On racism and the banning of Huckleberry Finn

Two essays on the topic of banning Huckleberry Finn: one for, one against. The task is the kind of task I like to set to draw ideas together from the teaching, whilst challenging the boys to explore and respond personally.

I hope you enjoy this.

Asher Weiss:

Your local government has announced a ban on the use of the text Huckleberry Finn in schools and ordered its removal from library shelves.

Write an article in response to this action in which you focus on analysis of Twain’s writing to dispel the idea that the text is ‘damaging to the youth of today.

Last week, local government became part of a wider intellectual and academic mistake, one which is being perpetuated across the Western world with stunning alacrity. The idea is that we can apply modern standards to old literature. Thus, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is certainly racist and harmful to the young, so the reasoning goes, because it includes racial stereotypes and because the ending does not amount to what we, readers of our own time and society, might wish it to amount. This is an absurd argument which clouds worthwhile judgement on Huck and Twain, and means we lose the great value which we can, if we remain open minded, gain from them.

The reality is that Twain delivers a message of human dignity in Jim which radically transcends the narrow racism of his time, delivers a strong moral message in Huck’s clash between society and human goodness, and, even when his writing unsettles us, provides a crucial look at the values and mores of America at the time. When those values upset us, we should not cast them aside, but learn from them. Literature must be seen in its context. By doing so, young minds, rather than being harmed, grow.

In Huckleberry Finn, Twain confronts the sloppy racial assumptions of his time and gives us, in Jim, a well-developed black character. This was a ground-breaking literary direction in the 1880s, when the views of blacks as antisocial, lazy and stupid were the sum of black portrayal in literature, and they are still of great moral value today. While it is true that, in a novel which combines the comic with the serious, there are black stereotypes which offend us today, e.g. Jim’s belief in superstitions like ‘a hair-ball as big as your fist’ with which ‘he used to do magic’ and his occasional supinity, ‘doz[ing] off, pretty soon’, nonetheless Jim is a character with far more to offer. His desire for self-advancement, investing money in ‘live stock’, his common sense, pointing out that Solomon’s famous action over a disputed maternity ‘warn’t ‘bout a half a chile, de’spute was ‘bout a whole chile’, all of these characteristics move beyond the hollow caricatures which passed for black characters in 19th Century American literature, at a time when minstrel shows abounded through the Union. Above all, Twain’s antiracist approach can be seen in Jim’s loyalty. His close friendship with Huck, calling him ‘chile’ and ‘honey’ shows that blacks can be not just part of society, but even quasi-paternal figures to white boys. The loyalty he shows, waiting for Huck as he lives with the Grangerfords and greeting him by saying ‘Lawsy, I’s mighty glad to get you back agin, honey’, eradicates the stereotypes of blacks as untrustworthy, and his virtue stands in contrast to some of the more mendacious scoundrels whom we meet, like the Duke and Dauphin, both white. In Jim, Twain begins the journey of increasing seriousness in black portrayal in American literature, years before Bigger in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel which realistically captures the realities of black urban life. In fact, Twain’s sensitivity in his presentation of Jim puts to shame later American novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose derisive reference in The Great Gatsby to‘bucks’ de-humanises blacks as much as Twain humanises them. Twain’s novel cannot damage youth any more than a book like Gatsby based on racial prejudices, and it in fact damages them far less. (Yet there is no controversy over studying Gatsby, and correctly so.) Rather, Huck offers a decent, human portrayal of blacks which should enrich the moral compass of any school child. That is not to say that the racial stereotypes listed above are not upsetting: instead, we must bear them as the marks of a humourist who had to wrap a serious message in a marketable and profitable layer of contemporary comedy.

The argument put forward by Jane Smiley that Jim’s loyalty to Huck is itself disturbing, since he appears to become more and more subservient as he is mistreated by Tom Sawyer towards the end, holds no water. The bond between Huck and Jim is based, as Shelly Fisher Fishkin points out, on Huck’s intention to respect Jim’s feelings. The moment at which their friendship is cemented is arguably in Chapter 15, when Jim shames Huck into ‘humbl[ing himself] to a nigger’ and claiming that he ‘could almost kissed his foot’. When one considers that the postbellum period in which Twain wrote saw the retrenchment of white power south of the Mason-Dixon line, the development of violent white supremacist groups and the political disenfranchisement of blacks in Southern states, the idea of a white boy deigning to act in such a way to a runaway slave is revolutionary. This moment of recognition, of Jim’s humanity, means that even though Huck later allows Tom to misuse Jim, we know that he is cognisant of Jim’s human dignity. Simultaneously, Jim’s position towards the end of the novel is not a damaging assertion of black subservience, but arguably a contemplative narrative on the state of free blacks in Twain’s 1880s: like Jim, they are free, but like Jim, they are subject to the whims of careless, frivolous whites like Tom Sawyer, who would rather follow their own desires – here the insane ‘Chelleeny’-influenced designs of Tom- than improve the lives of blacks. Even when it appears at first glance that Twain has given in to the unsavoury racial sentiments of his time, he presents us with a nuanced and socially advanced view of blacks, and, in Huck, a hero for values of tolerance and brotherhood, certainly no causes of damage to any young reader.

