An ally is someone outside a specific community who aligns with and supports the cause of that group. Historically, allies have been as diverse as the causes pursued.
If one wishes to be an ally of any variety, there may be no better American literary source than “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Though consistently among the books most often banned by libraries and school boards nationwide, this Mark Twain masterpiece offers an uncomfortable but no less instructive lesson.
“Huckleberry” has been banned in recent years because of Twain’s liberal use of the N-word to describe the runaway slave, Jim, who accompanies Huck down the Mississippi River. But this does not account for the consistent banning of the text that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century when the N-word enjoyed far greater acceptance within American nomenclature.
Our enlightened 21st century lens can blind us to the fact that “Huckleberry” is deeply subversive, offering insight into what’s really required for anyone who wishes to be an ally.
Setting his story before the Civil War, using dialect peculiar to the Southern region of the United States, Twain demystifies and condemns the institution of slavery by affirming Jim’s humanity. It was unprecedented in 19th century American literature to give a black character agency.
Two runaways (Jim from slavery and Huck from an abusive father) begin a journey down the Mississippi, initially hamstrung by the social construct of race. But Jim and Huck get to know each other beyond the surface to that place where one finds humanity. Huck must confront everything he had been taught about race, freedom and the murky line that separates good and evil.
As Jim talks of his desires to save enough money to buy his wife and children out of slavery, Huck reevaluates his assumptions. Society reinforced in Huck’s mind that slaves did not care about family, but Jim’s nightly cries for his wife and children vociferously suggest otherwise.
This moves Huck to opine quizzically, “Jim was thinking about his wife and children, away up yonder … and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.”
Huck is unlearning what he had been taught as he first sees Jim as property then ultimately as a man, a husband and a father.
But it’s the moral climax where one learns how to be an ally. The social construct of race convinces Huck that in helping Jim escape, he was committing a sin that would surely land him in hell. Given Huck’s narrow theological understanding, hell was a real place, where people go when they’ve done unforgivable wrongs.
Huck writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling of their location. Initially, Huck is certain he’s done the right thing. Looking at the letter, Huck ponders with relief how close he actually came to going to hell.
But then, Huck hesitates. He reads the letter and begins to think about Jim the man, his kindness toward Huck, their relationship, and their travels down the Mississippi. Holding the paper in his hand, Huck says: “I’d got to decide forever twixt two things and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, then I says to myself: ‘Alright then, I’ll go to hell!’”
Huck tears up the letter to stand in alliance with his friend Jim.
“Alright then, I’ll go to hell,” is the moral awakening — the prerequisite to become an ally. It is the courage to move beyond the comfort that privilege affords us in order to authentically align with those deemed “other” by the larger society.
The seductive aspect of privilege, fortified by the status quo, is natural and unassuming. But to be an authentic ally requires one must be willing to risk some of the benefits that privilege affords.
It is a misnomer to believe allies are not direct beneficiaries of the change. The interrelated nature of the American experiment means anytime the nation moves closer to its stated values of liberty and equality, we’re all beneficiaries.
Throughout the American narrative, those engaged in change rendered the nation an invaluable service. Twain, with his turn-of-the-century classic, is in that grand tradition.
I do not condemn those who render “Huckleberry” a nonstarter, uncomfortable with Twain’s use of the N-word. But isn’t discomfort the initial requirement for change?
Moreover, is it not the height of irony that it’s the uneasy self-reflections of a literary character who began life as a destitute, poorly educated river rat, initially confined by the social construct of race, that leads to his redemption by a runaway slave who might have something to offer this crisis moment?