Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The N-Word

Today in class we discussed a few examples of Huck Finn using the n-word. Many in the class defended Huck by pointing out his youth and by returning to an earlier instance of Jim, a runaway slave, using the same racist language.

To me the word is closely connected to power. Within the context of a racist 19th C. America, Huck a young white boy enjoys more power than Jim, a full-grown man. The use of the n-word by either character is a reminder of the unequal status accorded people of different race.

That the word was, sadly, commonplace does not mitigate the ugliness of the language. Rather than attack or defend Huck, though, we might turn our attention to the author. Mark Twain uses the n-word over 200 times in the novel. (Or should I say, his characters do!). Re-examine instances of racist language in the novel. Can Twain be said to use the word in order to comment on the hypocrisy of the time? On the characters he presents? Is part of the desire to defend Huck rooted in the kind of narrative we hope to find in the book rather than the narrative arc Twain intends?

As you think about these issues, you might also want to check out this interesting piece on The N-word done by Minnesota Public Radio:


Sam H said...

I think that the difference between Huck using the word and a white boy using the word today is the way that it was viewed by society. I'm sure that in fourth and fifth grade I applied the term 'gay' to things that I didn't like. I don't think I even understood what homosexuality was for a few more years. I used the word without understanding the meaning.

The other day, I said that the use of the word was "socially sanctioned." You argued that sanctioned was an inappropriate word because it came from sacred. I had no idea of that. I wasn't arguing that racism was holy (though, ironically, people have used the bible to justify it) I just had no idea what the connotations of the word were. You would have to be a huge believer in Freud to believe that was some sort of slip of my self conscious that I used that word.

As for the NPR piece, it says, "A man fought and died over a word." Which really points out the importance that this word once held. This was after slavery, though, when the word had become a symbol and reminder to the former slave system of the south. During the slave trade, it certainly wasn't a nice thing to say, but it was not seen as a "wrong" thing to say. If I called an executive assistant a secretary, people reading story of my life might look at my language choice as appalling.

Sophie M said...

I think you bring up an interesting point when you ask if we defend Huck's use of the word due to the narrative arc we hope to find in the book instead of the one that really exists. I would have to agree with you about the ude of the n-word-- even when people used it (in the 1800s), they knew that it was a degrading term; just because it was "the norm" doesn't excuse its obvious negativity. As we established yesterday in class, Huck has grown as a character since the beginning of the book. His growth is one of the reasons I don't really think Huck uses the n-word out of ignorance. He had enough self-awareness to separate himself from society, knowing what he wanted to do, and therefore showing that he can be held accountable for his actions. By running away and creating his own life, Huck shows that he has the ability to stray from the pack. In terms of the use of the n-word, Huck has displayed enough self control in other areas for me to think that he could choose not to use the word if he didn't want to. However, as a reader, part of me wants to believe that Huck did use this word out of ingorance because his use of the n-word shines a negative light on him, making him no better than the other individuals in his society. I want to see him as a person who is above the idea of racial inequality(as he has begun to do by befriending Jim), but maybe this wasn't Mark Twain's intention for Huck's character.

Claire m said...

I find it interesting that in class often times Huck is defended for the use of this word because it was an integral part of society at that time. On the "official Mark Twain website" (www.cmgww.com/historic/twain), I found a quote by Twain which stated, "Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts." This got me thinking that perhaps our preconceived opinions of children are preventing the realization that Twain meant for Huck to use the word.

There certainly were prejudices against blacks in that 19th century society, and Twain was trying to demonstrate that despite the fact that Huck is a child he still intended to use the n-word. Twain shows that even children used the word in order to prove the racist views of the time. Despite the desire to believe Huck "doesn't have negative intentions" through the use of the word, it is a common word in his vocabulary. Thereby Huck's development does not come from the fact that he begins to view Jim as an equal, but rather as a father figure.

Perhaps Twain intended for Huck to see Jim as father yet still view him as an inferior, which is something no one really wants to believe considering he is only a child.

Maeli G. said...

I do think that the remark about Huck acting as a vehicle for Twain's statement about society during the time is extremely important. Twain creates a character with whom readers sympathize -- I think it's fair to say that the majority of the people who read Huck Finn are rooting for young Huckleberry. We want him to succeed. Our connection with him is complicated by his use of racist language, but it is clear from the other aspects of the chartacter that Twain does not intend for us to immediately shun him for his biggetry. I think the point is that Mark Twain shows us that the ugliest parts of any cultrue embed themselves within even those we want most to support. He wants us to strugge with Huck's behavior! We are meant to be uncomfortable with the character; it helps us to define for ourselves what these kinds of controvercial issues mean for a society.

Anna.S said...

I just finished reading the MPR piece on the n-word, and I think that the most important thing that they mention is who uses it. About halfway through the article, the author says, "That's the other peculiar thing about 'nigger.' It can make white people very nervous."

I don't think anyone should say this word, but at the same time I think that everyone should have the right to say whatever they want, just on principle--but don't be surprised if you get beat up for calling someone the n-word. This reminds me of a discussion we had in the beginning of the year over what people can have written on a t-shirt or other piece of clothing. It can be offensive, but know the consequences.