It would also be ludicrous to argue that Huck’s constant battle with his own conscience is anything but moral nourishment for young readers. The fight of an independent free thinker against the hypocrisy, violence and injustice of the ‘sivilized’ world is far from a damaging tale. Huck’s rejection of societal hypocrisy at the beginning of the novel, realising that the Widow Douglas’ snuff habit was ‘all right’, unlike his pipe, ‘because she done it herself’, shows an ironic commitment to societal honesty from an inveterate and talented liar which strips bare the idiocies and fabricated niceties of a highly imperfect society. This is a lesson as crucial now as it was when the rugged American frontier was being tamed but its noble pioneer values crushed. Above all the conundrum of protecting Jim, resisting a conscience which, reflecting the social norms of a slaveholding society, tells him that he should have ‘told somebody’ about Jim, demonstrates what happens when, in Twain’s words, ‘A sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat’. The triumph of innate human goodness, represented by Huck, over the greed and amorality of civilised society was not only a potent reminder to Twain’s readership that the honesty of the pioneer was superior to the capitalist excess and indifference to racism of the Gilded Age, but a universal, inspiring example of a good individual standing against the poisoned morals of society. This is what gives Huckleberry Finn a place in the innermost halls of Western literature: other novelists in the American canon have produced virtuous and single-minded protagonists, reflecting the rugged individualism to which the USA has often aspired, like Hemingway’s Frederick Henry, but in Huck, Twain also invented a voice through which he could lambast his nation and do so humorously, and provide an excoriating critique of societal duplicity which has stood the test of time and which should remain available to today’s youth.

None of this is to deny that there are unsettling moments in Twain’s novel. Though these exist, they are, when taken contextually, important to understanding the period and the text. They must be acknowledged and discussed. The straightforwardly racist elements of the narrative or plot are signs, not of a latent racism in Twain, but of Twain’s need to accommodate his readership: such are the references to Jim’s superstitions and his comically exaggerated, emotive language (‘Oh Lordy’).  Had Twain produced, as a comic writer, a dour, dense, hectoring social commentary, it is unlikely that it would have been at all successful, and his antiracist message would have become lost in the sands of time.  As for the repeated use of the ‘n-word’, often given as the cause for bans, Twain uses it as a man of his time, writing in the language of his time. Banning Huck Finn as a harmful work because it contains the n-word would be like banning The Age of Innocence because it depicts the close-minded bigotry of the Northeastern upper classes of the 1870s. Just as Wharton is portraying such bigotry to analyse and critique it, so Twain uses the language of a world still recovering from the end of slavery because he is thoughtfully discussing race in America. Moreover, his characters do not speak for him, and the word, pointing to notions of ownership and dehumanisation, further enriches his presentation of a world at ease with the vile practices of racism and slavery, and his protagonist’s resistance of those practices.

When Twain introduces ugly racial tones into the novel, for example when Huck says of Jim at the end of the novel, ‘I knowed he was white inside’, they at first strike us as doubly repellent precisely because they do not fit with the general moral and social thrust of the narrative tone. However, the introduction of such ideas at the end of the novel do not suggest so much a sea-change in Twain’s views or intentions, but more the influence of a slave-owning environment on Huck. His rejection of that environment at the end, ‘light[ing] out for the Territory’ and the lawlessness and uncivilised return to nature it represents, assures us that this momentary change, while showing the insidious effect of a soured American society on those who live within it, cannot thwart the goodness and freedom from prejudice which Twain has represented in Huck.

A cursory, uninformed reading of the text would yield consternation and outrage at certain moments. Such ignorant outrage has clearly gripped the council. Yet a nuanced, context-informed reading of the text reveals a clear line of good authorial intentions through the work. As David L. Smith writes, ‘Huckleberry Finn is without peer among major Euro-American novels for its explicitly antiracist stance’: Twain, in a world of bigoted darkness, built a literary lighthouse of societal, racial and moral honesty. Its rays should continue to guide the youth of today. The mollycoddling, philistine approach of those who are too unimaginative to do anything to challenging literature but ban it must be wholly resisted, in this case as much as all others.

