What Huckleberry Finn teaches us about seeing past race and status

In this blog entry, John S.W. Park, author of Illegal Migrations and the Huckleberry Finn Problem, uses Mark Twain’s character to address lessons about illegal and undocumented immigrants

Huckleberry Finn has two interrelated problems: first, when he discovers that Jim is a runaway slave, he can’t bring himself to tell someone, and so he can’t seem to send Jim back into slavery even though he thinks that he ought to report fugitive slaves; and second, throughout Twain’s novel, Huck can’t seem to see Jim or other black people as full persons, as persons who deserve to be free.  Even at the end of the story, it’s not clear that Huck has changed his mind about slavery or its underlying morality, and Jim is free not because white people thought that slavery was wrong or that it ought to be abolished, but because Miss Watson had died and she had freed (just) Jim in her will.  Unlike many characters in 19th and 20th century novels, Huck doesn’t change in any fundamental way as a result of his adventures, nor does he reflect on what he’s experienced.  He doesn’t “solve” either aspect of his problem: Jim is free, so telling on him is moot, and when Jim saves Tom Sawyer, Huck concludes from this act of sacrifice that this black man was really “white inside.”  Huck never sees past Jim’s race or status.

Illegal Migrations_smThe primary arguments within my book, Illegal Migrations and the Huckleberry Finn Problem, reflect on both aspects of Huck Finn’s problem. I’ve tried to show how these dilemmas have been and are still so intertwined.  After slavery, law continued to define people as “unlawful,” as out of place, and the example of illegal Chinese immigrants is but one example among many from the 19th century.  They were not the only unlawful people during that time: Native Americans were sometimes described as “off of the reservation,” and so often that “off of the reservation” became a colloquial phrase in English to denote anyone who was dangerous, out of his mind, and out of place.  In the original meaning, it referred to a Native American who should have remained within a federal prison system designed for conquered Native American people.  “Reservation” had two common meanings: the first referred to Native American settlements controlled by the federal government; and the second referred to areas where wild animals were protected from hunting.  A Native American who was “off of the reservation” could, in theory and in practice, be killed, as if he were a wild animal.

A great many (white) Americans have had problems seeing people of color as people.  People of color have also had trouble seeing one another as people, as they too are often infected with white supremacist ways of thinking.  American law—once it defines a group as “illegal” or “unlawful” or “out of status”—can and did blind a great many people to the common humanity of the other, so much so that they can come to tolerate a level of abuse and degradation against the “illegals” that is shocking and unconscionable.  Law dehumanizes before it kills.  Because law and legal institutions can have this power, the objects of the law have attempted to hide their status, their stigma, and they have tried many different ways to “cover” their illegal status or to “pass” as someone who doesn’t have it all.  By the mid-20th century, thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants lied about who they really were, all in attempts to “pass” as American citizens or legal residents.  Many people who are out of status now try to “pass,” too, and the ones who drive well below the posted speed limit or never mention legal status at all are doing their best to “cover,” just like other generations of “illegal” people.  Meanwhile, many Americans who complain about these “illegals” rarely bother to question the morality or justice of a system that gave them citizenship simply because they happened to be born here, which really isn’t an “achievement” nor reflective remotely of any kind of moral desert.

We all love Huckleberry Finn, especially when he decides to go to hell and to save Jim, but we should endeavor to be the opposite of him.  We should look past race and status, even if this means ignoring some of our own laws.  We should see and acknowledge, first and foremost, the humanity of everyone around us.  We should be reflective of our common history, and we should realize that we now celebrate people who have resisted American laws that once reduced people to things, or framed some immigrants as though they were a form of pollution or a dangerous kind of “problem” rather than a group of people.  We should stop criminalizing people for crossing international boundaries in search of a better life.  We should take seriously our common obligations to one another as human beings, either by helping to make a better life possible for all people irrespective of where they are, or by showing compassion to people coming among us when their homes and countries fall apart.  In other words, unlike Huck, we should grow up.

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