Year of Twain

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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Anthropology of Miss Watson’s Big Jim

Written by By Iris Ford, Chair and Professor of the Anthropology Department

In 2007, the NAACP buried the word with a funeral that included horses and a simple pine coffin on the shoulders of eight pallbearers.

In the early 1960s I was 15 years old and for the first time in my life happily interacting with white peers at a scarcely integrated summer camp. And then there was Mark Twain. 

I suppose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was particularly appropriate for a camp on a river bank where white kids could “grow up casual” (to quote my mother). But for me, on the eve of national civil rights legislation, I felt anything but casual: Black participation at the camp (and almost everywhere else outside the African-American community) was still uneasy and white counselors clueless in their efforts to confront issues of race.

I remember opening the book along with my peers and being introduced to Miss Watson’s big nigger – as if I weren’t self conscious enough with my penchant for James Brown and The Famous Flames (as opposed to the Beatles), collard greens (salad greens), boisterous hair (Breck girl hair), brown skin (opposition obvious), and all things antithetical to the ubiquitous phenotypic and cultural whiteness on the banks of that summer camp. When I read this first of 215 references to the unspeakable word, I had a visceral reaction: I. Wanted. To. Die. Or at least be incognegro – seen, but unseen.

You don’t have to grow up black in the 1960s to understand the vulnerabilities of adolescence, or the effects of such vigorous use of a word that has historically invited vitriol, violence, and vehement disenfranchisement. In my world, nigger meant white supremacy, therefore Negro inferiority. And, hey, I was at that summer camp to prove otherwise.

I still remember the confusion, the humiliation, the pain. Back then I allowed the powerful, but biologically bogus, concept of race and its minion nigger to compromise my confidence socially and intellectually. I missed out on great literature that actually deconstructs white supremacy because of one word. I have since replaced the power of derogatory words with the power of disciplinary intellect. When I think about the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I think like an anthropologist, not a 15-year-old girl somewhat suspicious of her own ethnic integrity, thanks to hegemony and oppression.

Just how might a cultural anthropologist think about the use of the word nigger so integral to Twain’s classic? Well, like all disciplines, anthropology has a set of questions employed to help comprehend the world. These questions when applied to Huck Finn, just as when they are applied to cultures, can yield important insights about human behavior, help mitigate personal bias, and expand world view.

In thinking about Miss Watson’s big nigger, I asked the conceptual question: What is it about the culture that explains Jim’s character – and Huck’s – in the text? The holistic question: What is the context for the practice of referring to Jim as a nigger? How is this practice embedded in other aspects of the culture? Is it a cause, an outcome, a side effect, a symbol? The comparative question: Do other people in other places subscribe to the practice of derogatory labeling? (You bet.) What explains the similarities and differences across cultures? The temporal question: What was this practice like in the past? What factors account for what it’s like now? What shape will it take in the future? The social-structural question: What are the relationships between groups in the culture? What social institutions or groups affect practices and ideas about race and inequality? The interpretive question: What does this practice mean to the participants – all of the participants irrespective of their place on the social ladder? The reflexive question: What is my perspective? How does my social location (nationality, ethnicity, gender, class) influence my interpretation? What does this text teach me about my culture? How does it change me? The relativistic question: Have I formed a moral judgment that constrains or colors my interpretations of the text? Are there other ways that I might think about this practice without judging?

These questions can help us counter all-or-nothing binary thinking (a text that contains the word nigger does not merit reading – or listening to; James Brown or the Beatles?) and they can help us better understand what it means to be human, in all its magnificence and modesty.

Thinking like an anthropologist has liberated me, but it may not work for others. Those camp counselors gave little thought to issues of race in Huck Finn, and I am not so sure how critically people read it even today. I am sure that for many African Americans, and others, for whom a single mention of the word is offensive, 215 references must be reprehensible. Jabari Asim reports in his book The N Word that among the American Library Association’s Top 100 list of books most challenged in the 1990s, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ranked fifth. And it remains the target of efforts to remove it from the shelves of the nation’s schools.

I understand the pain, but strongly believe that its merits as a teaching tool outweigh any concerns caused by the language (and I oppose all efforts to ban books). Its merits outweigh other shortcomings as well: If Jim had been white he would be a father figure to Huck, rather than a begrudged peer with “an uncommon level head for a nigger.” But my perspective (the reflexive question) is rooted in segregation- era experiences when grown black men were referred to and treated like boys by white people of all ages and class. The relationship between Jim and Huck may not be remarkable or troubling to people who occupy other social locations.

It’s not always comfortable to acknowledge that an issue so troubling to us is so unremarkable to others. We may never agree on the use of the word nigger – or indeed if it should be used at all. There is great debate about who can say it and in what context. In 2007 the NAACP held a public burial for the word, including a procession led by two grey Percheron horses slowly pulling a simple pine coffin, which was hoisted on the shoulders of eight pallbearers and buried with a headstone at historically black Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery. There were no mourners.

The NAACP in concert with other civil rights organizations may have buried it, but black entertainers and social critics resurrected it. Chris Rock proclaimed during his Kill the Messenger tour: “Last year the NAACP had a funeral for the word nigger. Well, tonight it’s Easter!” Like Twain, humorists such as Rock push the boundaries of public discourse to help us address prejudices and fears by exposing the raw truths that underlie our espoused values and beliefs. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a cultural artifact from which there is much to learn about who we are and who we can be.

Another celebrated humorist, civil rights pioneer Dick Gregory said that Mark Twain “was so far ahead of his time that he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people.” I’ll leave it at that.