Asgharali Jaffer:

Write an article in response to this action in which you focus on analysis of Twain’s writing to dispel the idea that the text is ‘damaging to the youth of today’.


“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Such a bold and confident statement by, arguably, one of America’s greatest writers, Ernest Hemmingway, completely dismisses the notion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being ‘damaging to the youth of today’. For one to argue that the novel is racist and offensive and attacks the black community simply highlights one’s misinterpretation of the novel. The main premise on which many of the debates to ban the novel have stood have been a result of pure misunderstanding of the writing of Twain and the reasoning behind his choice of plot, language and characterisation.

The greatest argument against the sale and distribution of this novel has been the use of the ‘N-word’ throughout the novel. However, many who have fought to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have arguably failed to understand the reason and particular use of the ‘N-word’ by Twain. As the novel progresses the use of the word is used less and less by Huck, as a means of addressing or referring to Jim, rather it is used by Huck with tact as he begins to defy the attitude that dictated that the black community, particularly those who were enslaved, were second class citizens. However, I disagree with this ideology and particularly the view of critic, David L. Smith who believes that Twain’s use of “Nigger” is a means of understanding the precise nature of American racism and Twain’s subtle attack on racism. There is no positive way in which such a word can be used. The word is used, by Twain, to degrade Jim and the black community. The enslaved black community as well as Jim in the novel are constantly referred to as “nigger[s]”. The word is used throughout the book a vast number of times by every white character as though there is nothing wrong with it. The main problem that many have with the N-word being used so many times is the fact that the word has so many negative connotations and so its use shouldn’t be accepted or promoted. Furthermore, the N-word dehumanises black people in the novel, it is used to objectify black people. We see through the line, “…and if you see any runaway niggers, get help and catch them.” They are talked about and treated as some wild animals that need to be hunted. Thus we see that the use of such a word cannot be a way in which Twain subtly attacks racism rather a device that magnifies racist and radical view towards black people.  

The second issue with the novel which has caused such uproar is the widespread racism throughout the novel, though this racism is mostly targeting the black community, it is not always as blatant as the use of the ‘N-word’ for example. Twain uses the characters in the novel to express his own radical and racial views towards the black community of the time. This can be seen through Pap in chapter 6 where he is disgusted at the fact that “a free nigger … from Ohio; a mulatter, most as white as a white man … a p’fessor in a college” is allowed to vote. Twain, in this case, projects his angst and racist views through the character of Pap. The ending of the novel also works as an exposé of Twain’s disdain towards the black community. I am in agreement with Julius Lester, a critic and professor who believes that that the novel takes such a turn and has such a nonsensical ending as Twain didn’t care about the slaves and had only contempt for them. Thus we see that another motive for the banning of this novel is brought about through the rushed ending that dismisses the evil as well as the problems attached with slavery which questions the morals of Twain and the Novel.

This novel is arguably not completely bad and some might suggest it shouldn’t be banned as the fact that it is such a honest representation of the American society at the time, it is necessary for the youth of today to learn about the novel and more importantly, learn from the novel that the novel doesattack racism. It is somewhat obvious to the modern reader that the treatment of Jim and the black community in the novel is wrong and unjust and therefore, the novel acts as a form of guidance for society. Furthermore, it could also be suggested that this is not only a guidance for the reader in the 21st Century rather, a guidance for all of society and all readersof the novel whether past or present. There is a clear idea of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being a novel that is an innocent representation and a critic of the American society. This is seen through the way in which Huck rejects societal approval rather works to stop the unjust and immoral nature of slavery. Thus Kaplan, a critic and author, argues that Twain’s work is innocent and merely representing an honest society and is in fact highlighting the wrong in society through the way in which Huck fights and risks his life for Jim’s freedom.

In conclusion I agree that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnby Mark Twain should be banned as result of the racist ideology and objectification of the black community. It is clear that Twain used the Novel to push forward his own racist ideas and I believe that such a writer’s work should not be distributed despite the fact that it is seen as an attack on racism by some. Such work should also not be accepted as a historical insight into the treatment and life of the enslaved black community. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel submerged in racial and discriminatory undertoneswhich are not wholly attacked by any character. Finally, the ending of the novel and the way that it is written by Twain disrespects the plight of the black community in America at the time.