Sunday, September 13, 2009

'D' is for Diversity

Believe it or not, today’s blog relates closely to another class I’m enrolled in this semester, Race and Ethnicity in American Literature, which just happens to be a Diversity requirement. Now I know how we all feel about the big ‘D’, but my studies so far in that class actually helped me choose a topic for this week’s post. When reading the two literary essays on Huckleberry Finn, by Smiley and Morrison, I couldn’t help but notice the emphasis the two authors put on Huck’s conflicted relationship with Jim. Of course they mentioned other themes as well, but it’s hard to ignore the authors’ not-quite-slight undertones.

For my other class, Race and Ethnicity in American Literature, we had to read the introduction to Walter Benn Michael’s The Trouble with Diversity. To be perfectly honest, nonfiction is really not my thing (hence why I’m an English Literature major!) so I wasn’t particularly excited to do this assignment. However, I was really surprised to notice I was agreeing with many of the statements Michaels’ made. In the introduction, he outlined the book and what issues he was going to address, especially the concept of “diversity” in American Culture. In a nutshell, Michaels believes that the trouble with Diversity is that we are emphasizing our racial and ethnic identities too much, which instead of making us a color-blind society actually makes Americans color-conscious. Instead of focusing on this, we should be focusing on the obvious and problematic economic divide between America’s “rich” and “poor”.

When I first read Michaels’ introduction, I didn’t really buy his conclusion 100 percent. However, when reading the articles for today’s post, I stopped and thought back to what Michaels had said. No one really cared as much about Huck’s abusive father and ramshackle living arrangements than they did about Jim’s status as slave. One of the most horrifying moments of the novel was Huck’s completely unemotional comment about his beatings. He basically accepted the fact that his father whipped him with a belt every night, while in a drunken rage. Of course physical punishment was less of a hotly debated topic than it is now, but for a modern reader I was very disturbed. Also, Huck nearly starving to death, while in his father’s care and on the island, reminded me just how dire Huck’s situation really was. Though Michaels discussion was published over 100 years after Huckleberry Finn, his issue still resonate in Twain’s novel.

Smiley’s comment that Huck recognized Jim’s equality and humanity in his mind, but never took any outward actions on that belief, shows that Twain put a big green check on the fact that racism is only an idea. Smiley obviously condemns this, and I think Michaels would, too. Michaels mentions the fact that minority races have traditionally been the “poor”, so we forget that our prejudices really apply more to their status as economically inferior rather than the color of their skin. If Huck was a boy in today’s world, do you think he would even have the slightest of a chance? Probably not. People forget that poverty is still present in America today. Racism is just historically the more controversial category, so equal rights laws have been adopted into our system while economic equality is labeled as communism. Huck’s status as “poor” in this novel gets a backseat to the theme of interracial relations, but it is still there. A painful comparison to Huck would be Tom Sawyer, the spoiled little rich kid who uses other people’s lives (aka Jim’s) as a plaything. However, Huck’s status does give him certain freedoms, and he doesn’t seem to complain much about being “poor”. These days, it’s always refreshing to read about an American child who’s not spoiled rotten.

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