Is Mark Twain a Racist?
Is Mark Twain A racist? Many believe certain things about Twain’s “Great American novel,” makes it a racist book, like the overuse of the word, “nigger,” and the given depiction of the black slave, Jim. However, there is a substantial amount of evidence that this book was not written out of hate, but in hope that Twain could change the ideals of skin color of the white people around him. The first and foremost question most people ask when they read the novel is, “was Mark Twain a racist? There are assumptions that because of Twain’s use of edgy language and writing in the point of view of racists, that he was a racist himself. Much of the article is Twain going into detail about the type of environment and adults this young boy has been raised with, and how racism against the Chinese is commonplace. For example, the Chinese are taxed twice as much as all the other races to mine for gold. Also, when they are caught stealing from a mine, they are hung. However, when the same happens to the other races, they are only asked to leave the mining camp (Galaxy).
In one part, the narrator shares, “… [the boy] found out that in many districts of the vast Pacific coast, so strong is the wild, free love of justice in the hearts of the people, that whenever any secret and mysterious crime is committed, they say, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” and go straightway and swing a Chinaman. ” (Galaxy) The reason why Twain lists these observations is to show the city of San Francisco that it is not the boy who’s at fault, because, “What had the child’s education been? How should he suppose it was wrong to stone a Chinaman (Galaxy)? In fact, in one part of the article, the boy says, “”Ah, there goes a Chinaman! God will not love me if I do not stone him (Galaxy). ” With this article, Twain hoped that he could allow the adult of the city to see how foolish they have been acting towards the Chinese and it was not the boy who is acting childish, but it is the men whom the young boy looked up to. This is the same scenario with the controversy surrounding, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. ” In both stories we see a young boy who lives in a society that is racist against a certain race only because they were raised that way.
An example of this in, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is one of the first things we hear from Huck’s father and his feelings about black people who have done well in the country. He refers to an African-American college professor who wore nice clothes and was intelligent. Also, since the man was from Ohio, he was also allowed to vote. It’s interesting how Huck’s father says, “It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there… (37)”.
The irony in this is how Huck’s father, a man who is obviously morally, financially, socially, and intellectually inferior to the professor he met, believes he is superior to the man because of their difference in skin colors. This confirms that Huck was raised in a racist environment, which means that things Huck says or does probably isn’t out of hate, but because that’s the way he’s been raised in his home and society. Something very risky that Twain did to show others his position on slavery and racism was when he volunteered to help pay for one of the first black student’s tuition at Yale University.
In his letter do the Dean of the university explaining why he wanted to do this, he said, “We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it (Fishkin). ” This act and quote shows that Mark Twain felt personally convicted about slavery as a terrible mistake towards the black society and wanted to give something back to those affected. Therefore, with all his negative experiences with slaves and racism, why would this man write a book that goes against the ideals he so boldly defends?
This book should not be looked at as an attack against African-Americans, but as another way Twain tried to repay the debt he felt he owed the slaves and their families (Fishkin). When the book first introduces Jim, it seems that the slave is almost superstitious to the point of idiocy. In chapter two, Jim falls asleep when looking for Tom and Huck in Mrs. Watson’s yard. Tom takes Jim’s hat and places it on a branch above his head, and when Jim wakes up he tells the other slaves a group of witches, “rode him all over the world, and tired him most to death, and his back was all over saddle-boils (14). Two chapters later, Jim pulls a hairball out of an ox’s stomach and claims an all-knowing spirit lives inside (26). Many people find Jim’s superstitions very offensive and racist because it emphasizes the idea that slaves had no hope in having a good life. Some believe that since the slaves were treated so poorly and had little chance of escaping their sentence, they made up superstitions as a way to escape from their cruel reality. Most African-American advocates of anning Twain’s novel from schools don’t think their children should have to read about a time in their family’s history where so much pain, suffering and dignity was lost. The fact that Twain makes Jim an extremely superstitious character, is interpreted by many as a racist action (Wolfson). However, who’s to say that Jim’s superstitions are not just a creative way for him to take advantage of certain things for his own personal gain? It’s possible that Jim used the witch story from chapter two because he knew he’d gain popularity throughout the slave world.
