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Critical Essay Draft 1
Not Inferior After All
This semester I have read several pre-civil rights texts that had African Americans as one of the central characters in the story. I noticed that not only is there a difference in the writing style between many of the black and white authors of the time, but also in a lot of texts, the African American character often gets characterized in the racist stereotypes that were prevalent during the time. Two of the texts that demonstrated this notion were
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain and “The Passing of Grandison” by Charles W. Chesnutt. Although both these texts depict the African American men as inferior in the story, both men become likeable characters and escape slavery. Therefore, I think both these texts are really meant to provide a negative social commentary on the reality of the time, as well as perhaps mock the racist views people had about African Americans.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
is a very controversial book because of the strong discriminatory language that is used quite heavily throughout the book. One of the hardest things to get past is how nonchalantly the word “nigger” is used, especially by the young Huck. Throughout the whole story, Twain has the characters speak in a dialect that is very regional and telling of their class. Jim’s dialect and vocabulary is meant to show his inferiority, especially since Jim has to constantly refer to even a young white kid as sir or master. The dialect Jim speaks is the stereotypical view of how all blacks spoke. Because of the way Jim speaks many characters in the book assume that Jim is stupid because he couldn’t speak in an educated, civilized manner. However, this shows the hypocrisy of the white southerners in Huck Finn since many of the characters also speak with in an uneducated way using words such as “ain’t,” “bout,” and “git.”
In “The Passing of Grandison” language also reflects Grandison’s lower rank and inferiority in comparison to his white masters. In this text, there is a huge difference in the way his masters speak in contrast of their slaves with the slaves having a very thick accent in comparison to Colonel Owens’s formal speech. What is more disturbing is the fact that Grandison seems so conditioned by his status that he refers to other blacks as “niggers” as well agreeing with his master about his inferiority. In this short story, language is used not only to show the difference in people of high society and those who are beneath them, but also as a way to manipulate others. Several times when Colonel Owen’s is speaking to Grandison about going with Dick up North he explains all the privileges Grandison has as a slave compared to those free slaves (Chesnutt 476). It is unclear however, if Grandison really is loyal to his master or not because it is not clear if Grandison is using his language to mask his intelligence. The language in this story is also very telling of white man’s perception of a stereotypical, ideal slave; one who is loyal, unintelligent, and “happy go lucky” to be a slave. All this can be observed in the language Grandison speaks, from bashing his own race to his signs of respect with his constant “sur” or “marster.”
Another part of the texts that would put society in a negative light is the sympathy readers may feel for the black characters in the story. Although people during the time didn’t necessarily consider many blacks as people, the reader is able to compare the white privileged “problems” in comparison to the problems of the African Americans. In Huck Finn, most of the white characters do not have any serious problems other than getting their kids to behave. In fact many of the young kids in the story search for risky adventures and mischief. On the other hand, Jim must deal with the loss of his freedom, being separated from his family, not getting caught by bounty hunters, and making it North. Because readers can see the struggle Jim has to go through and he then still remains loyal to Huck makes it hard to justify the white society’s harsh treatment of him. Jim looks out for Huck at the risk of his own safety and freedom makes his character likeable to audiences that may have shared the white’s racial biases. The fact that Jim is the only character that really has Huck’s best interest at heart makes people like Miss. Watson, Tom Sawyer, and Pap look really selfish and uncaring in comparison.
In “The Passing of Grandison” the white characters are put in a negative light as well. The fact that Colonel Owens considers Grandison the perfect slave sheds light on the ideals many whites wanted of African Americans during that time. They wanted “property” that was scared, unintelligent, loyal, and reliant on them to live. The Colonel relishes the idea that Grandison is “abolitionist proof” because Grandison says he would rather be a slave than free and that he is scared the abolitionists will take him. (Chesnutt 476-477). Also Dick’s intentions for helping Grandison escape make him look bad because they are so petty. The fact that Dick is willing to break a law that upholds the values of a society his family believes in for a girl seems very shallow. Also the fact that Dick passively waits for Grandison to run away, instead of taking some risk to help him escape makes him look weak as a character. Instead all he does is make Grandison appear loyal to his masters, which would have been a likeable quality to many southerners of the time (Chesnutt 478-479).
The main evidence that these texts are actually a negative commentary on society is the fact that the white characters in both are trying to exercise control over Grandison and Jim as well as show that they are part of a superior level of etiquette than their slaves. However in the end, it is Grandison and Jim that succeed in their goal of attaining their freedom, as well as maintaining their good character. In Huck Finn for instance, Jim continually does as Huck tells him to do and remains loyal to him. He has complete faith that Huck will get him north and keep him safe because he considers Huck his only friend (Twain 163). Later when Tom Sawyer comes up with a plan to help Jim escape and the plan goes awry, Jim refuses to run because Tom is hurt. Everyone knows that Jim could have run but he put Tom’s well being for his own and they still want to turn him in. When we find out that Jim has really been free this time and Tom didn’t tell anyone so that he could have fun “helping Jim escape” it makes you realize how insensitive people are to Jim and that he really didn’t care about Jim.
The only character besides Jim that the readers would find likable is Huck because Huck was the only character that truly helped Jim and began to treat him as a brother as opposed to someone that was beneath him. I think the ending of the novel shows the hypocrisy of those with racist views because Jim is the only character that consistently has good intentions and is just trying to survive. The characters who are supposedly the superior ones are mean, judgmental, and only looking out for their best interests. In the end Huck becomes a better person because of Jim.
In “The Passing of Grandison,” Grandison also is able to succeed in gaining his freedom by escaping to Canada with his family. Throughout most of the short story, Colonel Owens makes it known that he is superior and that he is doing a great service to the slaves by feeding them, giving them work, and a place to live. Grandison acts as the loyal slave that won’t run away much to the dismay of Dick. However, at the end of the story, when Grandison and his family escape to the north and the Owens are met with a smile and a wave as they cross the border it is clear that Grandison had it planned all along, making a fool out of Colonel Owens (Chesnutt 483). Grandison knew from the beginning how to manipulate his master and make them believe he was loyal so that he could get all the information he needed to escape. The fact that Colonel Owens bragged about his ideal slave to everyone only to be cuckolded mocks the racial stereotypes that African Americans are unintelligent and like being slaves.
Both these stories were reflective on the racist views of the south from the dialect the slaves spoke, to the language that was used towards them, to being considered weaker and inferior to whites. Even though Jim and Grandison are constantly held to the standard of being beneath the white characters, it was interesting that the authors made the African American characters one of the most likeable characters in the story as well as successful in outsmarting the racist characters and becoming free. It was interesting to note that many of the stereotypical characteristics that made up how others in the story saw Jim and Grandison were both very similar, especially since the author of “The Passing of Grandison” is African American. To me, this showed that African Americans are well aware of the stereotypes placed upon them by the whites and that they at times use these assumptions to survive or to get by. The fact that Grandison out smarts Colonel Owens and Dick is like a statement saying that African Americans can hold their own and can achieve more than people thought they could. It also could have raised questions on whether whites were really are as superior as they thought they were. Also worth noting is the fact that Huck grows as a person and finally “gets some morals” from having a friend like Jim. He learns how to put others before himself and see past the color of Jim’s skin.
The authors’ stories end with an idea that clashes with the popular views of the time. These stories show the negative effect that racism and idea of racial superiority makes our society ugly with hate. The fact that the authors have Grandison and Jim come out on top by remaining true to those they care about and gaining the freedom they deserved challenges the view that African Americans are inferior.
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