Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finnby James S. Leonard
Though one of America’s best known and loved novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been the object of fierce controversy because of its racist language and reliance on racial stereotypes. This collection of fifteen essays by prominent African American scholars and critics examines the novel’s racist elements and/i>
Though one of America’s best known and loved novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been the object of fierce controversy because of its racist language and reliance on racial stereotypes. This collection of fifteen essays by prominent African American scholars and critics examines the novel’s racist elements and assesses the degree to which Twain’s ironies succeed or fail to turn those elements into a satirical attack on racism.
Ranging from the laudatory to the openly hostile, these essays include personal impressions of Huckleberry Finn, descriptions of classroom experience with the book, evaluations of its ironic and allegorical aspects, explorations of its nineteenth-century context, and appraisal of its effects on twentieth-century African American writers. Among the issues the authors contend with are Twain’s pervasive use of the word “nigger,” his portrayal of the slave Jim according to the conventions of the minstrel show “darky,” and the thematic chaos created by the “evasion” depicted in the novel’s final chapters.
Sure to provoke thought and stir debate, Satire or Evasion? provides a variety of new perspectives on one of this country’s most troubling classics.
Contributors. Richard K. Barksdale, Bernard W. Bell, Mary Kemp Davis, Peaches M. Henry, Betty Harris Jones, Rhett S. Jones, Julius Lester, Donnarae MacCann, Charles H. Nichols, Charles H. Nilon, Arnold Rampersad, David L. Smith, Carmen Dubryan, John H. Wallace, Kenny Jackson Williams, Fredrick Woodard
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Satire or Evasion?
Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn
By James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, Thadious M. Davis
Duke University PressCopyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Huck Finn and the Authorities
In most years since Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared in America in 1885, it has been banned somewhere, for some reason. At first the charge was vulgarity, as when the Concord Public Library rejected the book for being "rough, coarse, and inelegant ... more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people." Today we might see the disparaging reference to "the slums" as being itself "rough" and "coarse" in its implications; we might even suspect that one unspoken objection to Huck Finn has been a racist, or at least elitist, dislike of the company he kept. Few readers would now condemn the book as objectionably low or coarse, but the problem of racism is not so easily dismissed. Twain's novel can be treated as a period piece, its language roughly true to a time when most blacks were slaves and insulting epithets were among their lesser problems; but that language remains painfully divisive for black and white Americans. Black parents naturally want to spare their children the discrimination and gratuitous insults that are too much a part of the history of black Americans. It may also be inevitable, and not altogether inappropriate, that resentments having less to do with the book than with the experience of growing up black in America should be incorporated into protests against Huckleberry Finn.
John H. Wallace's essay, "The Case against Huck Finn," sets the tone for objections to the novel and is of historical as well as critical significance. Wallace has figured prominently in battles to getHuckleberry Finn out of the schools; his essay returns to the stand he has taken elsewhere, in print and in public appearances: Huckleberry Finn says that black people steal, that they are not as intelligent as white people, that they are not human. Wallace's analyses of various episodes differ noticeably from most critical evaluations, including those of other contributors to this volume, by emphasizing the literal content of passages without recourse to the irony usually seen as crucial to Twain's intention. Wallace's discussion of Jim's desire to steal his wife and children out of slavery ("give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell") can be compared with Betty Jones's remarks on the same passage; his conclusion that Twain "insinuates that black people are less intelligent than whites" when Tom says that "Jim's a nigger and wouldn't understand the reasons for" sawing off his hand or foot (chap. 35) can be compared with David Smith's account of Jim's shrewdness in various encounters with Tom and Huck; and his reference to the "killed a nigger" episode (chap. 32) as an instance in which "Huckleberry Finn suggests that blacks are not human beings" can be compared with analyses of the passage by Smith, Peaches Henry, and Charles Nichols, as well as with Harold Beaver's remark that "he [Huck] coolly evoked her [Aunt Sally's] bigotry. If that could be taught in American schools, then neither Jim (for all his limitations) nor Twain (for his) would be such a stumbling block. For Huckleberry Finn, at heart, is a profoundly anti-racist book."
Wallace's essay ends with a promotion for his own adapted version of Huckleberry Finn, one of many sanitized versions which over the years have been prepared for use in schools. But critics who see Twain's novel as effectively attacking racial bigotry argue that softening the language undermines the irony that forces and reinforces that attack. Roger Sutton, commenting on Wallace's adaptation, maintains that Wallace "has taken Huckleberry Finn, a book containing some strong anti-racist sentiment, and turned it into a very different book, one that is 'racist by omission' (to borrow a phrase from the Council on Interracial Books for Children).... With Wallace's removal of 'nigger,' and his softening of white bigotry in Twain's book, readers can conclude that life wasn't so bad for blacks in the South. Indeed, they can conclude that blacks scarcely existed. By simply referring to them as 'slaves,' readers can forget why they were enslaved to begin with." But Wallace's central question lingers: is the unexpurgated text too inflammatory in an ordinary classroom situation?
