Tuesday, 18 September 2012

One sentence that says so much...

I was on a journey recently and to help the time pass on trains, buses and ferries I read Mark Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn". I have known about the book since I was in primary school but had never before got round to reading it.

To read "Huckleberry Finn" in the era of a black president of the USA was a strangely disconcerting experience as I found this relatively recent history more than a little alarming. In those days it would seem that black people were not only slaves but not even regarded as human beings. They were property and only valued for their utility.

The story is about Huckleberry Finn, a young lad, probably aged about thirteen who lives on his wits on the fringe of society and his view of the world was at best unconventional. The portrait of the southern states of the USA was also very revealing. It is set in the mid-nineteenth century and black people are referred to as niggers throughout. Slavery was still normative then. Huck sometimes accepts that his companion Jim, a runaway slave, has feelings as he has, and at other times he regards him as one might regard a pet dog. 

The one extract that I remember and will stay with me for a long time exemplifies the attitudes of the time. It was a conversation  between Huck and Mrs Phelps when he was explaining his later than expected arrival by steam boat. The passage went like this

...We blowed out a cylinder-head"
"Good gracious! Was anybody hurt?"
"No mam. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt..."
What more can you say. 
With such attitudes only one hundred and fifty years ago, it becomes easier to understand contemporary American racial tensions.

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