It even says later that slaves traveled from far places to hear Jim’s witch story. As with the hairball, Jim could have just used it to get a quick “buck” from Huck, or other customers who wanted some questions answered, since Jim pretended the spirit wouldn’t work unless it was paid. If Jim’s superstitions are viewed in this light, he should be looked at as a very clever human being, rather than a hopeless slave, and no one with the same skin color as him should be offended (Fishkin). Another big issue people have with the book is its seemingly overuse of the word, “nigger. Throughout the book, the word is mentioned an overwhelming two hundred and fifteen times, something that many see as unnecessary, since the word comes with such a negative, degrading implication in today’s world. However, there is much debate whether or not the term carried the type of negative connotation it has today, but even if people did use the name as an insult, there are still reasonable explanations as to why Mark Twain would use this word. First of all, Twain strived to make this novel as realistic as possible.
If he had not used the language of his time or depicted characters the way they were in his time period, then no one would have taken his book seriously. It’s possible that there were other names that were less offensive that he could have used, but doing so would not have been as effective in exposing the ugliness of racism as, “nigger” does. The word reinforced the book’s idea that the societies of the southern United States lived in constant racism. Though it’s unclear whether Shelley Fisher Fishkin supported this idea, she says in her book, A Historical Guide to Mark Twain: … “nigger”] was integral to the project of presenting and indicating a racist society, whose illegitimate racial hierarchy was embodied in the use of that word, because it was central to dramatizing the failure of everyone in that society (black and white) to challenge the legitimacy of the status quo and of the word that cemented and reinforced it, and because the diction was realistic to the time and characters. (137) The relation between, Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy, and the novel at hand must also be analyzed.
The young boy who stoned the Chinese man didn’t commit the crime because he hated the Chinese, he did it because that’s what he was taught to do. When Huck referred to the slaves as, “niggers,” it’s not out of hate that he uses the word, but because he was taught that’s just what you call slaves. Another issue people have with this book is the overall depiction of the slave’s intellect. In parts of the book, it’s hard to even understand what Jim is trying to say because he hasn’t been educated. People believe that making Jim sound intellectually inferior to every other character in the book is a racist move on Twain’s part.
However, when reading the novel, the reader must also realize that the author and the narrator are two different voices. The author, Twain, is an adult who is very against the idea of slavery. The narrator is a young boy who has been raised by a society who sees nothing wrong with enslaving black people. Thus, it is not Twain voicing his opinions through the thought processes of Huck, but it is Twain trying to portray an accurate, historical point of view from a young, white boy (Fishkin). Unfortunately, this young boy has been raised with certain biases against slaves, and Twain must honor that bias.
If he doesn’t then the book would be historically inaccurate. Also, one must remember that people living today were probably not Twain’s target audience. Twain wanted to change problems in his generation, and in order to create a story that applied to the reader of his day, he would have to make the story as realistic as possible. Lastly, the most obvious argument is that it just wouldn’t make sense to create a slave character who was as smart as the white people. If slaves were not allowed any formal education, how realistic would it be to write about a smart, literate slave?
Finally, at the end of the novel, it seems Huck is thinking about running away from his home again, only because, “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it (307). ” For this quote to truly hold any meaning, the reader must realize a “sivilized” person in the societies of the southern states back then would probably have owned and mistreated slaves. Hearing Huck say that he’s sick of society teaching him how to be “sivilized,” could be his way of expressing the newfound feelings he has against slavery (Fishkin).
To say that, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is a racist novel should be considered a ridiculous idea. Why would an anti-slavery and anti-racist man write a racist book? Twain wrote books and articles to justify his ideas to his reader, even if the ideas were absurd, like the idea of the black man being on equal ground with the white man. Though by the time the book was completed slavery was abolished and African-Americans were free, the mindsets of the southern white families did not change. These types of families were to whom Mark Twain was directing this book.
He hoped they would see the ugliness of racism and slavery, and see people past the color of their skin. One of Mark Twain’s well known quotes on racism is, “One of my theories is that the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be (Everett). ” Twain probably never realized his novel about young Huck Finn would have gained so much popularity and attention so long after it’s original publishing, but throughout every generation, his message of anti-racism should not be banned for its racist interpretations because it is relevant for any race, people, or community.