This is a book that I had read way back in high school and remembered little of, other than the basic story plot; a young boy and a runaway slave floating down the river on a raft. It was a story that had left a favorable impression on me as being an interesting read. I also knew that in the years since I had read it, that it had become somewhat controversial and even banned in some places because of its treatment of blacks.
So a few weeks ago I download the complete works of Mark Twain onto my Kindle and began a second trip through this story. I did enjoy the trip down the river by a 13 year old boy, running away from an abusive father, and Jim, an older slave running away from a sale that would take him away from his family. The adventures they encounter along the way, including an extended journey with a couple of con artists, and the adventures with Tom Sawyer and his aunt as they attempt to free Jim from imprisonment. The story as a whole is a bit hard to swallow, but it does have the ring of something that 13 year old boys would at least attempt to do.
But what was all the controversy over? After all, slavery is a part of the history of our nation. Whether we like it or not it did happen. And yes, the word ‘nigger’, which is used a lot in the story, is considered offensive by most people today; but I have read plenty of other stories with offensive terms, including this one, that are not being banned in schools. So what’s the big deal?
It took a while before it finally struck me. In this story it is just accepted by all that the blacks are not really people, differing from other animals that people might own only in that they could talk, cook, clean house, and work the fields. The subtle signs of this attitude are there throughout the story, but it didn’t really hit home until a couple of passages mid story. The one that sticks out most to me concerns the yarn that Huck spins to explain how he came to be at Tom’s aunt’s house.
“It warn’t the grounding – that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
The message here is clear, niggers are not people. And yet the argument is made by many people that the book is actually an indictment against slavery and racism; that Twain is showing parallels between a young boy fleeing an abusive environment and Jim, also fleeing the abusive institution of slavery. Huck’s changing attitude toward Jim is also taken as a growing enlightenment that would overcome racism.
Should this book be banned from our schools? I have mixed feelings about it, but I am more inclined to not support its banning. Yes, it does paint an unfavorable impression of blacks. But it also paints a negative picture of the whites who treated them that way. And it should cause us to examine our attitudes toward slavery and racism, which were even bigger issues when Twain wrote.
As said earlier, it is a part of our history, and keeping it from students and others will not change that. Banning a book only makes it more desirable, and in today’s world it is so easily accessible to anyone that banning would probably just increase its popularity. If needed, put a warning label on the book and put it back on the shelves. Why should we try to hide our past or rewrite our history? Why not accept it, learn from it, and move on? Racism is a sign of immaturity and insecurity. Take a journey along with Huck and learn to view others in a new light.