim remains the hero of his version of the story, in spite of the white world’s attempts to ridicule him. A thorough examination of Mark Twainis life and times, characterizations throughout Huckleberry Finn, and critiques by literary experts, reveals that Mark Twain was not racist, nor was his intent to perpetuate racism through his novel.
I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse. — Mark Twain. (Neff)
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