Monday, September 14, 2009

Immersion and Confrontation

When I was in middle school, my youth group would regular volunteer at a soup kitchen in downtown Baltimore, normally about once every other month or so. I never really minded giving up a day of my weekend to participate in service, but when it came down to assigning tasks of either kitchen work or serving work, I would always secretly hope to be in the kitchen. Certainly, there were many different influences at play on my desires, one of the foremost being that I was always a more introverted person, preferring to work behind the scenes rather than deal with actual people. However, another issue that I cannot deny was at play was the fact that I had never actually dealt with the race issue so directly before, and definitely hadn’t dealt with issues of poverty and homelessness. This isn’t to say that my public school had shied away from the issue, or that there weren’t any black students or teachers involved in my elementary and middle school years, but any contact I had with diversity was with suburban, well-to-do families in white communities, and my race education consisted of simply repeating the formula that all humans are equal and that racism and slavery are terribly bad things. Not that these statements are wrong, but the effect they had on me was that I just became afraid of doing anything racist or seeming racist to others. I knew for sure I wasn’t racist, but I afraid nonetheless; in the soup kitchen setting, I was afraid that in serving to a predominantly black crowd that I would say something wrong or do something offensive or pretentiously white, which in turn led me to simply never directly talking or dealing with the homeless crowd whatsoever.
The reading this experience relates most closely to is Father Kolvenbach’s address, in which he calls directly for the need of close association and presence with the less fortunate communities of our country and world: “the students need close involvement with the poor and the marginal now, in order to learn about reality and become adults of solidarity in the future (Kolvenbach 35). This I feel seems to be the point most stressed in Kolvenbach’s speech, that all those involved in Jesuit institutions, from students to professors to administration, need to be immersed in the communities who require justice to thereby keep the impoverished and neglected always in one’s mind. This will end up creating better quality adults who are more concerned with service towards others and whose lives revolve around bettering the human race instead of around themselves. The same goes to professors and researchers at the universities, who should be constantly reminded of their duty so that their research and findings always in some way reflect the Jesuit ideals Kolvenbach illuminates.
To relate this directly to Huckleberry Finn and the Smiley and Morrison essays, one aspect of the novel that acts as a strength and weakness is its propensity to simultaneously recognize yet avoid the race issue. Both agree that Huck eventually comes to the consensus that Jim is a human being and shouldn’t be treated like a slave (although Smiley doesn’t think this is enough), but they disagree on the rest of the novel, where Twain is often silent about Huck’s reaction to the issue or brings up an issue only to discard it later. Smiley finds this unacceptable and calls it “a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is” and that the book teaches readers that as long as we consider blacks human that we won’t be considered racist (Smiley 357). Morrison, on the other hand finds that these uncomfortable silences left by Twain are what make the novel great, that they are “excellent technical solutions to the narrative’s complexities and, by the way, highly prophetic descriptions of contemporary negotiations between races,” speaking specifically of uncomfortable silences left between Jim and Huck (Morrison 389). What is most important to me about these silences is that although Twain may avoid vocalizing the issues Huck comes across, through his own voice or through Huck’s, Huck is undoubtedly still being influenced by everything he sees. This comes almost directly from his complete immersion into a different world. If Huck would have stayed at home with Miss Watson, his education would stay confined to the restraints that in-classroom teaching holds on its students. In fact, due to Huck’s inability to pay attention, his in-classroom education probably wouldn’t have taught him anything anyways. By directly confronting the horrors of the South and by forming a personal relationship with someone whom the “civilized” people would consider unworthy, Twain confronts Huck with his own feelings about race, he causes the reader to question their own opinions, and in a way he confronts the issue for himself, having grown up in the same unfair system that Huck did. See, whether one feels that the novel is essentially racist and that Huck makes the wrong decisions, or if one feels the novel is one of America’s greatest of all time, what confusion the novel creates forces each reader to confront themselves and their own opinions and feelings, something that Kolvenbach would certainly agree with and something that probably would have helped me confront my own feelings when I was younger.

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