Huck could teach about escaping racism
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One of my favorite passages in all of American literature is from Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a book that has alarmed and scandalized irony-deprived readers for more than a century.
It is that scene in the 1884 novel where Huck wrestles with the morality of continuing to help the runaway slave Jim in his quest to escape his relatively benign "owner" Miss Watson. Continuing to help Jim meant undermining the morality of American law, which defined the runaway slave as Miss Watson's rightful property.
Because disobeying American law was the equivalent of putting one's soul in danger of hellfire, Huck had to count the cost of helping Jim get to Ohio. He had to decide what to do with a letter that would doom his friend to slavery:
"I took ... up [the letter written to Miss Watson] and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right then, I'll go to hell' -- and tore it up."
I made "All right then, I'll go to hell" the motto of my Twitter home page because those words coming out of Huck's mouth embody the essence of what it means to be an American as far as I'm concerned. To be in self-conscious rebellion against the unconscious and always unstated racism of Aunt Polly and Miss Watson is the defining struggle of the American experience.
Last week, Twain's quote came to mind when The Associated Press reported that 51 percent of Americans now express "explicit anti-black attitudes" compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.
The AP poll reminded us that the "post-racial" era of self-congratulation our nation claimed for itself after President Barack Obama's election was unearned and unmerited. We're obviously not the same country Twain effectively satirized in his novel, but we're far from the "post-racial" America depicted in the political fantasies of defensive conservatives and hopeful liberals.
It seems obvious now, but with these poll results in hand, we can all agree that the 2008 election failed to usher in an era of post-racial comity. It seems the height of silliness to have assumed that the election of a biracial president would signal the end of racism.
In 2008, Mr. Obama cobbled together a coalition that included 37.9 percent of white voters. In keeping with the tradition of Democratic candidates, Mr. Obama became president despite losing the overwhelming majority of white votes. Still, it represented a historic moment in this nation's tortured racial history. It was certainly unprecedented, but it couldn't possibly live up to the expectations claimed for it in the euphoria of the moment.
Mr. Obama knows he's going to earn considerably less than 37.9 percent of the white vote this time around, but he still has a better than even shot at winning re-election thanks to commanding majorities among blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
If the "other America" turns out to vote on Nov. 6, Mr. Obama will eke out a win, but it will be a victory that ushers in an era of even more open racial polarization and resentment, not less.
Our history is what it is. We're only a few generations removed from Jim Crow and only a century and a half removed from the Civil War that ended slavery. It would be nothing short of miraculous if all of the attitudes and passions stirred up by that terrible conflict disappeared from the American scene.
When Mitt Romney's campaign surrogate John Sununu said last week that retired Gen. Colin Powell's endorsement of Mr. Obama was based on the fact that they are both black, he was giving voice to the bluntest assumptions of American racial demagoguery. He tried to walk it back once he realized how ugly it sounded, but his mea culpa lacked sincerity.
"My party is full of racists," Gen. Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, said in response to Mr. Sununu's statement. He was embarrassed that his fellow Republicans would tolerate Mr. Sununu's reductionist smearing of the nation's most popular black Republican.
Not that they're in any way equivalent, but the pillorying of the actress Stacey Dash by black folks for supporting Mr. Romney was a low moment in this election cycle, too. It was symbolic of the appeal to crude racial solidarity that characterizes the American electorate on all sides at this moment in our history.
But as Huck Finn taught us, opposing the assumptions of the racial status quo takes the kind of moral courage that the majority can rarely muster. It means embracing Twain's "all right then, I'll go to hell" ethic even in "post-racial" times.
First Published October 30, 2012 12:00 am