Peaches Henry's essay, "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn," adds the perspectives of professional educational research on Huckleberry Finn and her own classroom experience with the problem of racist language in literary texts. Her survey of studies on teaching the novel is thorough and current. She has much to say to those who would brush aside the complaints of black parents, but she also offers evidence of the potential of Huck and Jim as a much-needed model of friendship. While Wallace recommends that, in addition to Huckleberry Finn, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird be "listed as racist and excluded from the classroom" (Wallace's emphasis), Henry discusses how she has dealt with Mockingbird in mixed classes, worked through initial discomfort over such terms as "nigger-lover," and made the reading a beneficially stimulating experience for her students. She maintains that the same can be done for Twain's novel with imaginative and sensitive teaching.
Reviewing arguments for and against Huckleberry Finn, Richard K. Barksdale ("History, Slavery, and Thematic Irony in Huckleberry Finn") proposes that many of the attacks on the book stem from feelings of guilt (among both blacks and whites) over continuing racial divisions in our society and from a consequent desire to simply forget America's scandalous racial history. Barksdale emphasizes the human bonding between Jim and Huck rather than racial division, and he finds Twain's own prejudice more antisocial than antiblack (in this agreeing with Julius Lester's essay in this volume). Unlike Wallace, he calls attention to the novel's ironic content, but also concedes the difficulty of sorting through irony's "deliberate misstatements." Barksdale believes that a clear view of Huckleberry Finn 's racial ironies may be overly difficult because American experience, still too much enmeshed in problems of race, undercuts aesthetic distance.
James S. Leonard and Thomas A. TenneyCHAPTER 2
The Case Against Huck Finn
John H. Wallace
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written. During the 1981–82 school year, the media carried reports that it was challenged in Davenport, Iowa; Houston, Texas; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and, of all places, Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Parents in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1983 and in Springfield, Illinois, in 1984 asked that the book be removed from the classroom—and there are many challenges to this book that go unnoticed by the press. All of these are coming from black parents and teachers after complaints from their children or students, and frequently they are supported by white teachers, as in the case of Mark Twain Intermediate School.
For the past forty years, black families have trekked to schools in numerous districts throughout the country to say, "This book is not good for our children," only to be turned away by insensitive and often unwittingly racist teachers and administrators who respond, "This book is a classic." Classic or not, it should not be allowed to continue to cause our children embarrassment about their heritage.
Louisa May Alcott, the Concord Public Library, and others condemned the book as trash when it was published in 1885. The NAACP and the National Urban League successfully collaborated to haveHuckleberry Finn removed from the classrooms of the public schools of New York City in 1957 because it uses the term "nigger." In 1969 Miami-Dade Junior College removed the book from its classrooms because the administration believed that the book creates an emotional block for black students which inhibits learning. It was excluded from the classrooms of the New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and removed from the required reading list in the state of Illinois in 1976.
My own research indicates that the assignment and reading aloud of Huckleberry Finn in our classrooms is humiliating and insulting to black students. It contributes to their feelings of low self-esteem and to the white students' disrespect for black people. It constitutes mental cruelty, harassment, and outright racial intimidation to force black students to sit in the classroom with their white peers and read Huckleberry Finn. The attitudes developed by the reading of such literature can lead to tensions, discontent, and even fighting. If this book is removed from the required reading lists of our schools, there should be improved student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and teacher-to-teacher relationships.
According to Webster's Dictionary, the word "nigger" means a Negro or a member of any dark-skinned race of people and is offensive. Black people have never accepted "nigger" as a proper term—not in George Washington's time, Mark Twain's time, or William Faulkner's time. A few white authors, thriving on making blacks objects of ridicule and scorn by having blacks use this word as they, the white authors, were writing and speaking for blacks in a dialect they perceived to be peculiar to black people, may have given the impression that blacks accepted the term. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some black authors have used "nigger," but not in literature to be consumed by children in the classroom. Black authors know as well as whites that there is money to be made selling books that ridicule black people. As a matter of fact, the white child learns early in life that his or her black peer makes a good butt for a joke. Much of what goes on in the classroom reinforces this behavior. Often the last word uttered before a fight is "nigger." Educators must discourage the ridicule of "different" children.
In the Classroom
Russell Baker, of the New Tork Times (14 April 1982), has said (and Jonathan Yardley, of the Washington Post [10 May 1982], concurred),
Kids are often exposed to books long before they are ready for them or exposed to them in a manner that seems almost calculated to evaporate whatever enthusiasm the students may bring to them.... Very few youngsters of high school age are ready for Huckleberry Finn. Leaving aside its subtle depiction of racial attitudes and its complex view of American society, the book is written in a language that will seem baroque, obscure and antiquated to many young people today. The vastly sunnier Tom Sawyer is a book for kids, but Huckleberry Finn most emphatically is not.
The milieu of the classroom is highly charged with emotions. There are twenty to thirty unique personalities with hundreds of needs to be met simultaneously. Each student wants to be accepted and to be like the white, middle-class child whom he perceives to be favored by the teacher. Since students do not want their differences highlighted, it is best to accentuate their similarities; but the reading of Huck Finn in class accentuates the one difference that is always apparent—color.
My research suggests that the black child is offended by the use of the word "nigger" anywhere, no matter what rationale the teacher may use to justify it. If the teacher permits its use, the black child tends to reject the teacher because the student is confident that the teacher is prejudiced. Communications are effectively severed, thwarting the child's education. Pejorative terms should not be granted any legitimacy by their use in the classroom under the guise of teaching books of great literary merit, nor for any other reason.
Equal Protection and Opportunity in the Classroom
To paraphrase Irwin Katz, the use of the word "nigger" by a prestigious adult like a teacher poses a strong social threat to the black child. Any expression by a white or black teacher of dislike or devaluation, whether through harsh, indifferent, or patronizing behavior, would tend to have an unfavorable effect on the performance of black children in their school work. This is so because various psychological theories suggest that the black students' covert reactions to the social threat would constitute an important source of intellectual impairment.
Dorothy Gilliam, writing in the Washington Post of 12 April 1982, said, "First Amendment rights are crucial to a healthy society. No less crucial is the Fourteenth Amendment and its guarantee of equal protection under the law." The use of the word "nigger" in the classroom does not provide black students with equal protection and is in violation of their constitutional rights. Without equal protection, they have neither equal access nor equal opportunity for an education.
One group of citizens deeply committed to effecting change and to retaining certain religious beliefs sacred to themselves are members of the Jewish religion. In a publication issued by the Jewish Community Council (November 1981), the following guidelines were enunciated regarding the role of religious practices in public schools: "In no event should any student, teacher, or public school staff member feel that his or her own beliefs or practices are being questioned, infringed upon, or compromised by programs taking place in or sponsored by the public school." Further, "schools should avoid practices which operate to single out and isolate 'different' pupils and thereby [cause] embarrassment."
I endorse these statements without reservation, for I believe the rationale of the Jewish Community Council is consistent with my position. I find it incongruent to contend that it is fitting and proper to shelter children from isolation, embarrassment, and ridicule due to their religious beliefs and then deny the same protection to other children because of the color of their skin. The basic issue is the same. It is our purpose to spare children from scorn, to increase personal pride, and to foster the American belief of acceptance on merit, not color, sex, religion, or origin.
Many "authorities" say Huckleberry Finn can be used in our intermediate and high school classrooms. They consistently put stipulations on its use like the following: It must be used with appropriate planning. It is the responsibility of the teacher to assist students in the understanding of the historical setting of the novel, the characters being depicted, the social context, including prejudice, which existed at the time depicted in the book. Balanced judgment on the part of the classroom teacher must be used prior to making a decision to utilize this book in an intermediate or high school program. Such judgment would include taking into account the age and maturity of the students, their ability to comprehend abstract concepts, and the methodology of presentation.
Any material that requires such conditions could be dangerous racist propaganda in the hands of even our best teachers. And "some, not all, teachers are hostile, racist, vindictive, inept, or even neurotic," though "many are compassionate and skillful." Teacher attitudes are important to students. Some teachers are marginal at best, yet many school administrators are willing to trust them with a book that maligns blacks. Huckleberry Finn would have been out of the classroom ages ago if it used "dago," "wop," or "spic."
When "authorities" mention the "historical setting" of Huckleberry Finn, they suggest that it is an accurate, factual portrayal of the way things were in slavery days. In fact, the book is the outgrowth of Mark Twain's memory and imagination, written twenty years after the end of slavery. Of the two main characters depicted, one is a thief, a liar, a sacrilegious corn-cob-pipe-smoking truant; the other is a self-deprecating slave. No one would want his children to emulate this pair. Yet some "authorities" speak of Huck as a boyhood hero. Twain warns us in the beginning of Huckleberry Finn, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." I think we ought to listen to Twain and stop feeding this trash to our children. It does absolutely nothing to enhance racial harmony. The prejudice that existed then is still very much apparent today. Racism against blacks is deeply rooted in the American culture and is continually reinforced by the schools, by concern for socioeconomic gain, and by the vicarious ego enhancement it brings to those who manifest it.
Excerpted from Satire or Evasion? by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, Thadious M. Davis. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James S. Leonard is Professor of English at The Citadel.
Thadious M. Davis is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.
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