The author of the article also mentions interviewing the owner of Eddie's Barbershop, a black man by the name of Withers. Withers says, when asked if he was ever called by that offensive word-- "All the time. But when my brothers, when they say it; when a brother calls me that, then I don't look at as derogatory. If a white guy comes in and calls me that, he's out of line. I don't use that word myself," This is important, in my point of view, because it clearly shows how racially controversial the word is. It makes it seem acceptable if you have been called the n-word.

Anna H. said...

I agree with Maeli, as readers we are supposed to feel uncomfortable with the character Huck. The reader is meant to sympathize with Huck and to grow very attached to our young narrator. I think that Twain wanted us to make excuses for Huck, saying that he was so young and he didn't know better, and by our need to protect Huck from criticism he was making a comment on the society. I think he was trying to show us how disgusting it was for a society to accept such a horrible word in their everyday language that even our young narrator who has been able to physically separate himself from this society is not able to let go of the n-word.

Zoe C. said...

I think Twain is using Huck to teach a lesson to the reader. I don't think Twain is racist himself, but he understood the times he lived in. A lot of the class is saying, and I have to agree with them, that it isn't really all Huck's fault; the society he lives in is partly to blame. Kids are naive and easily influenced by their surroundings, and Huck is no exception. To me, Twain is maybe trying to show us how these kinds of things, such as the use of the n-word and the enslavement of African Americans get passed down from generation to generation until it becomes commonplace. I'm not saying that this makes it right, because it doesn't in the least. But slave owners were once children, too. The hard part is trying to break out of society's mold so the n-word and worse don't remain the norm. Huck is little by little starting to break out of that mold, but if he will completely, we don't know yet.

Lizzy said...

In a continuation of what my classmates above me have said, I think that the fact that Huck uses the n-word is one of the main reasons why he can be considered a 3-D character. If he was fully a child and acted in a way that we would find completely acceptable today (which would be surprising, as this book is pretty old), I think the story would be far less compelling than it is now. It probably wouldn't even be regarded as a classic.

On a related note, I was curious about whether a generational gap could be the reason for the class's disagreement over the n-word. So, I asked my dad what he thought. He largely agreed with me that the use of the word itself does not mean the speaker is racist. It depends on the situation. This indicates that the issue cannot be solely based on generation.

DPark said...

I've noticed as Huck matures and becomes closer with Jim, the context in which he uses the n-word is notable. Granted, the word is still highly offensive but I think Twain uses Huck to use the word in more admirable situations as Huck's bond strengthens and as he matures throughout the book. On page 6, Huck observes "Miss Watson's big n*****, named Jim". After spending intimate time with Jim, Huck says "he was most always right; he had an uncommon level head, for a n*****" (65). Even farther in the book, Huck compliments Jim by saying "He was a mighty good n*****, Jim was" (131). I would hope to think that Huck decreases his frequency at which he uses that word.
However, when Twain has Huck use the word, Twain is fully aware that he the word is complicating Huck's compliments towards Jim, that using that word would make Huck a racist.

MMarin said...

This reminds me of the archetype discussion we had a while ago. One of the most common archetypes in any story is the Hero archetype, the character in the story fighting for good/against evil, who the reader almost always identifies with most strongly, as Maeli mentions. Huck is a lot different from the typical hero. On one hand, he experiences a lot of hardship growing up, from people who are very bad, to say the least (like his father). By contrast to those around him, Huck is much more likeable, and more forgivable for some of the things he does. However, he still says a lot of things that are foolhardy/rather awful in their own right. He doesn't fit the 'innocent child' archetype (as Claire mentions), due to his rocky upbringing/experiences and actions, but I think it had been said repeatedly that he only uses the N word because he is a kid and "didn't know any better," even though that's highly doubtful.

I think Twain definitely has Huck use the N word to point out hypocrisy. For example, I found it interesting when Huck, while with the Grangerfords, says, "Each person had their own nigger to wait on them -- Buck too. My nigger had a monstrous easy time, because I warn't used to having anybody do anything for me, but Buck's was on the jump most of the time. "

I think it's interesting, at this point, Huck is so enamored with the Grangerfords (just before they turn out to be complete freaks) that he doesn't see anything wrong with people having their slaves perform every task for them, when Huck is a person so used to doing things for himself. Rather than praising wealth and propriety, I expected Huck would see something weird about the Grangerfords making such extensive use of slaves for tasks that he does himself without a sweat. But instead he only insults the slave. Sam brings up an interesting comparison with the word 'gay,' in that people may use the word negatively before they actually know anything about gay people. But at the same time, Huck continues to use the n word despite the fact that he eventually becomes almost an outcast from the society he grew up in, and he spends a significant time growing closer and closer to Jim and seeing new sides to him.

Morgan L said...

We talked about how Huck and Jim are the only two 3D characters in the book. I think this has something to do with why everyone wants to defend him. Twain has given us these two characters that we get to know better than anyone else in the story and we want to believe that they are good. Also, Huck is a child, but from what we can assume he's not young enough to not know that the N-word isn't a word he isn't suppose to use.
We've seen him act kindly to women, and on page 153 Huck says, "I thought them poor girls and them n****** would break their hearts for grief..." (153). Huck knows that you wouldn't use that word with a lady, even a black woman, and therefore he must know that is a bad word. Even if he doesn't know its as bad as we know it is now.
After seeing that Huck knows its a bad word, I believe that we all want to defend him because we feel we know him well and we would like to think that he has no bad intentions.