The Huck Finn Syndrome

On Saturday, November 7, I left the United States for a brief
teaching stint in China. I left the U.S. in the midst of a raging controversy
at nearby MIZZOU, one of the most recent universities to remind us of how
little progress we have made in the war against racism in this country.

University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler put his
life on the line by beginning a hunger strike to draw attention to an inept and
callous administration, pledging to continue until both the president and
chancellor of MIZZOU resigned. Jonathan’s actions made me proud, and the
MIZZOU football team made me even more proud. But I knew not to gloat too long,
since eruptions continue to occur as a matter of routine.
When I heard about the negative incident at MIZZOU, frankly, I was
filled with dread—the same kind of dread Richard Wright
describes in The Outsider. I left the
U.S. with a heavy heart, knowing how important it was for me as an engaged
scholar and activist to lend my support and voice whenever injustice raises its
ugly head.  Like many of my colleagues, I
cannot forget how I got to this part of the academy, and why excellence brings
with it social, moral and ethical responsibilities.
The increase in such incidents makes us all aware of institutional,
social and personal acts of racism. And let’s not forget benign neglect—a
mask for benign genocide, my colleague Jerry Ward reminds us—the
most effective kind of racism in our so-called post-racial society. I can’t access
Google in China, and I don’t understand enough Chinese to get an update on the news.
I’m grateful that students and colleagues have kept me
up-to-date on events as they occur.
In light of these events, I took it as a sign that Harbin
Engineering University Foreign Language chairperson Zheng Yurong asked me to
lecture on Huck Finn before going to
Wuhan, where I would be spending three weeks. To engage even more fully with my
sense of dread, I decided to make Twain’s 1884 novel the focus of the two classes
I taught to English language students at Harbin.

About 80 students and I discussed several ideas in the novel—the
rebel hero, Huck’s ethical dilemma in aiding Jim’s escape from enslavement and
Jim and Huck as iconic figures in American literature. I mentioned the
reception of Twain’s book, including Ernest Hemingway’s well-known claim that
all of modern American literature starts with The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn.
The Harbin students were eager listeners and, though
unaccustomed to speaking in class, felt empowered to do so. Without a
full grasp of English, they nonetheless expressed a clear understanding of the
story’s significance and raised questions of their own.  “Why is Tom Sawyer so different from
Huck?” was one of them.  Has racism
changed in the U.S., they wanted to know?—a standard question asked repeatedly
whenever I travel and teach American literature abroad.
As readers of this blog likely know, a new edition of Huck Finn appeared in 2011. This
edition, edited by Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery,
replaced each of the book’s 219 uses of “nigger”
with “slave”—and, as a token gesture to Native
Americans, also changed “Injun Joe” to “Indian
Joe.” Gribben’s stated aim was to counter the
resistance that high school students and their teachers had to studying this
classic text. Having read the unedited novel, the Harbin students objected
strongly to the 2011 expurgated edition. One bold student stated that she felt
the 2011 edition wasn’t even the same book as the original,
and many other heads nodded in vigorous agreement. In her articulate summary of
the novel’s conclusion, the same student wondered what Twain was trying to tell
readers with the appearance of the less-than-serious Tom Sawyer.
After class, I was surrounded. Can we not fix the problem of
racism, another student asked, with a crew of her classmates?  Does Twain give us any answers? “We
still don’t have answers to this question,” I said. “Twain leaves it
open, hoping that our discussions about the book advance the
Jonathan Butler may have accomplished a temporary fix at MIZZOU
when both President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned on the
fifth day of his hunger strike. The temporary fix reveals many things. One,
certainly, is the power of college sports, as Thabiti Lewis explains in a
revealing piece for The Chronicle of
Higher Education
. And yet,
the problem doesn’t go away that easily. We know this,
just as we know we can never be prepared when injustice raises its ugly head,
as a recent incident at KU confirms.
Even as members of the KU and Lawrence communities convened in a
town hall meeting on Wednesday, November 11, to show solidarity with the righteous
students and their cause at MIZZOU, we have yet to sweep our own house clean.
The actions of Jonathan Butler and hundreds of brave MIZZOU
students gained national attention. The local actions of some unidentified
white male KU students on Halloween weekend did not. 
Instead, at home base, a young African American student and her
friends kept their silence until recently. While we have a legal obligation to
use the word “alleged” in discussing this incident, an obvious
display of racist and sexist violence, make no mistake about it: KU’s dirty
house needs to be swept clean.
We are told a young woman spoke only to close friends about the
physical attack and racist actions on Halloween night. As
reported in a post on Facebook
, at a house party on Kentucky Street, a
group of white men verbally attacked, physically assaulted, spit upon, choked,
threatened and pulled a gun on a group of young African-American women. The
attackers spewed foul though familiar language. To quote from the Facebook post,
“we were called niggers…told niggers don’t belong here….As
we tried to escape, a white male then pulled a gun on my two friends.”
Unbelievable? Hardly. I still have the word “bitch” keyed
on the door of my car from an incident last year. The police could not find the
And this is far from the first time for too many of our students,
who routinely face acts of intentional violence and who are made to feel
otherwise unwelcome. KU
alum Cassie Osei, the creator of the #RockChalkInvisibleHawk hashtag and a grad
student at Illinois, reminded us what it was and is like to live in KU’s
“toxic culture.”
What happened to these young women and to other KU students who
become the object of violence motivated by any form of hatred, whether reported
or not, I personally find worse than MIZZOU. When one is afraid to speak,
silence covers dastardly deeds, giving anyone permission to repeat willful acts
with impunity. The climate at KU is in need of a permanent change. This is our
home, and no one should have to live in a house that is at once threatening and
Let’s show our solidarity to MIZZOU, but get our own house in
order, as well. We must transform fear into voices of audacious response. The
Invisible Hawks and Black Student Union have taken the lead, but their voices
must not be the only ones we hear, their actions not the only ones we see.
Neither should we be surprised when others model their actions on Jonathan
Butler, as KU alum Johnny Cowan has done.
We hope that Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little can honor her
commitment to give leadership to the change we need, but she is absolutely
correct that we face a problem that all of us must solve. Among KU’s
award-winning scholars are those who study race, gender and difference, the
history of social movements and social change, and the psychology of violence.
With this accumulated body of knowledge and years of practice, if we cannot
solve this problem, who can?
At the end of Huck Finn, Twain
puts his finger on the national pulse by having Huck “light
out for the territory, ahead of the rest
(emphasis mine). Can KU strike that crushing blow that puts us ahead of the
Maryemma Graham
Harbin, China

My thanks to Kierstin
McMichael, Jerry Ward, Cassie Osei, Thabiti Lewis, and Meredith Wiggins