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Identity and The Word in Huck Finn

Jessica Rosenberg

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those famously banned books that everyone still reads, many high schools and colleges still teach. The reasons for banning Huck Finn have changed in the century plus since its publication. Originally the story was considered amoral and anti-religion, portraying a rebellious spirit of boyhood that educators and parents alike did not want to impart to children. Much more often the issue in recent years, however, is the hoopla surrounding the reading of Huck Finn by high school students has had more to do with what's believed to be the novel's dangerous portrayal of race. Dangerous, one wonders, how? There is a desire to label the book "racist," and much fuss made over the famed 215 times the n-word is used.

Critics even in 1885 were able to read the game Twain plays. In the San Francisco Chronicle, a book reviewer wrote,

Running all through the book is the sharpest satire on the ante-bellum estimate of the slave.... there is nothing truer in the book.

It does not take an advanced level of reading comprehension to understand the humour, and that the story is intended not as a manifestation of the world as Twain believes it should be, but instead as social criticism of the highest sort. A critic in a 1999 article in the Jewish World Review, of all places, put it plainly when he wrote:

The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynches, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is 'Nigger Jim,' as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt."

Yet Huck Finn still made it onto the American Library Association's top ten list of books challenged in the 1990's.

There is something going on when, despite our better judgments, a culture maintains a position as empty as the banning of Huck Finn. No one can deny that the dialogue in Huck Finn is anything other than accurate. Historically, yes, some folks some placed used the n-word. Why should modern audiences not be able to handle that hard fact? What is happening here, really, when it is what would have to be acknowledged as the liberal, lefty world is racist?

The fuss over the use of the n-word in literature, specifically Huck Finn comes from a myriad of places. Banning the book because it represents racist point of views from the 19th century seems to suggest, on one hand, that people believe this problem is in the past. That this was a historical problem that existed then, and now if we just don't read about it, we'll be safe. This course of action implies that somehow by banning the book, we've banned the word, and possibly all of racism along with it as well.

Under this surface, folks are, of course, truly upset that the word is not only historical, but also a contemporary blight in public discourse. Though their have been motions to defuse the word through explanation, dialogue, and its reclaiming, the word is still used and meant as an offensive expression of racism. "Nigger" is a loaded word, problematic for virtually everyone it touches, unpronounceable to most people. Putting it out there in the classroom, 215 times, no less, is unarguably problematic. What does the teacher do when asking students to read aloud? How do you start a discussion on racism, acknowledging the invariably varied, yet valid personal experiences, and still maintaining a somewhat academic forum where learning can happen and understanding can grow? These are impossible questions, and no doubt many parents and teachers would feel safer just not asking them.

Those reasons, however, is exactly why the attempts to ban Huck Finn are so disheartening and frustrating. Trying to ban Huck Finn is, by and large, a plan to keep a discussion of racism out of the classroom. It is hard to say whether this is perpetrated by people who truly believe racism ended with separate water fountains, or by people who acknowledge that racism, systematic and individual, still exist, and who know they profit from it's existence. Probably most often it is some of both, fused together with and enveloped in thick layers of fear and shame.

So what does this meta-dialogue on racism being played out in the prohibition of a text of literature have to do with the identity that Huck Finn is acting out inside the logic of the story? Huck Finn, though he senses only the slightest, most distant hint about this himself, has a problem with the n-word. However constantly distracted he might be, Huck's main conflict in the novel is around the nature of goodness, and his private debate over whether he wants to be good and civilized, or bad, and go to hell. More than he hates the clean clothes, books, school, and rules required for being civilized, Huck does not understand the disparity he perceives between what he is told it means to be good, the way he sees "good" people acting, and what his own conscience tells him is right.

And how could he not? Huck, who at times in his troubled childhood had to raise himself, operates on an ever shifting system of very basic human judgment of love and kindness, combined with an almost animalistic Darwinian survival of the fittest instinct. One minute, he knows what his gut tells him is correct, but at the same time Huck wants to do whatever option seems will best help him manoeuvre out of a trouble filled situation, regardless of judgment.

This is acted out repeatedly in the novel's episodic encounters between Huck and townsfolk along the river, but chiefly through Huck's continued internal debate on whether he is right or wrong to help Jim escape to freedom. Too many contradictory relationships exists for Huck at the same time: Jim is good to Huck, so Huck should treat him good back; the Widow tried to be good to Huck, even if Huck didn't like that kind of good; due to Jim's position as property to the widow, and his desire to get free, Huck simply cannot be helping both of them at the same.

More problematic for Huck is the inconsistent he's garnered about what it means to be a slave. Jim was born a slave, and he is of African American descent; to Huck this means Jim has an identity as a slave. This is not, however, simply a fact of his race. Another reason the attempts to ban Huck Finn seem so ridiculous after having read the book is the job Twain does of showing, and not just the life of a slave, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe attempted to document in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Twain goes beyond Stowe, and delves into the identity of "nigger."

On some level, Huck knows that the n-word is used derogatively. He certainly notices the incongruity between what Huck is told he should believe about black people, and his experience with his friend Jim. Jim is constantly said to be acting white, or not behaving at all like a "normal" black person or slave would. Huck eventually comes to the conclusion that he knows Jim "was white inside," (Twain, 264). At the end of the novel, when Jim's brave deeds are revealed by the doctor, it is specified that Jim is a "good nigger," (Twain, 273), that modifier deemed necessary as a qualifier to differentiate from the accepted construction of "nigger." Huck's questioning of the term "nigger," and what it means for Jim to be considered one, and therefore inherently bad, this is the root of his own fundamental identity questions of good and bad.

And what better issue could be brought to the classroom to begin today's discussion of the n-word, performing race, and racism? Huck's identity is undermined and challenged by the presence of the n-word in his life; his grappling with that word leads him to question authority, and act out for an idea of freedom and justice that he barely understands. Huck Finn's presence in the classroom could force students to answer that question for themselves: what does this word do to their identity, what does it force them to confront, what do they believe in? Perhaps after answering those questions, we can begin to get at that word, why no one wants to talk about it, and making sure no one wants to use it.


Hentoff, Nat. "Expelling Huck Finn." Jewish World Review, Nov. 29, 1999 /20 Kislev, 5760.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

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