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14 June 2011

Once Regarding Slavery, Once More Regarding Equality

60 Minutes aired a piece this last Sunday on the use of the so-called N-word in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a good discussion on the power of language, the ability (and even necessity) for groups to reappropriate demeaning labels, and the role of status in whitewashing history and literature. ("Tom Sawyer, you tricked me. This is less fun than previously indicated. Let this corny slice of Americana be your tomb for all eternity.") In related news, the Writer's Almanac this morning noted the 200th anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe's birthday with this:
In 1996, novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Harper's: "Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin." Smiley explained that by making the racism and slavery a personal matter between two individuals, rather than a political and institutional evil, Huck Finn fails even where it succeeds, by allowing white people to feel good about getting over their racism without ever actually doing anything about it [emphasis mine]. Smiley wrote, "Personal relationships do not mitigate the evils of slavery." In Huck Finn, she writes, "All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don't actually have to act in the interests of his humanity [emphasis mine]." She concludes: "I would rather my children read Uncle Tom's Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe's novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life."
I think this speaks to recent claims that, given the election of Barack Obama, we now live in a post-racial America. If only we were all colorblind, so the wisdom goes, race would no longer be an issue. Smiley above points to the inherent flaw in this logic. Racism is structural, not (only) individual; therefore, we need active solutions that reach beyond the simplistic, micro-level calls for redaction in historically important works of fiction—even if flawed—and the willful ignorance of patent problems.

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