The Dehumanizing Effect of Racism and Slavery in the Antebellum South
The name Mark Twain is widely associated with being a very courageous writer, not fearing to go where many other authors will not go. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain does an excellent job of showing the important historical issue of racial discrimination and the poor treatment of slaves in the Antebellum South by using two men of the opposite colour to tell his story. In Huck and Jim’s story of their escape to freedom, Mark Twain shows the depth of the inhumanity and immorality of racism and slavery in the Antebellum South by showing how black people are treated like a commodity, the hypocrisy shown by white people regarding black people and how black people’s emotional well-being is not a relevant concern for white people.
To begin, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, black people are not seen as human beings but instead seen as property or an object. Pap is Huckleberry Finn’s racist father who finds out there is a free black man in Ohio who is being allowed to vote. Through Pap, Twain shows the inhumanity towards the African Americans in the Antebellum South. Like many of the other white people in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pap believes that black people should not have the same rights as white people and that they should be treated as property. Pap is angry when he says, “when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me – I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger – why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold? – that’s what I want to know” (Twain 24). By saying the nigger should be put up for auction and sold, Pap shows the reader how black people are seen as a commodity, not a human being. This inhumanity is demonstrated again when Huck pretends he is Tom Sawyer and stays with Tom’s Aunt Sally. He makes up lies to gain her trust. In one of his lies, he tells Aunt Sally that he is delayed getting there because the steamship he was on ran aground after its cylinder-head blew. Aunt Sally seems caring and concerned when she asks Huck whether anybody was hurt. When Huck says no one was hurt but a nigger was killed, Aunt Sally’s replies, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” (Twain 185). Afterwards, Aunt Sally speaks about a white man who is killed in a similar circumstance years ago and there is no mention of any concern for the black man who is recently killed. The black man who is killed is dismissed and by this conversation, Sally confirms that a black man is not seen as a person but an insignificant thing. David L. Smith is an African American author who argues this discrimination in his journal article, “Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse.” He shows readers how racism affects the lives of African Americans in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He argues that Twain strategically uses the word nigger to teach readers about how black people are seen in this era. He states that it “clearly designates the “nigger” as a piece of property: a commodity, a slave” (D. Smith). Smith shows readers that in Twain’s novel, African Americans are considered inferior to white people and more so as property than actual people. Although black people are not treated as poorly today, after reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the reader can envision the harsh treatment they suffered through this era and feel sympathy for those who suffered through slavery and discrimination.
Furthermore, Twain shows that black people are afflicted with hypocrisy and double standards due to the views of society. He shows these double standards through the Duke and King, who are two frauds who meet up with Huck and Jim and are travelling the countryside conning people out of their money. They try to take money from the Wilks family. Peter Wilks is a wealthy man who dies and leaves his inheritance to his orphan nieces, Mary Jane, Susan and Joanna. The Duke and King pretend to be the dead man’s brothers from England who are there to look after the will. The girls ask them to invest their money and when the Duke and King get the money, they hide it in their bed. The Duke does not think that the bed is the best hiding spot and explains, “Because Mary Jane’ll be in mourning from this out: and first you know the nigger that does up the rooms will get an order to box these duds ups and put’em away; and do you reckon a nigger can run across money and not borrow it?” (Twain 149). What the Duke is saying is that all black men are thieves, which is hypocritical when the Duke and King, who are two white men, are stealing money from a grieving family themselves. The irony is that it is Huckleberry Finn who steals the money. Through the Duke and King, Twain shows how lowly black people are thought of in the Antebellum South. This hypocrisy is shown in Huck’s character as well. Jim is Miss Watson’s slave who escapes for freedom. When Jim is captured and being held at Silas and Sally Phelps’ place, Huck debates whether or not he should write a letter to Tom Sawyer to tell Miss Watson where Jim is. Huck acts like a hypocrite because although he likes Jim, because of the views of society it causes him to hide his true feelings which is obvious when he thinks to himself, “And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace” (Twain 177). If Jim was a white man, Huck would not be having this debate because he would not be worried about being criticized for his decision. Although he knows what is right, the views of society make him question himself. This hypocrisy is discussed by Ron Briley who is Assistant Headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, which is an independent high school in the Southwest. The high school is composed of college-bound students of mixed races with many of the students being white. He uses Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as part of his American history curriculum when he teaches his students about the institution of slavery and its legacy for racial relations in America. His experience in teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn allows him to give a valid analysis of the novel. He discusses racial sensitivity in his news article, “Teaching Huckleberry Finn in Historical Context.” He feels that it is important that Twain uses the word nigger in this novel because “the key for Huckleberry Finn is that the word is employed in a satirical vein which seeks to expose the hypocrisy of Southern racism (Briley). He argues that in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, white people must alter their values of society for this hypocrisy to end. Readers learn how there are very different and unreasonable standards set in this era regarding how black people are treated.
Finally, black people have feelings and emotions the same as white people but there is little empathy shown towards them. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the reader can see these feelings and emotions in the black characters towards white characters, but these feelings are not reciprocated. The reader can see this inhumanity in Huck Finn’s character as well as other white characters in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. On a foggy night while travelling on the Mississippi River a strong current causes Huck’s canoe and Jim’s raft to get separated. Huck tries to find Jim but because of the fog, he loses his sense of direction. Jim thinks Huck is dead and is so sad and worried that when Huck eventually finds him, he is so thrilled to see Huck alive that he cannot contain himself. Huck tricks Jim into believing the separation was a dream. Jim is very upset with Huck for playing this trick on him, especially after being so worried about him and after seeing Jim’s reaction, Huck feels terrible. Although Huck is not happy about having to apologize to a black person, he does apologize. The reader can see that Huck is not completely comfortable by his decision to apologize when he says, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger— but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither” (Twain 73). Although it is obvious that Huck Finn likes Jim, he is not always as compassionate as the reader thinks he should be. It takes a while for Huck to apologize to Jim because in the rules of society in the Antebellum South, black people’s feelings do not matter to white people. When Huck does this, readers realize the lack of compassion shown towards black people in this era. Again, the discrepancy of empathy being shown towards the black people is seen later in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Secretly, Huck gets a doctor to help Tom after he is shot in the leg. The doctor is by himself with Tom and realizes that he cannot remove the bullet on his own. Tom’s health is deteriorating fast, so he tells Tom he has to get help and when he says this, Jim comes out of hiding and sacrifices his freedom to help his friend Tom. Jim is recaptured and brought back to the Phelps place when the doctor says, “I never see a nigger that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it, and was all tired out, too, and I see plain enough he’d been worked main hard, lately. I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars—and kind treatment, too” (Twain 238). Jim is considered a great slave and the doctor mentions that he should be treated well as a slave, but there is no mention that he does not deserve to be a slave or held captive. This lack of empathy shows the reader that although Jim is thoughtful and caring and risks his freedom to help his friend, slavery is a normal part of life in the Antebellum South. It is not because a white person is not capable of being concerned about the feelings of a black person, it is because the rules of society do not allow them to feel concerned about a black person. Cassander L. Smith is the assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa with a Ph.D. in early American literature. She discusses this type of inhumanity in her article, ”Nigger’ or ‘slave’: why labels matter for Jim (and Twain) in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and states, “The ideology of whiteness tells him that it is his right not to have to be concerned about the feelings of someone who is black” (C. Smith). Smith discusses how although Huck’s relationship with Jim complicates this, the ideology of whiteness remains and how little is thought of regarding black people’s well-being in the Antebellum South. They are seen as second-class citizens and treated without any respect, almost like a stray animal. Readers learn how awful these times are and begin to understand how tough it may be to live the life of a slave.
To conclude, Twain uses the brutal treatment of slaves to demonstrate the cruelty suffered by African Americans in the Antebellum South by the comparison of black people’s status to property, demonstrating the hypocrisy of slavery and different moral standards that are set for the black people versus the white people and finally through the lack of compassion white people show toward slaves. Twain successfully brings attention to a controversial issue that was substantial in his era and while not as bad, is still an issue today. Most modern novels fear to go to the places Twain went, but readers are truly lucky to have classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to educate themselves on life in a different era.
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