Mark Twain is a racist.
Or Mark Twain is most decidedly not a racist.
Well, it depends on who’s talking about him.
He actually occupied sane middle ground on the issue of race. Ground arrived upon with difficulty, sure. But isn’t sane middle ground the only place to be?
His novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, fed and force-fed to American kids for generations, was banned in various quarters right from the outset, labeled by its detractors as coarse trash. It wasn’t until much later that anybody cared that it contained the word “nigger.” In more recent times its use of this word and its depictions of Jim the slave have been decried for their potential to inflict catastrophic damage to the psyches of Black youth – and undermine the general welfare in these enlightened times.
Some people make the case that Huckleberry Finn is clearly an anti-racist novel. I tend to think so. But being anti-racist in Mark Twain’s time was not the same as being anti-racist now. Twain was not the equivalent of today’s American “liberal.” He didn’t deny the concept of race. He didn’t see racial distinctions as irrelevant.
What I admire about him is his recognition that Brown and Black people deserved to be respected in their own right. They weren’t less human than White people. Whites had no God-given right to treat them however they wanted.
Mark Twain did not entertain, either, any notion that Black people were automatically ugly in comparison to Whites. Because he actually saw them as people, he easily saw what he described as their beauty.
While visiting India, he compared a beautifully-garbed Indian delegation to what he and fellow Christians could have produced had they put on a show of their own. It wouldn’t have been as impressive, he said.
Then there would have been the added disadvantage of the white complexion. It is not an unbearably unpleasant complexion when it keeps to itself, but when it comes into competition with masses of brown and black the fact is betrayed that it is endurable only because we are used to it.
Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare…Where dark complexions are massed, they make the whites look bleached out, unwholesome, and sometimes frankly ghastly. I could notice this as a boy down South in the slavery days before the war. The splendid black-satin skin of the South African Zulus of Durban seemed to me to come very close to perfection…
The advantage is with the Zulu, I think. He starts with a beautiful complexion, and it will last him through. And as for the Indian brown…I think there is no sort of chance for the average white complexion against that rich and perfect tint.
Twain recounted this trip in Following the Equator, written toward the end of his career, in which he chronicles his travels to India, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. While traveling he got to see firsthand the way White colonizers interacted with those under their control.
He expresses sympathy for the Whites who must secure their lives in these strange territories they have put themselves in, and acknowledges the difficulties of both Whites and natives in trying to co-exist under trying circumstances. But he clearly recognizes that it is the natives who have the worst of it.
He tells the story of a White squatter who encounters some Aborigines while at his home – Aborigines who are clearly hostile. Afraid of what he sees as an imminent attack, the squatter persuades them to have a meal with him. It was a Last Supper of sorts; the pudding he served them contained arsenic.
It was better, kinder, swifter, and much more humane than a number of methods which have been sanctified by custom, but that does not justify its employment. That is, it does not wholly justify it.
He goes on to describe the way Whites had typically interacted with racial “others”:
In many countries we have chained the savage and starved him to death…In many countries we have burned the savage at the stake…In many countries we have taken the savage’s land from him; and made him our slave, and lashed him every day, broken his pride, and made death his only friend, and overworked him till he dropped in his tracks; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving kindness [in comparison] to it.
In assessing these and other acts that the civilized had committed against their inferiors, he concludes:
There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.
This year marks the centennial of Mark Twain’s death. He was a great observer and critic of humankind, and remains an amazing teacher, to those who would be taught.
Every people he observed was of the same fallible humanity. The idea of one race’s inherent superiority over any other? A joke.
- Twain, M., Warner, C.D., Paine, A.B. 1922. The Writings of Mark Twain, Volume 21. New York: Gabriel Wells Co.