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Faces on Faith: Reflections on race and Huckleberry Finn

By Staff | May 11, 2016

How long has it been since you read “Huckleberry Finn?” Fifty, maybe 60 years ago, as it was for me? So why did I sign up for the three session course offered at the Congregational UCC Church in mid-April? Well, the title: “Black and White: Views of Race in Victorian America” intrigued me, as well as the presenters, Professor Emeritus of English at The Ohio State University, Thomas Cooley, and the historically rich perspective of Senior Pastor Rev. John Danner.

But only when I entered the first session did I realize I’d be reading the Norton Critical Edition of “Huckleberry Finn” and W.E.B. Dubois’ seminal work “The Souls of Black Folk.”

I wish I could remember, when I read Huck in 7th grade and encountered what has come to be called the “N” word over 200 times in the story, did the teacher help us handle that explosive word? Did he help us realize Mark Twain’s brilliance in using the slave Jim, as a central character and the redeeming humanity he portrayed?

Huck has the ingrained principle that to help a slave “get his freedom would be a sin and take him to hell.” But, as events unfold and Jim becomes almost a father figure to Huck, he agonizes over his decision and how good Jim always was. He says: “I’d got to decide forever betwixt two things and I knowd it, and then I says to myself – All right then, I’ll GO to hell.”

Toni Morrison recalls reading Huck Finn without guidance and found it deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, and she struggled with the corrosive effect the term would occasion for black students. Yet re-reading it years later as an accomplished writer, she found it valid and worthwhile. She reports: “Huck’s observation that although Jim’s desperate love for his wife and children ‘don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so,’ makes it one of the most moving references in American literature.”

T.S. Elliot’s critical review of the book states: “It is the style of Huck, which makes it a far more convincing indictment of slavery than the sensationalist “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, also lived in Victorian times. She references slavery in her textbook, “Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures” with these words: “The voice of God in behalf of the African slave was still echoing in our land when the voice of the herald of this new crusade sounded the keynote of universal freedom, asking a fuller acknowledgement of the rights of man as a son of God be won, not through human warfare, not with bayonet and blood, but through Christ’s divine Science.”

In African American writer Ta Nehisi Coates’ recent book “Between the World and Me,” he bitterly condemns white society in asserting that the scars and wounds of slavery still haunt the black race and therefore all of society today. Nevertheless, Samuel Clemens and W.E.B. Dubois’ classics, give us a moral compass on which to judge our own attitudes and actions on race.

-June Sieber,

Sanibel Christian Science Church