Monday, November 16, 2015

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. Jonathans 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 dreadthe 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 neglecta mask for benign genocide, my colleague Jerry Ward reminds usthe 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. Im 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 Twains 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 novelthe 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 books 219 uses of nigger with slave”—and, as a token gesture to Native Americans, also changed Injun Joe to Indian Joe. Gribbens 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 wasnt 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 conversation." 

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 doesnt 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 niggerstold 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 perpetrator.

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 KUs 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 filthy.

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 KUs 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 rest?

Maryemma Graham
Harbin, China

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

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