Friday, January 14, 2011

Huck Finn

A new edition of Huckleberry Finn has just been published with every
instance of the word "nigger" replaced by the word "slave." Whoever
made that decision is an idiot. As Larry Wilmore noted on the Jon
Stewart show the other day, "Look, Mark Twain put that word in for a
reason. The n-word speaks to a society that casually dehumanized black
people. Slave was just a job description. And it's not even accurate
-- in the book Jim is no longer a slave, he ran away. Twain's point is
that he can't run away from being a nigger."

Here is Huck doing the right thing, in one of the most powerful
passages in American literature:

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to
be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he'd GOT to be a
slave, and so I'd better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to
tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion for two
things: she'd be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness
for leaving her, and so she'd sell him straight down the river again;
and if she didn't, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger,
and they'd make Jim feel it all the time, and so he'd feel ornery and
disgraced. And then think of ME! It would get all around that Huck
Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see
anybody from that town again I'd be ready to get down and lick his
boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing,
and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long
as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The
more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me,
and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at
last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of
Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness
was being watched all the time from up there in heaven,whilst I was
stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm,
and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and
ain't agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur
and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I
tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by
saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but
something inside of me kept saying, "There was the Sunday-school, you
could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there
that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to
everlasting fire."

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I
couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I
kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It
warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I
knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart
warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was
playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me
I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my
mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and
write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in
me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie -- I
found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to
do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter --
and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as
light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I
got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down
and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below
Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the
reward if you send.


I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever
felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it
straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking --
thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to
being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to
thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the
time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes
storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But
somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him,
but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of
his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him
how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to
him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like
times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he
could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I
struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox
aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim
ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I
happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was
a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things,
and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and
then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell" -- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let
them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming...