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A controversial masterpiece
on February 11, 2000
Okay, we all know the plot, so there's no sense in rehashing it; but this book has generated a great deal of heat and very little light lately, it's been banned in some school districts and attacked as racist garbage, so this review will address the question: Is "Huckleberry Finn", in fact, a racist book?
The charge of racism stems from the liberal use of the N word in describing Jim. Some black parents and students have charged that the book is humiliating and demeaning to African-Americans and therefore is unfit to be taught in school. If there has been a racist backlash in the classroom, I think it is the fault of the readers rather than the book.
"Huckleberry Finn" is set in Missouri in the 1830's and it is true to its time. The narrator is a 13 year old, semi-literate boy who refers to blacks by the N-word because he has never heard them called anything else. He's been brought up to see blacks as slaves, as property, as something less than human. He gets to know Jim on their flight to freedom (Jim escaping slavery and Huck escaping his drunken, abusive father), and is transformed. Huck realizes that Jim is just as human as he is, a loving father who misses his children, a warm, sensitive, generous, compassionate individual. Huck's epiphany arrives when he has to make a decision whether or not to rescue Jim when he is captured and held for return to slavery. In the culture he was born into, stealing a slave is the lowest of crimes and the perpetrator is condemned to eternal damnation. By his decision to risk hell to save Jim, he saves his own soul. Huck has risen above his upbringing to see Jim as a friend, a man, and a fellow human being.
Another charge of racism is based on Twain's supposed stereotyping of Jim. As portrayed by Twain, Jim is hardly the ignorant, shuffling Uncle Tom that was so prevalent in "Gone With the Wind" (a book that abundantly deserves the charge of racism). Jim may be uneducated, but he is nobody's fool; and his dignity and nobility in the face of adversity is evident throughout the book.
So -- is "Huckleberry Finn" a racist book? No. It's of its time and for its time and ours as well, portraying a black man with sensitivity, dignity, and sympathy. If shallow, ignorant readers see Jim as a caricature and an object of derision, that's their problem. Hopefully they may mature enough in their lifetime to appreciate this book as one of the greatest classics of American literature.
And for those who might be wondering -- this reviewer is black.