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Ann Ryan <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 19 Feb 2010 08:17:36 -0500
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Hi everyone,

I think we want to be careful of simply dismissing the charge that Huck
Finn is a racist text and/or that Twain was himself racist. The impulse
to cast both author and book in saintly garb has put us in a vulnerable
position with students and readers who are, quite rightly, something
more than "shocked" when they are assaulted by the text. So, for the
record: Huck never admits that slavery is wrong; he discovers the
humanity of this particular Black man, and that's it. (And even then the
color of humanity for Huck is white). Twain, for all his profound
insights into the structures of racial identity, his support of black
causes, and his affection for individual African Americans, was finally
paternalistic in many of his responses to the black community. He was
comfortable with Booker T.; I'm not sure how he would have felt about
Dubois--not to mention Marcus Garvey. Neither the man nor his fictional
child are beyond reproach, and Twain would more than agree with me here.

When we try to whitewash Twain, we miss the power of the claims that he
makes in the novel, and we may lose the opportunity to talk about race
effectively and realistically. Twain gives us a novel filled with people
who are not "hard hearted," and yet who are capable of the most horrific
racial crimes. And here I'm not speaking of Pap, who is an embodiment of
the Klan mentality; I'm talking about Aunt Sally, who is relieved to
find out that "only a nigger" was killed in the explosion on the
Mississippi, or  Miss Watson, who asks "the niggers" to come in and
pray; and even Huck, who, for all his sweet sympathy, will "steal" his
friend out of slavery, but who will also allow him to be humiliated for
the pleasure of Tom Sawyer. What Twain is finally interested in, and so
brillant in representing, is the psychological complexity of the racist
and our deep familiarity with him or her. As I often remind my students,
the racist for Twain is someone whom we almost want to forgive, someone
with whom we share a meal, a bed, a bloodline. If racists only looked
like Pap, Twain reminds us, the problem of racism is pretty easy to
solve. Unforntunately, the racist has a much more familiar aspect.

Taught correctly, this novel ought to make all of us a little anxious
and offended. We can get dewey eyed at Chapter 31, but not at the
exclusion of all the chapters that precede or follow it.

Certainly Professor Wortham is a bad reader of the novel. He invites
students into his office, diplays his Huckleberry Finn coffee mug or
commemorative stamps,  or whatever, and then claims that he is "shocked,
shocked to find that there's racism in this text." Like Jane Smilely, he
seems to prefer racial narratives that don't trouble the water, if there
are any. However, these literary naifs have one point worth
rememebering: the novel is not a celebration of racial harmony; it's a
sometimes lyrical satire of racism and a portrait of the racist in the