Friday, March 21, 2008

Modern-Day Huck Finn

As is expected, I am still following the Democratic primaries and it is with great sadness that I watch Barack Obama get humiliated and ostracized by the same American public that had not too long ago seemed to have allied itself with him. In my opinion, it is not too hard to understand why Obama was the apparent front-runner in this race for some time. Like Mark Twain's Huck Finn, the American public had seen in Obama a Jim - a kindred spirit, all at once in spite of, and because of his race. In a nation where the majority of its citizens have at one time in their lives (or their ancestor's lives) experienced hardships that have left them feeling further away and neglected by the American mainstream, Obama presented a closer ally than any other candidate ever could. He grew up relatively underprivileged, biracial, had lived in several parts of the world, and despite all of this he had succeeded, or at least had a viable chance to triumph against a system that had long bullied him and countless other Americans. Even though his race is largely the reason he is the outsider to the political system (let's face it, in America, you are either white or you aren't, and even the slightest tinge of color makes you a non-white) and was what had immediately defined him, he reminded many Americans of their particularly unique characteristics that were not constricted to race - be it their economic backgrounds, their gender, etc. His inclusion in the presidential race came to stand for that life-long desire to belong and move past a segregated society; to live in a "post" era. This was a fantasy come true, our wildest dreams realized, and like Huck and Jim floating down the river, we were moving towards sweet liberation, hand in hand.

However, just like Finn and Jim's relationship had to be tested, so does this unlikely match need to be tried against the harsh obstacles of reality. While the recent scrutiny and criticism Obama has been receiving will never compare to the horror of Jim's betrayal and subsequent (and thankfully, temporary) capture, the two situations present America (and Huck Finn) a gut-wrenching dilemma, with whom shall our loyalty lay? Despite his hardships, Huck was no Jim, and had some ties to society, however strained they may have been. When he learned of Jim's capture, his immediate reaction was to write Miss Watson and inform her of Jim's whereabouts. But as he thought about this course of action, and of the bond that he and Jim shared, he "somehow couldn't seem to strike no places to harden (him) against (Jim)." Grabbing a hold of the half-written letter, he found himself "a-trembling, because he (had to) decide, forever, betwixt two things." The lines that follow are more liberating than their subsequent actions:

... and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell" -- and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

It is important to note first of all before I continue, something that may be obvious to most people who have read the book. When Huck decides to take up wickedness, it is not to say that he decided to be a lawless, immoral person. He is speaking against the rules that had long shackled him and is forced by the necessity of his troubled life to break them. What's more, Huck is not merely a trouble-maker, inherently defiant of rules. Throughout the book, we see he struggles against the traditional rules and standards set out by society. It takes him very long to see Jim as anything other than "Miss Watson's Nigger" (while this has led many scholars to dismiss the work as racist and ill-informed, Twain only does this to show how society at the time worked), but once this change happens, it comes as a result of a naturally logical process.

Now, Barack Obama is not a slave and in making a comparison between them, I hope not to invite the many obvious arguments. A simplistic reduction of that sort only trivializes the point I am trying to make and can be made only by people who want to think narrowly. The comparison I am making between them lies in their both being outsiders in a society that refuses to categorize people by any other criteria but superficial and constructed definitions. These definitions can include gender, sexuality, castes, etc. I am only choosing race at this moment in an attempt to make my argument less abstract.

Having clarified those two side-notes, I hope to bring you back to my main thesis. The reason the story of Huck Finn has long been defined as a great American novel lies in this dilemma that happens at the novel's climax. Huck finds himself having to choose between two alliances - one that is based on the superficial criteria I had earlier mentioned (his skin color, his status as a free man); or one that is based on a genuine and mutual kinship bred through a shared experience and is free of the bigotry and biases of what has been described as the "corrupt conscience" of society. Huck emerges from this dilemma triumphant and overcomes the burden of fear and illogical alliances to a biased system. It is my only hope that Americans today, informed by Huck Finn and countless other experiences that have opened our eyes to the spurious definitions of identity and morality, will emerge with half the integrity of the young yet infinitely brave Finn.

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