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Examining the difficult process that Huck has when he finally determines not to turn Jim in can be especially helpful in this. In addition, readers of this opinion can discuss the effects of Twain's own divergence from society when contemplating the ways in which his articulation of his nonstandard views into text affected society.
Thus, while two sides clearly exist in this debate -- one stating that Twain's novel advocates racism through the relationship between Huck and Jim and the other arguing that Twain actually condemns the ideology by using this relationship -- a compromise can be reached. Each side can still find Twain's novel valuable in a discussion of the effects of racism on society and the role literature plays in those effects. Thus, the need to ban this novel from the classroom is null and void when this type of compromise can be reached.
Regardless of the fact that a compromise can be reached regarding the relationship between Huck and Jim and its implications for racism, the two sides of the debate regarding racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are more concerned with another issue -- the word, "nigger." Those who believe Twain wrote the book using racist overtones point to extensive use of the word and its hurtful connotations to prove their point. In her article about teaching the book, Minnie Phillips recalls the fact that the word "nigger" was "jeering from every page," to the degree that it "made her cringe." Phillips goes on to recall the fact that she was the only black pupil in her own high school during her junior year, discussing the impact that the word, "nigger" had for her then:
The word "nigger" was virulent in those days, invective that degraded a whole race's status. So my reading "Huck Finn" amid a sea of curious and contemptuous eyes, I felt gave my classmates an unfair advantage.
Though Phillips later goes on to decide that "the novel is not about race but about freedom," her reaction to the word, "nigger" is similar to others' reactions, including those who call the book racist. In the process of protesting the book's use in public school, Beatrice Clark, whose granddaughter was required to read the book in school, argues that the word, "nigger,"
carries with it the blood of our ancestors. They were called this word while they were lynched; they were called this word while they were hung from the big magnolia tree (Roberts).
Indeed, the very degree with which the word is used seems excessive, as it literally seems to jump off of nearly every page. In addition to referring to black people in general, those who believe Twain is advocating racism in the book can easily see how it suggests that blacks are inhuman or the lowest common denominator of society. The incident in which Huck and Tom play a trick on Jim by removing his hat at the beginning of the book once again shows a good example of this. Using the word, "nigger" repeatedly to refer to the people who cane to hear Jim tell his superstitious tales after he claimed witches were responsible for removing the hat, Twain seems to refer to them in an inhumane way -- a description that is more indicative of cattle flocking to a pasture than of humans traveling to listen to someone speak. Further, Twain uses the word to make generalizations about blacks, when Huck discusses the relationship between blacks and superstitions. Huck says, "Niggers is always talking about witches I the dark by the kitchen fire" (Twain 8). Further, the connection of the word, "nigger" to the ridiculous notion of superstition in this part of the book furthers the argument for racism in the book. Calling blacks, "niggers," Huck describes how they come from miles away and give Jim tokens to see a coin that Jim tells them was given to him by the devil, refusing to touch it because of their fear of the devil. Further, Twain goes on to suggest that Jim was "ruined, for a servant," because he was so proud of his supposed encounters with the supernatural. Thus, those who suggest that the book advocates racism can point to the frequent use of the word, "nigger" in this passage as a means of both referring to blacks and stereotyping them, as well as the connotations about blacks derived from references to the supernatural and servant hood in conjunction with the word.
While refraining from arguing that the word, "nigger," is by any means acceptable by today's standards, those who do not see the book as racist suggest that the term is used only in the context of its time, and does not serve as a means to insult blacks today. Despite the fact that Twain wrote in a time when the word was commonly used, however, his book was actually banned by the Library Committee of Concord in 1885 for "course language" (Smith), a fact which serves as fodder for the other argument. Still, DePalma actually writes of one theory advanced by Fishkin that suggests Huck, the one who uses the offending word so many times, may be black himself. DePalma notes Fishkin's discovery of an article of Twain's regarding a young, black boy named Jimmy. Further analysis of the way Jimmy spoke revealed similarities to Huck's speech, in addition to a comparison between Huck and Jimmy's actions. In fact, "all the scholars who have read the manuscript said it demonstrates -- for the first time -- strong black roots in Huck's speech" (DePalma). If Huck were, himself, black, some of the sting might be taken from the word. Middleton and Pilgrim state that the word "nigger" originally had derogatory implications, it derived simply from a series of words meaning "black" in Latin-based languages. The commonly accepted derogatory term "nigger," is most likely "a phonetic spelling of the White Southern mispronunciation of Negro." By the 1800s, the word was in full force as a "derogative name," and still continues to be "the principal term of White racism, regardless of who is using it." Still, the word is often used by African-Americans today, a "confusing experience in American speech." The word is widely used in African-American speech, poetry, and even music, although this is a controversial issue. Thus, if Huck were black himself, the use of the word may not be so offensive, another argument in favor of the book's anti-racist sentiments.
Obviously, the two sides of this argument are such that cannot be easily mitigated. Those who suggest that Twain's intent was racism suggest that the word is offensive. In fact, the word may appear to be offensive even by some who do think that Twain indeed to harm. Others argue that the social and historical connotations of the work, along with the fact that Huck, himself, may be black explain the use of the word. This group argues that the use of the word does not suggest racism. Regardless of whether or not the word suggests racism, both sides can agree that the word may be offensive to many. Kennedy suggests that the reason for this may be the fact that the word was created not simply to explain the difference between two ethnicities, such as the words African-American and Hispanic, but instead was designed to be harmful. If both sides understand this, then a productive discussion of the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can result. Both sides can view the novel as an important gauge of the impact of racism on society, as well as the role literature has played in that impact. A simple study of the word, "nigger" in the book can accomplish this. Those who believe the book was written to condone racism can discuss how the word is used in a racist manner throughout the book, and how Huck uses the word to refrain from speaking of African-Americans in a more human way. Even those who do not agree that the book advocates racism can discuss the use of the term in the book, and evaluate how the term suggests or does not suggest racism in Twain's society, as well as Huck's use of the term and its implications for him. Further, both sides would agree that the term is not likely to be used the way it is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn today. Despite the fact that "the word 'nigga'…is becoming increasingly popular in recent years," used as a "term of endearment" a threat, as a way for "blacks to show pride about their ghetto roots and the social problems associated with their inner city lives," and in hip-hop music (Alonso), a novel using the term to refer to blacks in a casual manner would most…[continue]
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