Monday, September 14, 2009

Racism in Huck Finn

While I don’t agree with Jane Smiley’s general view of Huck Finn, she does bring up several interesting and valid points regarding racism in relation to the novel. The first of these for me is when she points out that “to give credit to Huck suggests that the only racial insight American of the nineteenth of twentieth century are capable of is a recognition of the obvious—that black, slave and free, are human.” I see where she’s coming from, and she’s right. That should be obvious to everyone. But the fact of the matter is that it certainly was not at the time the novel was written, and, despite what some may think, at times it even is not today. I appreciated her discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel which is usually glossed over in history class more as an artifact than a legitimate work of literature. But Stowe and Twain were writing from opposite sides of the story. Stowe wrote from the slave’s point of view in order to personalize and document the slavery of her time. I believe Twain wrote to personalize and document the racism of his time, and both wrote to expose the contradictions and cruelty that come with both. The fact of the matter is that Huckleberry does start out as a racist, but not only his feelings change by the end of the novel, as Smiley suggests, but Morrison believes that he changes from an “underground activist to a vocal one.” Huck does truly mature in this point, at the sale of the Wilks slaves and the separation of the family, and in more ways than one. At this point is when he decides for sure to retrieve the money and attempt to give it back to the Wilks family. In doing so, he puts not only himself but also Jim in danger, but he does it because it is the right thing to do. He is, in effect, thinking of someone besides himself, and even besides the people he loves because he sees injustice happening in front of him and cannot allow it to happen. His autonomous decision to do this marks the development of something that has come from within himself and which resonates with Kolvenbach’s assertion that it is unacceptable to act in “self-interest with out reference to anyone ‘other’ than [himself].”

Jane Smiley’s discussion of what racism is forces me to think about what my definition of racism is. As the product of a biracial marriage, I have had my fair share of ignorant comments, and racial identity is always of particular interest to me. As I said in my last post, my favorite part of the novel is when Jim says that even without the money, he’s already rich, because he owns himself. I suppose I believe that everyone should be able to own himself, and that others should not be allowed to interfere with that. I personally feel that attributing anyone’s behavior with their race—and it has happened to me in the past, and it will happen to me in the future, and there were examples just in this past week in the pop culture world where it has happened—is racist. I would wholeheartedly agree with Smiley’s claim that there was and unfortunately is “reasoning that white people use to convince themselves that they are not ‘racist’, “ but I think this is something that everyone does. While Huck never has this inner discussion using this exact language, he does reason through some of his racist thoughts, and so does my grandfather, who was born in Peru. I think that progress truly can come from schools and the kind of teaching that Kolvenbach discusses, and I think that Morrison’s claim that the novel is the argument is the reason why it is taught in schools and the reason why it is often banned. I identify with her discomfort at the language in the novel, but it is that very discomfort which forces every student to come to terms with her own perspective on the subject.

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