Huck Finn

IMAGINE THAT YOU are a black teenager at a predominantly white school. Imagine that your English teacher is also good at his or her job. Your teacher will tell you right off the bat that Mark Twain was not a racist; that his masterpiece is a story of reconciliation between the races; that the story of one white boy and his friend—a runaway slave—journeying down the Mississippi on a raft is filled with irony, a riveting narrative, and the revolutionary use of dialect. The teacher may even tell you that Ernest Hemingway, in Matrix-speak, spoke of it as the One book out of which all American literature poured, while Faulkner, not to be outdone, called all of us Twain’s heirs. You take these glowing accolades with a grain if salt. What do dead white male authors know about your particular situation in this particular class?

Your teacher will also prepare you for the N-word, which will appear over two hundred times in the novel. The teacher will say that its repetition is understandable within the historical context of the novel. He or she will then set down some guidelines about how—or if—this word will be used in class discussions, read-alouds, or in papers or journals (quoting the text). The novel, you are also told, will be supplemented by material on slavery, since, in your teacher’s words, “Huckleberry Finn deals with the true horrors of slavery about as much as it deals with the juice of huckleberries.” You can tell that your teacher is trying to lighten the atmosphere and be sensitive to the needs of all students. Your teacher may even say a few words about the problematic portrait of Jim—since Twain, you are informed, doesn’t deal honestly with black characters in this particular novel.

Then you will read the novel with your classmates, and you quickly discover that your teacher was right about what he said.

From the moment Jim is introduced in the beginning of Chapter 2, Twain stereotypes blacks and feeds the fantasy-vision that many whites have of...