Mark Twain: Racist or Not?
There are many degrees of racism - Mark Twain: Racist or Not? introduction. During his time, Mark Twain was forward thinking and championed the downtrodden and oppressed. The only example of racism is his treatment of the Goshoot Indians in Roughing It. The main body of his work points to innovative anti-racist themes. Even if one admits that Twain hatches some derogatory stereotypes, labeling his work unteachable to our own time is extremely shortsighted (Kesterson 12). If Twain was racist, the process of learning is supposed to combat backwards teaching from our past through exposition and discussion.
Mark Twain is one of the most controversial authors (Kesterson 3). In recent years, there has been increasing controversy over the ideas expressed in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel has even been banned by public school systems and censored by public libraries. The basis for this censorship is that Mark Twain’s book is racist, but what people do not realize is Twain was against racism and used this book to make people aware of what was going on in the south. Mark Twain wrote about the life lived around him.
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He made people realize what was actually taking place daily by using southern dialect, showing the attitude of the other characters toward African Americans, and showing his depiction of black characters. Mark Twain was anti-slavery. Mark Twain was the first American author to use explicit common folk dialect in his writings. Many people think dialect such as excerpts from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all false (Smith 23). In truth, Mark Twain’s dialect is not accidental. It is composed of completely accurate forms of backwoods, southwestern dialect.
An example of Huck’s dialect is “The widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she civilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and descent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out” (Twain 1). An example of Aunt Polly’s mainstream, yet common dialect is “Tom, you didn’t have to undo your shirt collar where I sewed it, to pump on your head, did you? Unbutton your jacket! ” (Twain 6). An example of Jim’s dialect is “Yo’ ole father doan’ know yit what he’s a-gwyne to do.
Some times he spec he’ll go ‘way, nen den ag’in he spec he’ll stay” (Twain 19). These excerpts were not meant to be interpreted in a racist manner. Mark Twain was just giving examples of the lives that were being lived around him. Racial slurs are used throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They are meant to accurately depict common language and expressions regarding Black Americans at the time, not whether or not the author is racist or has racist thoughts. Certain expressions also reveal the attitudes of the time.
An example of the use of racial slurs is “The nigger run off the very night Huck Finn was killed. So there’s a reward out for him – three hundred dollars” (Twain 55). Another use of racial slurs is “Has everybody quit thinking the nigger done it? ” (Twain 56). However, out of all excerpts that represent racism, the strongest example is a quote from the character Injun Joe, “He had me horsewhipped! Horsewhipped in front of the jail, like a nigger! ” (Twain 176). Again, slurs that are recognized in the story do not depict or define the type of person Mark Twain was.
Twain often used burlesques to get a point across by showing how ignorant people actually are. In Huck Finn, Twain linked religion and slavery by showing how the former can pervert knowledge and cause acceptance of the latter over objections of conscience. When Huck is ’born again’, he forgets his vow to aid Jim, and his euphoria as being ‘born again’ resembles the feeling of being ‘light as a feather’ that he experiences after deciding to turn Jim over to the slave-catchers. This commentary is as much about the sorry state of slavery as it is about slavery’s Biblical foundation (Steinbrink 46).
Twain had little faith in a Christian God so he put more faith in the self (Steinbrink 46). Twain’s bitterness increased as he unearthed that the larger and more masterful the Self became, the less benevolent he was likely to be (Steinbrink 47). Some contemporary Black Americans view these types of comments in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be degrading. If one looks at the bigger message, they can see how Huck struggles mentally between his desire to help Jim and conforming to the pressures of the racist and classist American society of his time.
The novel then outspokenly challenges the status quo and speaks from the heart. To contrast both sides of Huck’s dilemma, on the one hand he hears “What had poor miss Watson done to you that you could see her nigger go right off under your eyes and never say one single word? ” But, on the other hand he hears “Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; and you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now” (Twain 147). Mark Twain used these controversial topics in his novels to try to show that slavery was wrong and that color did not make one person better than another.
He was not a racist, but an anti-racist. This is evident through his use of regional dialect and the way he showed himself and others depicting black people in his novels. The reader must realize that the racist ideas in his novels are those of the society at that time and that Twain disputes these ideas throughout his writings. One must look at a wide selection of writing to even scratch the surface of Mark Twain’s thoughts. There are those who suggest that the use of the word “nigger” is enough to make a writer racist, but this is false.
Depicting the actual state of affairs, then making fun of them, was Twain’s trademark. If that is racism, then everyone who ever laughed at an ironic or racially allegorical situation is racist. Never did Mark Twain attempt to state that the white race or any other races are either superior or inferior to others. He wrote that all humans are equally bad or good and that the only differences are titles and clothing (Smith). Bitterness grew as his friends and family died, but that is to be expected. He rooted for the underdog and championed the cause of Jews, African Americans, and Chinese.
Twain developed from a writer who attempted to instill compassion in American’s less privileged classes. Near the end of his life he seemed to have given up on mankind after recognizing cyclical trends in history. During the last ten to fifteen years a melancholy Twain condemned, yet called for compassion, all of mankind, which he saw stuck in a terrible and unsolvable predicament. He realized that the white slave master was stuck in the system that the black slave was and that the Civil War created more problems then it solved. At the very end he wished for release.