By Seema Tangri (Grade 8 Academic Writing class)
In our poem, Racism and Slavery, we began by looking at the time period in which Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. Although Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, America – especially the South – was still struggling with racism and the aftermath of slavery. Many people even today argue that conditions had not improved after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, as black individuals were still socially oppressed through racially prejudiced legislations such as the Jim Cow Laws and the convict leasing system.
Although Twain’s novel takes place in a time period in which slavery was still prevalent in society, it seems as if he pulls racist ideology from his life experience, post – Emancipation Proclamation, because of the similarities of the conditions of blacks in American society both before and after slavery was legally abolished. This exemplifies the parallelism between a society in which racism was outwardly accepted – and encouraged – and a society in which it was abolished – though merely on paper. African Americans were still struggling to find a place in society and to live amongst the whites peacefully. Racially prejudiced whites, primarily originating from the South, found ways to exploit the poor, newly-freed blacks as a source of labor. For instance, to ind a way around the slavery laws, whites would pay African Americans a very menial wage for hard labor, and because this income was so meager, many families could not sustain themselves. As a result, some blacks would make a deal with white landowners to trade food and a place to live in exchange for labor. In essence, blacks were living in the exact same conditions as before. Although they were technically freed, many were still held captive by poverty, lack of equality, and racism. With no other options in the foreseeable future, many blacks stayed in the life they had before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Slavery in the novel was challenged by none other than our main protagonist, the thirteen years old, Huck Finn. William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” This greatly pertains to Huck Finn’s “moral dilemma” present throughout the novel. Huck’s dilemma is whether or not to turn Jim in, a black slave who had run away from Miss Watson with Huck. During the 1800’s running off with an escaped slave was the worst crime anyone could possibly commit. As societal norms governed his way of thinking, he was taught that blacks were meant to be owned as slaves, and to carry out their lives as nothing more. However, this thoughts change when he escapes with Jim.
As Huck and Jim spend more time together, Huck realizes that Jim is a person who is entitled to the exact same basic rights as a white individual, and therefore decides to keep silent about Jim’s escape. Because Huck runs off with Jim, he ultimately puts his life at risk for the benefit of Jim’s, showing how even as child, his thought process is more mature and accepting than that of an adult’s.
This accepting thought process is clearly displayed in a quote by Huck himself, who also narrates the novel. “I never felt easy till the raft was two miles below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi…We said their warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” (112)
At this point in the novel, Huck had just escaped from the Grangerford – Shepherdson feud and was thoroughly sickened by society. Compared to the outrageous incidents onshore, the raft represented a retreat form the outside world. With Huck’s good friend Jim by his side, the raft is a site of simple pleasures and good companionship, a homely paradise. Even the simple food Jim offers Huck is delicious in this atmosphere of comfort and independence. Huck and Jim do not have to answer to anyone on the raft, and it represents a kind of utopian life for them. Huck and Jim try to maintain this ideal separation from society and its problems, but disagreeable influences from onshore invade the world of the raft as they make their way southward. In this way, Mark Twain’s portrayal of life on the raft is a romantic one, but is tempered by the realistic knowledge that inescapable problems of this world lie just ahead.
Decades after the abolition of slavery, African Americans were able to create a sort of society for themselves and live amongst one another in harmony. In the Harlem neighborhood of New York, whose conditions and locations attracted African Americans and deterred whites, a movement that changed American history, dubbed The Harlem Renaissance, originated. Because blacks seemed to congregate in the Harlem area, black pride arose through different mediums such as music, art, poetry, and more. One major theme of this movement of cultural pride was liberation. Although, enjoying their relatively newfound freedom, African Americans never forgot their history, which, for many blacks, consisted of slavery and the horrific lifestyle that accompanied it. The Harlem Renaissance celebrated black culture in a time where blacks were still discriminated against in certain aspects of society. Not only did this movement bring pride to the African Americans of that time, but also, the effects of the Harlem Renaissance can still be experienced today through art, music, and more.
In conclusion, slavery has been a prevalent theme in society for centuries, and is still present today. Huckleberry Finn explores the concept of slavery through the eyes of a child who struggles internally between what society teaches him is acceptable, and what he feels is morally correct. Later in history, The Harlem Renaissance takes hold and black pride sweeps the nation, although racism and discrimination are still a part of everyday life for African Americans. Even today, racist stereotypes still target many people of color, reminding them of a past full of turmoil and a future of freedom worth fighting for.