In the 1920s and early 1930s, obscenity laws in the United States prevented the publication of Ulysses, the literary masterpiece of acclaimed Irish author James Joyce. The novel’s stream-of-conscious rendering of a single day in the lives of three main characters is a tour de force of wordplay, literary allusion, and empathetic treatment of morally-compromised personalities. But its portrayals of marital infidelity, brothel sojourns, and other impieties apparently did not sit well with contemporary sensibilities. After a prolonged legal battle, however, the novel was published in 1934. It subsequently secured a place in the canon as one of the greatest novels ever written, and was eventually voted the best novel of the twentieth century by a board of writers convened by Random House’s Modern Library.
By no means have American sensibilities manifested the only proclivity for censorship. In 1557, the Catholic Church placed The Prince, arguably the first great work of modern political science by acclaimed Florentine author Niccolo Machiavelli, on the Index of Prohibited Books because of how sharply its cold political realism contrasted with a traditional fondness for Platonic idealism among humanist thinkers with an opinion on how political entities should be governed. Almost a century later, the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for his belief that the earth revolves around the sun.
These are only a few examples of the incessant clashes between power and progress. Censorship is not new to Western civilization. Fortunately, however, Western civilization has been resilient when confronted with the reactionary tides of law and government. The breakthroughs of art and science have invariably triumphed over the attempts of established authorities to halt their progress. Suffice to say I am happy to have read The Prince and Ulysses, and I can report I do not believe the earth lies at the center of the universe. Joyce, Machiavelli, and Galileo may have offended contemporary sensibilities, but civilization owes them a debt of gratitude for their loyalty to progress in the arts and sciences.
It is probably wishful thinking to hope the threat of censorship will ever die. Indeed, it now appears that modern censors have turned their scornful eye to, among other works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the 1884 masterpiece of American literature by acclaimed author Mark Twain. In 2016, for example, the Accomack Country Public Schools in Virginia ‘pulled copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries after a parent complained about racial slurs in both classics, and has formed a committee to recommend a permanent policy.’ In 2015, the Friends’ Central School in a suburb of Philadelphia ‘removed Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from its 11th-grade curriculum after complaints from students who said they were made “uncomfortable” by the novel.’ In 2002 and 2007, the book found itself on the American Library Association’s list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books List.
It is not the first time The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has confronted the headwinds of censorship. The novel was banned a year after its publication by librarians in Concord, MA, who said it was ‘not suitable for trash’. But as evidenced above, censorship does not deter pioneering works in art and science, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was an impressively pioneering work. It has since become a classic of American literature, and Nobel prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway once claimed that “[a]ll modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.’ Hemingway is allowed his opinion on the history of American literature, but few can dispute the enormous achievement of a work that so authentically captures the dialect, norms, habits, prejudices, and humanity of American life in the nineteenth century.
The novel is not only an authentic account of nineteenth century American life, but also an exquisite work of dramatic fiction. The story is about a friendship that develops between an errant white boy named Huck Finn and a runaway black slave named Jim as they sail down the Mississippi River on a raft. They encounter the best and worst of human nature: the honor and foolishness of two warring families that end up killing each other like Montagues and Capulets when the daughter of one elopes with the son of another; the tarring and feathering of two knaves who tried to steal the inheritance of three young heiresses; and the benevolent hospitality of a family that holds Jim hostage after he is captured as a runaway slave. In the last case, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer hoodwink the family by devising an elaborate plan to free Jim. The adventures come to an end when the family discovers, after Jim escapes and then is caught, that Huck and Tom were behind the plan to free Jim. Tom’s Aunt Polly (a relative of the family) shows up and announces that Jim’s owner gave him his freedom in her will. Meanwhile, Jim is commended by a community of one-time pursuers, who had been ready to lynch him, when a doctor tells how he came out of hiding to tend to Tom, who engineered Jim’s escape and was shot in the leg while running away from Jim’s pursuers.
