Out of the mouths of babes: Huck Finn, racism and my daughter

I just had to cross post this for Leaning Straight Up! I mean, this is just heart wrenching…

My daughter had an unsettling experience today.  Her class is preparing to read Huck Finn, the Mark Twain classic. 

As is common these days, the subject of its racially offensive elements came up, in her case in the form of a PBS Documentary involving efforts in other places to remove the book as racist. 

It may have been one of these:


They need not have looked so far, Renton Schools dealt with this in 2003.

Well my daughter is a very open minded, and sensible girl.  In the discussion she stated that she felt the protests went too far, and that the book should be read because it contains our history and the reality of what slavery was, and that “we should look in the eye and face it”.  That only by facing it can we make sure we don’t repeat it.  I agree.

The response from her peers was shock.  One girl of mixed race noted “Well that’s because you are white” implying the famous “it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand” defense.

My daughter was called a racist because she wants to look racism in the eye and denounce it.

Huck Finn is offensive, but not because of the “N” word.  It is offensive because slavery is offensive as a moral concept.  It deals with it openly using the ignorance of the day to show how ignorant and wrong it was.

The irony was that Twain was intending to satirize racism, not induldge it, as anyone who has studied the book should know.


But what is the book really about? It’s about nothing less than freedom and the quest for freedom. It’s about a slave who breaks the law and risks his life to win his freedom and be reunited with his family, and a white boy who becomes his friend and helps him escape.

Because of his upbringing, the boy starts out believing that slavery is part of the natural order; but as the story unfolds he wrestles with his conscience, and when the crucial moment comes he decides he will be damned to the flames of hell rather than betray his black friend. And Jim, as Twain presents him, is hardly a caricature. Rather, he is the moral center of the book, a man of courage and nobility, who risks his freedom — risks his life — for the sake of his friend Huck.

Note, too, that it is not just white critics who make this point. Booker T. Washington noted how Twain “succeeded in making his readers feel a genuine respect for ‘Jim,’” and pointed out that Twain, in creating Jim’s character, had “exhibited his sympathy and interest in the masses of the negro people.”

The great black novelist Ralph Ellison, too, noted how Twain allows Jim’s “dignity and human capacity” to emerge in the novel.

“Huckleberry Finn knew, as did Mark Twain [Ellison wrote], that Jim was not only a slave but a human being [and] a symbol of humanity . . . and in freeing Jim, Huck makes a bid to free himself of the conventionalized evil taken for civilization by the town” — in other words, of the abomination of slavery itself.

I heard William Raspberry speak at the NCO Academy in 1992.  He asked a fairly hotheaded young black sergeant if he found the sections of the US Constitution that spell out the former treatment of blacks offensive. He did.  He then asked the Sgt if he would remove them, expunge them completely?  The Sgt said yes.

And William’s response was that he was a class A fool.  Because if you take the history of the ills away, then what do you have to help you prevent it from reoccuring?  Nothing. 

Have not the holocaust deniers shown you how easily a travesty in humanity can be conveniently forgotten?

Back to the school.

My daughter was devastated.  My response was anger, but mixed with a sense of futility.

Who could I complain to?  No one.  No one would take up her standard, and say she was wronged because the other girl’s attitude is the prevailing one in public school.

But as I seethed, my daughter wrote a poem to deal with her anger.  I share it with you now. 

I can say honestly that rarely have I ever been more proud of her.

You and I

When I am angry with you,
I am mistreating you.
When I call you names,
I am being racist.
When I ask my opinion be heard,
I am smothering you.
When my opinion is different from yours,
I am a bigot.

When you are angry with me,
You are congratulated for fighting the white yoke.
When you call me names,
You are feeling your ancestor’s pains.
When you ask your opinion be heard,
You are exercising your rights.
When your opinion is different from mine,
Yours is right.

When I ask a book be read,
I am glared at.
When I say this book is a part of our past,
It is because I am white.
When I talk about pursuing my dreams,
I am suppressing yours.
When I tell you that you hurt my feelings,
I am being racist.

When you ask a book be read,
It becomes a required reading.
When you say this book is a part of our past,
You are held high above others.
When you talk about pursuing your dreams,
You are throwing off suppression.
When you tell me that I hurt your feelings,
I am being racist.

Your idea of racist and mine,
Are entirely different in perspective.
To you, racism is only whites,
Who suppress your people.
You are free to call me names,
And to make me cry.
It doesn’t matter if you do it,
Because when you do it, it is not racism.

You holler about your rights,
when you suppress mine.
You punish me for the past’s mistakes,
Even though I was never involved.
You make me cry, saying it’s fair,
Though I’ve never made you cry.
And when I protest,
I am racist.

To you, racism is one-sided,
The whites are only racist.
To you, it is alright,
To make me cry.
You are never racist,
Because of the injustice to your people.
Yet by accusing me of what I am not,
Aren’t you being racist?

I have never treated you down,
I have treated you the same.
No matter the skin color,
It doesn’t matter to me.
When you prick my skin,
My blood comes out red.
And when I prick your skin,
Your blood comes out red.

Yet you call me names,
And treat me down,
You laugh at my mistakes,
And call me names.
Yet to you, it is not wrong,
It is your right,
Yet what happened to my rights,
When you wanted yours?

You pull out books of racism,
Pointing out where it says that I am wrong.
You point your fingers in my face,
And say I am wrong.
You say I am a majority,
That I don’t understand,
A minority’s suffering,
Through my white hand.

Yet I pull the same book out,
And point out the facts.
Racism isn’t just white,
It’s those of every race.
Racism is biting words,
Of hate,
To those of,
Another race.

You claim I don’t understand,
That I’m a majority.
That I can’t understand,
Your minority.
Because I’m a majority,
And you are a minority,
You are right,
And I am racist.

Yet never once did my fathers or yours,
Say in those words,
That the minority,
Is free to hurt the majority.
I am not part of a mass,
I am my own self,
A self that you have hurt,
Time and time again.

You use statistics and words,
Twisting them to your own way.
You use them to make me cry,
And to make me go away.
And now I speak,
Through this piece,
That someday I hope,
You understand true peace.

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