My story you’re about to read is 100% true. I’ve told it a few times in front of a live audience. It always brings out a few gasps.
The tale is about Huck Finn and racism. Now, you could be thinking Is this is about the N-word? After all, Huck Finn is peppered with it.
Nope. This story spins about into uncharted and racist waters.
It was 1991 and that seems like an eternity ago. It was a halcyon age. The Russians were our friends. Bush the Elder was President. He wasn’t great, but thank God we would never have another Bush in office. The United States fought Iraq in the first Gulf War. Americans wouldn’t have to relearn where Iraq is on a globe until we invaded it again a decade later. Donald Trump was a guest on Howard Stern. He was only a joke.
Times have changed.
I was going to college at Bridgewater State University. Back then Bridgewater had about 5,000 students. The school was known for its Education program. Many future teachers went to Bridgewater. Funny fact: I dated an Education Major for a week. I knew it was over after she realized I was, “One of those Boston Liberals.”
While going to school full time I was working 40 hours a week as a short-order cook at the old Howard Johnson’s right off of route 95 in Canton. I’d have classes in the morning and then work in the evening. I’d get out at 11 pm, and then spend the night at my girlfriend’s in Norwood. In the morning I’d schlep all the way back to Bridgewater State for 8 am classes.
I was, in short, living the dream. It was a greasy, hectic dream but it was my dream.
One semester I had a Philosophy class at 8 in the morning. It was the mandatory one everyone had to take. I loved it and sat in the front row. I remember the textbook Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life. It was a great book. Inside were snippets of classic stories and pieces of moral teachings from the past. I fondly remember reading Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Johnathan Edwards. Mr. Edwards was a preacher-man. His message included heartwarming teachings like GOD IS JUST TO PUT ANYONE IN HELL BECAUSE WE ARE ALL VERY NAUGHTY. As I recall, there is a positive part to his message. If you make it to heaven you can look into hell and enjoy the suffering of the damned.
But I digress.
We got to read a bit from Huckleberry Finn.
The excerpt we looked at was the part when Huck and Jim, a runaway slave, were floating down the river on a raft. Huck was fleeing from civilization. Jim was running to freedom.
There was a moment when slavers drew up close to Jim and Huck’s raft. The slavers were something like modern-day bounty hunters. They hunted runaway slaves for fun and profit. They were hunting Jim.
They asked Huck if he had seen the slave. At that moment Jim was hiding and couldn’t be seen. Huck could’ve easily pointed him out to the slavers. In a way, Huck could’ve been a hero for helping to return what most people considered someone’s property. He may have gotten some of that sweet financial reward, too. Not only that, but Huck’s soul would’ve benefited. Preacher-men in that area at that time preached the biblical basis for slavery.
Huck’s brain told him it was the right thing to do.
But Huck didn’t give up his friend.
He made that decision even though it meant going to Hell. Huck believed by not giving up a runaway slave he was committing a sin and that sin would damn him for eternity. He went with his heart. And that’s a prime aspect of virtue, isn’t it? It’s about being compassionate even though you suffer for it.
Huck was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The day we reviewed Huck’s story I was late for class. I may have gotten in at 8:15 instead of 8. I plopped myself in the front row. The professor had just finished reviewing the basic facts of the story.
And then he asked the question.
Did Huck do the right thing?
I thought it was a stupid query. The answer was obvious.
And then he asked the class, “Whoever thinks Huck did the wrong thing raise their hand. In other words, if Huck should have given Jim to the slavers please raise your hand.”
I thought it was a stupid question until I saw the look in his eyes. There was a bit of sadness. I turned around and 90 percent of the all-white class were raising their hands.
Have you ever seen Triumph of the Will or a Trump rally? It was like that.
He then asked the students who raised their hands why Huck should’ve given Jim up to the slavers.
Here was the most popular answer:
It was the law.
The second most popular answer?
His parents would’ve wanted him to.
I heard enough. I blurted out angry liberal word salad.
The professor raised a hand to show me he had the situation quite in hand, thank you very much. This was not his first rodeo.
He kindly and gently challenged assumptions about what’s lawful and what’s moral. Were they always the same thing?
I don’t know if what he said made any difference in their lives. I don’t know if his words resonated in their minds and touched their hearts.
But he tried.
He wasn’t silent.