There is no doubt the novel is a testament to the destructively endemic racism of 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. But the stain of racism does not reside only in the ease and prevalence with which the n-word is used in common conversation. It is also to be found in the naked conviction with which white people regarded black people not only as members of an inferior race, but as pieces of property who could be bought and sold at auction like cattle or furniture. Huck himself uses the n-word liberally throughout the story when referring to Jim and black slaves, and he finds himself in a real fix once Jim’s humanity exerts a moral pull on his conscience. In what is the moral climax of the novel, he decides to help free Jim from slavery, despite being the creature of a society that taught him every step of the way to believe that abetting the escape of a slave is at best a theft of property, and at worst a treasonous act of sabotage against white society.
In fact, his father, a degenerate alcoholic who has no business offering opinions about the uprightness of other men, offers up one of the starkest illustrations of how despicably the average white man regarded black Americans. Complaining about the ‘govment’ trying to take away his son, his father rants:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but 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 ag’in…I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?”
Twain was a master of irony and satire, and if this isn’t a virtuoso’s display of satire, I don’t know what it is. Here you have a degenerate alcoholic who shamelessly abuses his son, cusses him out for trying to ‘put on airs’ and be better than his father, and tries to cheat Huck out of money a trustee holds in the bank on his behalf. He is a man appropriately held in contempt by everyone in Huck’s community, and here he is ranting against a government that allows a black man to vote. The contrast is striking. It also is an incredibly effective way to show mankind at his worst, and to illustrate how white American attitudes dehumanized black people in the nineteenth century. Twain’s novel is one of the most biting criticisms of racism and slavery one can find in American literature. Like the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, Twain was much ahead of his time.
But what does any of this have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement of the twenty-first century?
Toward the end of the novel, Huck, having been separated from Jim, discovers that Jim is being held prisoner at the home of man named Silas Phelps. Huck devises a plan to steal Jim from the cabin where he is imprisoned. Along the way, he runs into Aunt Sally, who turns out to be Silas’s wife. Fortuitously, Huck is mistaken for Tom Sawyer, who is a relative of the Phelps’ family and is slated to arrive any day. But at first Huck does not know she was expecting Tom, only that she was expecting someone, and since she apparently assumes Huck is the boy she was expecting, Huck plays along. In the course of answering a question about where he landed, Huck contrives a story about how his steamboat had an accident:
‘It warn’t the grounding—that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder head.’
‘Good gracious! Anybody hurt?’
‘No’m. Killed a nigger.’
‘Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.’
I stopped and thought, wow, no one is hurt, but a black person dies, and the reaction is, ‘[w]ell, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.’
As someone who has followed the Black Lives Matter movement with some degree of misgiving, and with a measure of sympathy for the Blue Lives Matter and a measure of forgiveness for those who profess that ‘all lives matter’, I had a moment of great clarity when I came across this passage in the novel. Aunt Sally’s reaction to Huck’s false report illustrates a crucial point that proponents of Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter miss. For hundreds of years, white Americans dehumanized black people in the name of white supremacy. Even though much of the North was adamantly opposed to slavery when the 1850s rolled around, and though abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were much ahead of their time advocating for social and political equality for blacks, racism was profoundly embedded in the ‘collective consciousness’ of white society. It was so endemic that the friendship between Huck and Jim, one that becomes remarkably intimate as the story progresses, is nonetheless tainted in every dimension by ingrained assumptions made about white and black people, by both Huck and Jim, as evidenced most starkly by the common use of the n-word.
The depth of these assumptions is illustrated by how natural it was for otherwise good decent law-abiding citizens to see black people as a race distinct from themselves. There was a fundamental incapacity on the part of white people to regard black people as anything but their inferiors. The perception that black lives were insignificant (except as pieces of property) was so normal that the loss of a black life in a steamboat accident elicits Aunt Sally’s remark: ‘it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.’ So, umm, black people are not really people? Here was one of the starkest examples I had ever encountered of the irredeemable brutality of racism in the nineteenth century.
Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter seem incapable of appreciating a point clearly illustrated by Aunt Sally’s remark: that systemic divisions in society make it seem like black lives do not matter in the way that white lives do. Obviously, we no longer live in the era of slavery and Jim Crow. Civil rights legislation is a half-century old. Racism is prevalent, but instead of being an institutional force we strive to uphold, it is rightfully regarded as an evil malaise we seek to eradicate. Nonetheless, the legacy of racism is long, and it reaches far and wide. It should come as no surprise that attitudes and habits about white supremacy and race relations once hard coded into the ‘collective consciousness’ of white America still filter through attitudes and habits which, though they have undoubtedly evolved, still bear the residue of their original form of destructively naked racism.
This legacy is why efforts to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from school curriculums are ultimately self-defeating. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in the incendiary aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin and has sought to focus attention on issues like police brutality and systemic racism in the twenty-first century. The movement has encountered resistance, or at least resentment, from groups like Blue Lives Matter as well as political figures who recite the obvious truth that ‘all lives matter’. It is certainly true that white lives matter, as do the lives of police officers. The Black Lives Matter movement does not disagree. It only asks that black lives also matter in American society.
Those who would seek to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should consider how clearly and powerfully the novel conveys this crucial point. Censorship denies students the opportunity to study a classic of American literature, but it also burns a bridge of communication with reactionary forces that remain blind, or oblivious, to prevailing attitudes that undermine the cause of racial equality. How can you establish a line of communication with reactionary groups if you can find no way to portray your concerns in a way that is clear to them? As one Pen America essay writes: ‘The best defense against hateful ignorance is open, honest discussion, and early intervention—high schools, maybe even junior high schools—is key. It is one thing for students to memorize the Emancipation Proclamation for a social studies quiz; it’s another, much richer, more complicated assignment for them [to] dive head first into the sick and strange psychology of racism made commonplace under the institution of slavery.’
Rereading the passage in which Aunt Sally is blithe and callous about the loss of a black life was the watershed moment when I realized the central meaning of Black Lives Matter. Some may object that we no longer live in the nineteenth century, and that black lives matter in a way they did not back in the nineteenth century. This is true, but it is still worth debating the extent to which that claim holds in the era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other black men who should still be alive today. At the very least, let’s understand the fundamental message of Black Lives Matter. It is not that black lives matter more than white lives or blue lives. It is that black lives matter as much as white and blue lives do. In its depiction of the dehumanization of black slaves in nineteenth-century America, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made this point crystal clear for me.
Censorship does not breed awakening. Healthy, active debate does. As the Pen America essay writes: ‘[w]hile outright banning is puritanical and dangerous, I hope books like Huck Finn will always be challenged. It shows that our culture is still engaging in meaningful debate, and that the next generation will continue to question the beliefs they’ve inherited. If there’s anyone in American lit tough enough to handle the melee, it’s Huck.’ Indeed, Huck Finn is taught by the culture in which he is raised that freeing a slave is an unpardonable sin. Yet after getting to know Jim as a human being while floating down the Mississippi River, he eventually sheds the moral presumptions of his age and decides to help free Jim. Huck Finn is a textbook case of moral awakening.
Social justice warriors often argue that acculturation acclimates us to unjust societies. Thus, they seek to highlight all instances of injustice they can find in the culture in which injustice resides. Banning The Adventures of Huckleberry Sin undermines this purpose. Instead of holding up a mirror to society, censors effectively allow reactionary forces to persist in their prejudices by denying them a window unto the pernicious consequences of racial prejudice. Censorship also impedes efforts to counter misperceptions about the meaning of Black Lives Matter. These misperceptions can arise if people fail to appreciate the legacy of a time when black lives truly did not matter to white America—how else to explain Aunt Sally expressing relief that no white person was hurt in a steamboat accident while ignoring the death of a black person? Censoring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deprives us of an opportunity to appreciate the progressive aim of Black Lives Matter.
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