Racist on Principle: Attempt at Combatting Racism in Satirical Manner in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn combats racism through its use of satire, its effect is one that reinforces racism due to its racist portrayal of Jim, its use of the N-word, and its lack of concrete racial enlightenment for Huck.

Jim’s portrayal as the stereotypically childish, minstrel black man reinforces racial stereotypes. From the start, Jim is portrayed as a superstitious character, one that exemplifies the characteristics of a child. In his introductory scene, Huck and Tom play a trick on Jim by hanging his hat above his head while he sleeps. Jim, upon waking up, goes around telling everyone that “witches bewitched him and put him in a trance” (6). He would continue to exaggerate his story every time he told it, becoming so “monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other n******” (6). Jim would begin to believe his story, becoming “most ruined, for a servant, because he got so stuck up on account of having seen the devil” (6). His overexcitement about his made up story, his superstitious conclusion about his mysteriously moved hat, and his over exaggeration are all classic characteristics of a child.. Readers are unable to see maturity in Jim because of the limited point of view we receive from Huck, leading to the “residue of the white supremacy myth [to manifest] itself in the characterization of Jim” (Woodard and McCann 151). David Smith argues that the scene actually uses “Jim’s superstition to make points that undermine rather than revalidate the dominant racial discourse” (Smith 363). Smith argues that since Jim becomes unsuited for life as a slave, it is likely that Jim never believed in those stories in the first place, meaning he likely told them solely to acquire the minimal power and celebrity (Smith 364). This reasoning is valid, but it does not take into account how unlikely it is for the average reader to dig into the text like that. Readers who are looking for reasons the books combats racism will perhaps follow this logic, but the average reader would not. The superstitious, childish demeanor of Jim that is reinforced over a whole scene is far stronger than the single sentence at the end of the paragraph. As Woodard and McCann point out, “Jim is often scared stiff in contrast to Huck’s calm, confident demeanor (as when the raft is lost at the site of a wrecked steamboat),” and these reactions “are multiplied and intensified in the last fifth of the novel” (Woodard and McCann 146). Throughout the book, Jim is constantly reinforcing the stereotype that African Americans are childish. “White people have accepted this characterization because it permits their own ‘humanity’ to shine with more luster” (Lester 343). Racist readers accept African Americans’ childlike portrayal because it allows for them to feel more superior, and Huck Finn provides its readers with a character perfect for this stereotype.

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Jim’s portrayal as a minstrel character, meant to be laughed at, is repeated numerous times, such as during Huck and Jim’s conversation about stock (46), and reinforces the pattern in American society that “blacks had to be hilarious to white eyes… in order for whites to cease feeling guilt and anxiety” (Woodard and McCann 148). This scene follows a pattern very similar to that of a minstrel dialogue, in which Jim, the “minstrel darky,” is ridiculed and used a comic relief, and Huck, the interlocutor, leads the conversation. Huck even loses his accent, which highlights Jim’s lack of education. The scene also reinforces the belief that black people are less intelligent than white people. This belief is reinforced again when Huck and Jim argue about speaking French. Jim cannot wrap his head around Huck’s argument that cats and dogs speak different “languages”, and so humans speak different languages too (79). Although Jim is seemingly portrayed as missing the point, David Smith takes a different approach, arguing that Jim shows complex reasoning and arguing skills, despite his lack of education. In other words, the scene is satirical (Smith 365). While this is a valid point, and the scene can certainly be taken as satire, the far more upfront and literal reading would show Jim as uneducated and characteristic of the “minstrel darky”. The average reader, one that is not aware of any satirical intentions, is far more likely to perceive this passage as one that reinforces stereotypes that portray African Americans as uneducated and silly, than they are to dig deeper into the text, and see the satire emerge.

