January 30, 2010

Dick Gregory champions Mark Twain

We get e-mail:Hi Rob,

Regarding the discussion on your site of Mark Twain being "racist"--I think Dick Gregory's explanation is brilliant:
** The part where he talks about Twain begins near the 103:00 minute marker (lasts about 2 mins). Dick is listing the top three people responsible for ending slavery in America before Lincoln (Twain, Stowe, John Brown).My reply:  I think Gregory's response is somewhat addled, which is why he hesitated for so long before coming up with it.

The key point is that Huck Finn was published in 1884, or long after Lincoln and the Civil War. So Gregory is flatly wrong in saying Twain's book had an effect before Lincoln.

The only benefits Gregory attributed to Huck Finn were calling Jim by name and having him talking with Huck as an equal. That might've been a bit innovative in the mid-19th century South, when slavery was the law of the land. But 20 years after slavery was abolished, when blacks were supposedly equal?

Here are some African-American firsts that happened contemporaneously with Huck Finn's mid-century timeframe:
  • 1836: First African American elected to public office and to serve in a state legislature: Alexander Twilight, Vermont.

  • 1837: First African-American doctor: Dr. James McCune Smith from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

  • 1845: First African American licensed to practice law in the United States: Macon Allen from the Boston bar.

  • 1847: First African American to graduate from a U.S. medical school: Dr. David J. Peck (Rush Medical College).

  • 1849: First African-American college professor: Charles L. Reason, New York Central College.

  • 1853: First novel written by an African American: Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, by William Wells Brown.
  • If Twain had written about the first black lawyer, doctor, or professor, that might've been impressive. Even 30 or 40 years after the fact, as Huck Finn was. But the first slave to be called by a proper name? Let's ask Twain's intellectual contemporaries--Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B Du Bois--how much Huck Finn contributed to their freedom.

    In short, the book's fictional "advances" were trivial compared to the historic advances in the real world. Twain did nothing extraordinary by pointing out the evils of slavery 20 years after the fact.

    Nice try to defend Twain's racism, friend, but I suggest you try again. Better luck next time.

    For more on the subject, see Mark Twain, Indian Hater.

    P.S. For all I know, Twain was the first writer to give an Indian a Christian name ("Injun Joe" in Tom Sawyer). And the first to portray an urban Indian--one completely divorced from his tribal upbringing. Should we give him credit even though Injun Joe was a violent criminal? No, I don't think so.

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