Last week, I wrote an article about how The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn promotes the cause of Black Lives Matter. In the article, I cited the example of a high school that has removed the novel from its 11th-grade curriculum ‘after complaints from students who said they were made “uncomfortable” by the novel.’ I proceeded to argue that efforts to censor the novel are counter-productive.
There is indeed much to be uncomfortable about in the novel. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an unbridled depiction of dehumanizing racism in American society during the nineteenth-century. The n-word is tossed around in conversation like we might ask for anchovies or pepperoni when ordering a pizza, and the story illustrates how white people regarded black people not only as members of an inferior race, but as pieces of property to be bought and sold at auction like cattle or furniture. The novel does not, however, treat the characters as stereotypes or caricatures. The humanity of a runaway slave named Jim exerts a moral pull on Huck’s conscience strong enough for Huck to shed the moral presumptions of a culture and society that teach him that abetting the escape of a slave constitutes, at best, a theft of property, and at worst, a treasonous act of sabotage against white society. In what is the moral climax of the novel, Huck decides to help free Jim from slavery.
Racism was a pillar of American society in the nineteenth century unlike anything we know today, but we cannot understand the racism of today without understanding the racism of yesterday. This idea of the long arc of racism helps motivate the discussion around topics like white privilege, institutional racism, and the ongoing disempowerment of minority communities in America. Attitudes of the nineteenth century shaped attitudes in the twentieth century, which shaped attitudes in the twenty-first century. That is a truism of any society, but in the context of American racism, it means that stereotypes, caricatures, and prejudices about race have insidiously burrowed into the consciousness of Americans and become ingrained in innumerable subtle ways that are often mysterious to white Americans but nevertheless reinforce socioeconomic disparities many white Americans would consider to be unjust. The social science underlying these claims is too broad and complex to be discussed in this article, but it is fair to say that the general claim of ongoing racial bias in American society is indisputable, however variegated and subtle and controversial the alleged consequences may be.
One oft-cited way to redress the pernicious legacies of racism is to provoke ongoing conversations about such topics as white privilege and institutional racism. Not surprisingly, these conversations are uncomfortable and destabilizing. But there is no dearth of critical race theorists, social justice warriors, and other commentators who urge white people to not succumb to ‘white fragility’ when confronted with conversations about white privilege and institutional racism. It has allegedly proven quite difficult, however, for white people to overcome the sense of safety they purportedly enjoy in the cocoon of white privilege. Dr. Robin DiAngelo has written about how difficult it can be to talk to white people about racism. She is also the scholar who coined the phrase ‘white fragility’ to refer to a ‘state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves’. This state of fragility purportedly includes ‘the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation,’ which ‘in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.’
Dr. DiAngelo’s paper on ‘white fragility’ has broad claims and sweeping generalizations that cause me to wonder how useful they are in attempting to interpret the behavior of white Americans who are confronted with delicate conversations about race in America. Theories and hypotheses about human behavior are notoriously difficult to prove.
Nonetheless, it seems uncontroversial to say that conversations about race can be uncomfortable. Racism is a brutal and ugly fact of American history, and its legacy has not magically evaporated from society. It is not simply that a renegade fan in Boston’s Fenway Park recently yelled racial slurs at Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, but that race relations are still defined by attitudes and beliefs that reinforce systemic differences in social empowerment and resource allocation between white and black Americans (some basic statistics here expose vast gaps between whites and blacks/Hispanics in terms of median adjusted household income, median household net worth, homeownership rates, poverty rates, unemployment rates, college completion rates, and incarceration rates). The specific nature of those beliefs and attitudes, and their causal connection to systemic differences in social empowerment, may be difficult to articulate and test in social science research, but as a general claim, it should not be hard to accept that institutional racism is still a force to be reckoned with.
Which is why it is unfortunate that censors have stepped in to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from high school curriculums because the novel makes some students ‘uncomfortable’. It should make students uncomfortable. It is a brutal depiction of racism in America during the nineteenth century. Putting aside its many literary virtues, the novel serves as a window into a time in which the n-word was not regarded as hate speech or a slur, but as something like a nickname which relegated anyone with black skin to a status reserved for involuntary servitude. It is also not simply a historical document, but a literary masterpiece that was revolutionary in its own time for telling a story about a friendship between a white boy and a runaway black slave which challenged central presumptions about race relations in nineteenth-century America.
It is the kind of work that can provoke thoughtful and path-breaking conversations about race relations even in our own time. To deny students the opportunity to be made uncomfortable by studying this work is to deny them to opportunity to meaningfully engage in dialogue about the history of racism in America. This is a work that can make both white and black students uncomfortable. It can make black students uncomfortable because of what it reveals about oppression their ancestors endured under the mantle of white supremacy in nineteenth-century America. It can make white students feel uncomfortable because of what it reveals about the complicity of their ancestors in upholding the pillar of white supremacy in nineteenth-century America. But it should make everyone uncomfortable not simply for what it says about their ancestors, but for what it reveals about the capacity of humanity to acclimate to a historical set of circumstances that is fundamentally unjust. The contemporary problem of institutional racism is a modern example of acclimation to unjust circumstances. The encounters of Huck Finn with nineteenth-century racism are a potential vehicle for stimulating discussion about contemporary encounters with institutional racism.
I am among those made uncomfortable when I read Huck Finn, but I regard this discomfort as a positive force for kindling thoughtful reflection on the role of race in American history, not as an insult that triggers an impulse to censor the work. Discomfort among white Americans, i.e. ‘white fragility’, can be a roadblock to constructive conversations about race in America. But coddling students, whether black or white, by censoring a work like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it makes them ‘uncomfortable’ is also a roadblock to constructive conversations about race. Not only does censorship deny teachers an excellent device for provoking spirited dialogue about race relations in American history (not to mention the novel’s literary merits), but it leaves one wondering what, in fact, we are trying to achieve in terms of racial justice if, on the one hand, we express frustration with ‘white fragility’ but, on the other hand, we shelter students from the discomfort of reading a work that ironically stimulates the very conversations about racism we are presumably trying to have despite the allegedly reactionary force of ‘white fragility’. The double standard is ironic at best, and menacing at worst. At the very least, however, it is absurdly counter-productive. If the goal is to confront, understand, and overcome racism, it is as important to study its roots as it is to study its contemporary manifestations. Reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the first places to begin working all this out.
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