There are instances in which Jim is shown to be morally complex. For example, as David Smith points out, “[Jim] demonstrates his moral superiority by surrendering himself in order to assist the doctor in treating his wounded tormentor,” and by doing so, subverts the expectations of a racist reader (Smith 367). Unfortunately for Smith’s argument, this behavior is written off as Jim being “white inside”. The rare instance that Jim is portrayed with any heroic, moral characteristics or thinking, his behavior is attributed to some inner “whiteness” Jim possesses. Although Huck’s comment can be taken as satire, for it is an incongruous reaction, the justification for Jim’s good behavior as “white” behavior, is seriously flawed and racist, and a reader can easily miss the satirical point. A much stronger point that the book combats racism would be one that focuses on Jim’s homesickness and longing for his family. As Peaches Henry explains, Jim, when he weeps for his family, subverts the notion of the “negro,” showing the reader that African Americans can have moral complexity and giving Jim a sense of humanity (373). For example, over whether or not they should take watermelons from a little village, Jim decides that both the widow, believing it was stealing, and pap, believing it was borrowing, are right, and so they should borrow some of what they wanted to. This quote can perhaps be seen as Jim using logical reasoning to come to a conclusion. While I agree with Smith that scenes like these show the reader Jim’s humanity, subverting the “minstrel darky” stereotype, these moments are so few and far between, that they do not change the extensively established portrayal of Jim as a childish and uncomplex character. We cannot deny that Jim’s logic is flawed and foolish. Jim is still a point of comedy for a racist reader. Any possible satire that is intended by the book is overshadowed by the racist stereotype Jim embodies for much of the novel.

The effects of Jim’s lack of moral complexity runs parallel with the book’s usage of the n-word. The n-word, as it was used in American society, is a derogatory term that was used to dehumanize and aid in the systematic oppression of African Americans for centuries. By citing this word over two hundred times throughout the novel, the book reinforces the views of a racist reader. From the start, the book uses the word at nauseum, sometimes using it multiple times in a sentence, such as when Huck describes how “n*****’s would come miles to hear Jim tell about [being bewitched], and he was more looked up to than any n***** in the country” (6). The n-word is used exponentially more as the book comes to a close, with the final ten chapters containing the word 86 times. The reader is constantly being bombarded with the n-word, which includes in it the oppression and humiliation that is associated with that word. For racist readers, this word reinforces their beliefs by providing them with the means for degrading the humanity of African Americans. Because of the repetition of the word, racist readers are constantly having their beliefs reinforced. Pap uses the n-word a myriad times during his rant about the black gentleman who is able to vote along with what he deems to be an unfair “govment” (27). Pap has no other insults to the black gentleman other than that society considers him inferior but this speech reinforces the beliefs of many white supremacists and politicians at the time. As David Smith points out, Pap represents the ideas of such people (Smith 361). Racist readers will take Pap’s rant as scripture, reinforcing their belief that black people, no matter how respectable they try to be, are inherently inferior.

Despite this rational, realistic, and straightforward analysis, David Smith disagrees with it, claiming that Pap’s excessive use of the n-word is used to satirize the very people he represents. Smith explains that although Pap’s rant is respectable among people he represents, modern readers are far less likely to approve, and hence, “[will] reject the standard racial discourse of both 1840 and 1880,” which views black people as inferior (361). Pap’s use of the n-word to degrade the black man can be seen as ironic because “Smith’s reader” will notice that Pap has nothing else to insult him with. Outside of the context of the Southern social hierarchy, the black gentleman is clearly superior, so readers would find Pap’s accusation of the government's unfairness to be ironic. People believe that the n-word’s excessive usage gets to a point of being ridiculous and thus satirical. The fact that the n-word is often used in clusters can be proof of the book’s intent (Sloane 2). Afterall, readers would be “safe” for long periods of time before being bombarded with this taboo-lased word. Before Pap’s rant, the n-word did not appear for ten pages, for example. Readers can be taken aback by its sudden resurgence. This also adds to the argument that Twain may have been choosing where to write the n-word wisely, fully understanding its implications (Sloane 2). I would agree that, when analyzed, the overuse of the n-word can be seen as satirical, but this would imply that the word and the word’s meaning is being made fun of. This satire “can erase the humiliation experienced by black children,” along with the oppressive history associated with the word (Henry 364). If racist views are not reinforced by the word’s usage, then the struggle faced by African Americans is overlooked by making light of a hate word. The word “conjures centuries of specifically black degradation and humiliation,” creating “cultural discomfort” (Henry 366-367). Furthermore, we cannot deny that this interpretation of the book would require deeper analysis, which racist readers looking to “replenish” their racism would have no need to do. They would not need to look further into the text before having their views reinforced, so they will not. Some may argue that only an idiot would miss certain blatant instances of the word being used satirically, such as during Pap’s rant, but we must not forget that that idiot still lives among us, and we will have to deal with him and his racist epithets at some point or another. Whether or not specific appearances of the word are meant to satirize the word’s user, these instances are so few and far between that they do not amount to any change in racial belief a reader may hold.

