The N-word at the time of Huck Finn

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Thu Mar 12 23:02:50 UTC 2009

I'm still not making myself clear, I fear. My apologies.

I of course agree that what we today call "scientific racism" is "racist" by 
20th century standards. But it appears that there were no 19th standards for 
what was or was not "racism"--as is evident from the absence of terms for the 
phenomenon AS A SET OF BELIEFS. The "scientific racism" movement was simply an 
attempt at using science to confirm the ideas about race that were the ruling 
notions of the day.

Thus, to say that "nigger" was a "racist" (or even "offensive" or 
"derogatory") term in HUCK FINN is pretty much meaningless because in general people at 
the time thought of black people as by definition inferior. You can't have 
"racism" as a set of beliefs or philosophy (what I meant by "the modern sense") if 
pretty much nobody believes in the equality of races. 

In other words, if you want to call the 19th century "racist" OK, but, 
because "racism" in that sense was pretty close to a universal norm, the application 
of the appellation to specific instances of belief, behavior, ofr language is 
not particularly illuminating, and (because "racists" are for most of us by 
definition wicked people) it can be unjust to apply the term to specific 19th 
century figures in that they were--as we all are--believers in the truisms of 
the time in which they lived. 

Similarly, attempting to find evidence of "racism" in HUCK FINN is pointless 
as a historical exercise (which is not to say that it would not be a useful 
exercise for a high-school teacher to assign to students as a way of pointing 
out the harmful, evil effects of the some of the beliefs that we think of as 
"racism" today). The amazing thing about Twain's book (and also MOBY DICK) is 
that the black characters are treated with dignity and respect (despite what we 
today would see as the assumptions). The history of 20th century American 
literature (especially cinema) demonstrates a gradual awareness and reification 
both of racism and the emergent contrary forces.
In a message dated 3/12/09 3:55:31 PM, Berson at ATT.NET writes:

> At 3/12/2009 03:01 PM, ronbutters at AOL.COM wrote:
> >What I said was "the modern idea of racism had not been invented
> >yet." Obviously, hatred of The Other has been around forever and
> >theorized in various ways. Arnold's data supports my observation.
> That "racism" was perhaps not in the English language until the 1930s
> has no significance for whether the racist notions of scientific
> racism existed in the 1880s or 1839 -- The sentiment that blacks were
> inherently inferior did exist then.  And I have no idea how "the
> modern idea of racism" might differ from the early modern idea.
> Joel

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