Huckleberry Finn and the Whitewashing of American History

January 10, 2011

Mark Twain and his friend John Lewis in 1903

“€œErasing the N word,”€ opined one faceless online personage, “€œonly allows ‘white privilege’ to continue without the majority of people being aware that they have this privilege.”€

Cool. Thanks for clearing that up, Beaver Cleaver.

Did you know that at the peak of black slavery in the American South, only about six percent of Southern whites were “privileged” enough to own slaves? Did you realize that most of the rest were “poor white trash” who were banished from the plantation economy and lived in conditions so utterly bleak, most modern ghetto-dwelling American blacks would seem privileged by comparison?

One word that kept popping out at me while reading about the new Huckleberry Finn was “€œwhitewash”€”€”there’s a pervasive idea that to remove “€œnigger”€ is a sneakily Orwellian attempt to scrub history clean and absolve modern-day American whites from the guilt lurking deeply within ALL of them on a cellular level, whether or not their ancestors even so much as inhabited America when slavery existed. And whitewashing, as all good people know, is a dishonest attempt to make something bad disappear from our collective historical memory by pretending it never existed.

In all of the online jibber-jabber, not once did I see anyone object to Mark Twain’s relentlessly unflattering portraits of what he calls ordinary white folks’ “deformed conscience,” whether it was Huck Finn’s abusive drunken backwoods father, the lynch-happy “€œArkansaw lunkheads,”€ or the wealthy yet still-primitive Grangerson and Shepherdson families, feuding hillbilly clans who brought their guns with them to church.

Writing in Civilization, Lance Morrow defends Huckleberry Finn precisely because it’s so unkind to ordinary whites. He calls it “€œthe most devastating portrait of American white trash and white-trash racism that has ever been written,”€ and we all know that the moral thing is to leave white trash devastated.

Where did all this nasty, amoral white trash come from? Interestingly, two of Huckleberry Finn‘s 219 N-bombs involve comparisons between black American slaves and white British servants. Huck is told that servants in England are treated no better than American “€œniggers”€; in fact, they”€™re treated “€œworse than dogs.”€

One hundred and sixty-three years before Huckleberry Finn was published, Daniel Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, a book I”€™d happily nominate for required-reading lists nationwide. Defoe mentions the American origins of that viciously uncouth demographic glob that would later be dubbed “€œwhite trash”€:

“€œAmong the rest, she often told me how the greatest part of the inhabitants of the colony came…from England…to be sold as servants. “€˜Such as we call them, my dear,”€™ says she, “€˜but they are more properly called slaves.”€™”€

If there’s a huge and sordid part of early American history that’s been whitewashed, it sure as fuck isn”€™t black slavery. For what seemed like a solid year while riding MARTA through Atlanta, a day didn”€™t go by when I wasn”€™t smacked in the face with its memory. For Americans to EVER forget about black slavery, the nation’s entire media apparatus and educational system would have to vanish overnight, millions of books would need to be burned, and then everyone would have to dutifully zip a lip about it for three or four generations at least.

But if you asked the average TV-addled modern American about colonial white indentured servitude, you’d likely be met with a blank stare.

In the 1840s, when the fictional Huck and Jim were rafting somewhat placidly on the Mississippi, literal white indentured servitude had only recently been abolished. And what you”€™ll never hear in a high-school history class or see on any TV movies is that in colonial times, the majority of whites arrived in America under brutally bound conditions that could properly be called slavery.

Why has it all been whitewashed from memory? Where is the Great American Novel about indentured servitude? Where are the movies? Why isn”€™t there even a single public monument to the untold thousands of people, every one of them just as human as “€œnigger”€ Jim, who were ground into bloody paste under this cruel and murderous system?

Until such questions become part of this reputedly non-cowardly national dialogue we”€™re supposedly all having about race, I call bullshit on the whole discussion. My name is Jim and I come from white trash, but for some reason, I like to think that “€œnigger”€ Jim is with me on this here raft.


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