Some critics also argue that the n-word is necessary to establish the vernacular of the characters. David Smith, for example, pointed out that it was a common way to address slaves in the time period; however, he did not provide any evidence of this (360). Using the n-word to establish a speech pattern still does not magically erase the racist effect the book can have on readers. Students in school, as Peaches Henry points out, are still embarrassed when the word is read in class, whether or not it helps with characterization (362). It cannot be denied that the n-word’s history of humiliating, dehumanizing, and degrading effects supersedes any satirical or otherwise positive intentions.

One of the few ways the book attempts to combat racism is by having Huck say a few racially progressive statements; however, Huck’s usage of the n-word throughout the novel contradicts any notions that Huck has any racial enlightenment in the book due to his friendship with Jim. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Huck is racist and thinks very little of black people. For example, after Jim gets caught up in his story about witches, Huck believes that “Jim was most ruined for a servant” (6). Huck seems to be dissapointed for Jim, which means he thinks black people are supposed to be slaves. As they move down the river, he continues to believe Jim to be inherently intellectually inferior. After Jim can’t grasp Huck’s logical argument as to why people speak french, Huck gives up arguing because he believes “you can’t learn a n***** to argue” (80). Huck is falling onto the racist stereotype that black people are intellectually inferior and unable to learn how to argue. It is not only Jim that can’t grasp the argument, but n******, on principle, can’t learn to argue. Huck still has not had racial enlightenment. Even when Huck seems to show some racial enlightenment, such as when Jim cries over yelling at Lizabeth, and Huck realizes that Jim “cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n,” racist readers are quickly relieved with his next remark that “it don’t seem natural” (155). Huck, although seeing evidence of black people having emotional complexity like white people, continues to see this trait as unnatural and abnormal. At the end of the novel, Huck still holds racist viewpoints, as he still believes freeing black people to be immoral. Huck realizes that the only reason Tom helps free Jim is because Tom knew that Jim was already free. Huck rations that this was the only reason Tom helped “set a n**** free with his bringing-up” (290). Huck clearly still holds the belief that freeing slaves is morally bad, meaning he believes slavery is morally good. From the beginning to the end, it cannot be denied that Huck does not have racial enlightenment. Throughout the novel, Huck’s racist sentiments not only associate with racist readers, those readers will likely not experience any racial enlightenment for themselves. As Lester points out, there is no racial insight to be learned from the book, since for those who actually need those insights, the book falls flat, reinforcing their viewpoint rather than combatting it (Lester 342). The book is, afterall, told from the perspective of Huck, and it is Huck’s thought process that is forced upon the reader. If Huck does not experience racial enlightenment, neither will the reader.

While the majority of evidence would suggest that Huck’s racial thinking stays constant throughout the novel, some critics have scrutinized over instances in which Huck seems to have a change in beliefs. Many refer to Huck’s enlightened mediation over sending Ms. Watson a letter about Jims’ whereabouts, finally deciding to “go to hell” instead and saving Jim. They argue that in this quote, Huck fights against his upbringing, and instead does what he believes is the difficult, but necessary, decision: saving Jim (Smith 366). Although this quote can seem to be Huck’s moment of enlightenment, we have no proof to suggest his actions are not simply a result of his friendship with Jim. Additionally, as Henry points out, this decision is not racial enlightenment, but his “adherence to the pleasure principle” (Henry 375). Huck’s decision is brought on by him remembering the good times he had with Jim, not thoughts about the immorality of slavery. If Huck’s decision was influenced by more than his friendship with Jim, why did he not so much as think about freeing Nat? Also, Huck still views saving Jim as a sin, whose sentiment would appeal to racist readers. Huck still believes himself to be superior to Jim, so his “Hamlet-like interior monologues on the rights and wrongs of helping Jim escape are not proof of liberalism…, but evidence of an inability to relinquish whiteness as a badge of superiority” (Lester 343). Either way, the evasion sequence is notorious for regressing any racial enlightenment Huck may have had back to how he was at the beginning of the novel, continuing to encourage racist the racist sentiments of the book’s readers.

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