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The Jim Dilemma

The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn

Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua
Copyright Date: 1998
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    The Jim Dilemma
    Book Description:

    Especially in academia, controversy rages over the merits or evils of Mark Twain'sAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, in particular its portrayal of Jim, the runaway slave. Opponents disrupt classes and carry picket signs, objecting with strong emotion that Jim is no fit model for African-American youth of today. In continuing outcries they claim that he and the dark period of American history he portrays are best forgotten. That time has gone, Jim's opponents charge. This is a new day.

    But is it? Dare we forget? The author ofThe Jim Dilemmaargues that Twain's novel, in the tradition of all great literature, is invaluable for transporting readers to a time, place, and conflict essential to understanding who we are today. Without this work, she argues, there would be a hole in American history and a blank page in the history of African-Americans. To avoid this work in the classroom is to miss the opportunity to remember.

    Few other popular books have been so much attacked, vilified, or censored. Yet Ernest Hemingway proclaimed Twain's classic to be the beginning of American literature, and Langston Hughes judged it as the only nineteenth-century work by a white author who fully and realistically depicts an unlettered slave clinging to the hope of freedom.

    A teacher herself, the author challenges opponents to read the novel closely. She shows how Twain has not created another Uncle Tom but rather a worthy man of integrity and self-reliance. Jim, along with other black characters in the book, demands a rethinking and a re-envisioning of the southern slave, for Huckleberry Finn, she contends, ultimately questions readers' notions of what freedom means and what it costs. As she shows that Twain portrayed Jim as nobody's fool, she focuses her discussion on both sides of the Jim dilemma and unflinchingly defends the importance of keeping the book in the classroom.

    Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua is director of the American studies program at Dallas Institute for the Humanities.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-811-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-2)

    Blacks are the murderers, the rapists, the gang-bangers, where everything that is negative is [sic] society, why do I have to go to school and be Jim too? Because whenever I read about the slave who is gullible and stupid, that [stereotype] becomes a reflection of me, too.

    Doron Flake, student, New Haven, Connecticut, public schools

    We’re tired of Nigger Jim sittin’ in …

    picket sign, Cathy Monterio, parent of a student in Tempe, Arizona

    Much debate has surrounded Mark Twain’sAdventures of Huckleberry Finnsince its publication in 1885, but none has been more pervasive, explosive, and divisive than...

  5. Chapter 1 Reading Race: A Dilemma
    (pp. 3-28)

    In “An American Dilemma,” Ralph Ellison asks whether “American Negroes are simply the creation of White men or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they have found around them” (301). Mark Twain compels the reader ofAdventures of Huckleberry Finnto address not only this question but the question of visibility and legacy. The novel challenges the white reader to learn about and experience a traumatic and debasing period in American history, as well as discovering the unique circumstances of American literary history. At the same time, Twain presents to this audience a covenant of...

  6. Chapter 2 You Can’t Learn a Nigger to Argue: Verbal Battles
    (pp. 29-60)

    Misconceptions surround Jim in current public discussions. Sometimes the novel is simply not read; at other times it has not been read carefully enough. Various movie versions of Jim fail to render him as the complete, three-dimensional character Twain develops in the novel. Unfortunately, these films provide all that many know of Jim, even though they distort his character and his intent. Before considering Twain’s accomplishments in the book, it is helpful to consider the ways in which the movies fail. I will argue in this chapter that Jim, when viewed in the context of classical rhetoric, proves to be...

  7. Chapter 3 In the Dark, Southern Fashion: Encounters with Society
    (pp. 61-114)

    In an interview with Claudia Tate, Alice Walker says, “If the black community fails to support its own writers, it will never have the knowledge of itself that will make it great. … [W]hen we really respect ourselves, our own thoughts, our own words, when we really love ourselves, we won’t have any problem whatsoever selling and buying books or anything else” (Walker,Black Women183). Walker becomes empowered to respect herself through imaginative literature, and the middle section ofAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, although penned by a white author, promotes a similar transformation into self-esteem. In the nineteenth century,...

  8. Chapter 4 Whah Is de Glory? The (Un)Reconstructed South
    (pp. 115-136)

    All the experiences of the central section have prepared Huck for the final conflict, his decision to free Jim from being made a slave “again all his life … amongst strangers … for forty dirty dollars” (269). With that resolution, Huck casts off his old cultural beliefs and embraces new ones that feel right. Having watched Huck grow, we know that this decision is not predicated on whether freeing is convenient or comfortable. But the bitter satire of the human condition in final section of the novel impels many readers to ask if its hero is a racist. The new...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 137-144)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 145-152)
  11. Index
    (pp. 153-159)