Huckleberry Finn – Racism Debate In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of the seemingly racist ideas expressed by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. In some extreme cases the novel has even been banned by public school systems and censored by public libraries. The basis for these censorship campaigns has been the depiction of one of the main characters in Huckleberry Finn, Jim, a black slave. Jim, is a”typical” black slave who runs away from his “owner” Miss Watson. At several points in the novel, Jim’s character is described to the reader, and some people have looked upon the characterization as racist.
However, before one begins to censor a novel it is important to separate the ideas of the author from the ideas’ of his characters. It is also important not to take a novel at face value and to “read between the lines” in order to capture the underlying themes of a novel. If one were to do this in relation to Huckleberry Finn, one would, without doubt, realize that it is not racist and is even anti-slavery. On a superficial level Huckleberry Finn might appear to be racist. The first time the reader meets Jim he is given a very negative description of Jim.
The reader is told that Jim is illiterate, childlike, not very bright and extremely superstitious. However, it is important not to lose sight of who is giving this description and of whom it is being given. Although Huck is not a racist child, he has been raised by extremely racist individuals who have, even if only subconsciously, ingrained some feelings of bigotry into his mind. It is also important to remember that this description, although it is quite saddening, was probably accurate. Jim and the millions of other slaves in the South were not permitted any formal education, were never allowed any independent thought and were constantly maltreated and abused. Twain is merely portraying by way of Jim, a very realistic slave raised in the South during that time period. To say that Twain is racist because of his desire for historical accuracy is absurd.
Despite the few incidences in which Jim’s description might be misconstrued as racist, there are many points in the novel where Twain through Huck, voices his extreme opposition to the slave trade and racism. In chapter six, Huck’s father fervently objects to the governments granting of suffrage to an educated black professor. Twain wants the reader to see the absurdity in this statement. Huck’s father believes that he is superior to this black professor simply because of the color of his skin. In Chapter 15 the reader is told of an incident which contradicts the original “childlike” description of Jim. In chapter 15 the reader is presented with a very caring and father-like Jim who becomes very worried when he loses his best friend Huck in a deep fog. Twain is pointing out the connection which has been made between Huck and Jim.
A connection which does not exist between a man and his property. When Huck first meets Jim on the Island he makes a monumental decision, not to turn Jim in. He is confronted by two opposing forces, the force of society and the force of friendship. Many times throughout the novel Huck comes very close to rationalizing Jim’s slavery. However, he is never able to see a reason why this man who has become one of his only friends, should be a slave. Through this internal struggle, Twain expresses his opinions of the absurdity of slavery and the importance of following one’s personal conscience before the laws of society.
By the end of the novel, Huck and the reader have come to understand that Jim is not someone’s property and an inferior man, but an equal. Throughout the novel society’s voice is heard through Huck. The racist and hateful contempt which existed at the time is at many times present. But, it is vital for the reader to recognize these ideas as society’s and to recognize that Twain throughout the novel disputes these ideas. Twain brings out into the open the ugliness of society and causes the reader to challenge the original description of Jim.
In his subtle manner, he creates not an apology for slavery but a challenge to it.