Since the birth of the United States, African Americans have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and politics which come and go in new forms that reflect the political climate of the time. Each time a new form of racial discrimination emerges, the new system is weaker than the one previous. However, this is not to be mistaken with progress. Each form of subjugation is different, not better. Race is a social construct based in politics and economy and is still very much a real issue that affects the power dynamic in America today. Through historical events such as the Fugitive Slave Act, Jim Crow Laws, and through multiple literary works, trends can be identified. Understanding the history of racism in America is crucial to recognizing that themes from America’s racist history persist in modern society.
It is important to note that, along with historical accounts, literature is a necessary component in understanding trends in time. Authors incorporate themes from society into their fantastical stories and readers can make conclusions about their own circumstances through these observations. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, explores ideas of friendship, identity, and conformity. The novel follows Huck, a thirteen year old boy who doesn’t quite seem to fit in. Huck begins to mature quite rapidly once Jim, his only friend and a runaway slave, is captured and sold. Right after he finds out, Huck decides to separate from the con men who sold Jim for good. He tries to pray to God for a way to save his friend, but is not able to complete that train of thought; instead, he decides to “go to hell” for regarding his friend as a human being and for going to any lengths necessary to save him. He struggles to wrap his mind around what his heart tells him; compassion for slaves is a foreign concept where he is from. However, by the end of his contemplation he thinks to himself, “[I] got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me… we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind” (Twain). He blatantly rejects the ideals of the time, which are to disregard and dehumanize African Americans.
Despite Huck’s charming revelations, the portrayal of African Americans and slavery in Twain’s novel, according to Jane Smiley, is sadly lacking. She extends that to say The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn does not deserve it’s title of an American classic and does not deserve nearly as much praise as the novel receives. According to this Pullitzer-prize winning author, Twain’s depiction of slavery gives readers an extremely limited and often incorrect perception of racism in the time of slavery. For example, painting Huck as a hero for acknowledging Jim as a human being worth saving from the institution of slavery paints quite a naive picture; Huck treating others with basic human decency is not heroic. Readers see this and imagine racism as being able to be defeated by merely acknowledging African Americans as equal. Twain’s writing gives off the idea that “the only racial insight Americans of the 19th or 20th century are capable of is a recognition of the obvious that blacks, slave and free, are human” (Smiley). This mindset is dangerous as well-meaning individuals can inadvertently contribute to the continuance of racist practices.
However, Smiley’s opinion is in the minority. Taking the context of Twain’s novel into consideration, some may actually consider Huck to be a hero. With racism and prejudice running rampant throughout the south, Huck took considerable risks to save Jim. Huck sidelines the conventions he has been brought up on, which is no easy task. At the very least these actions, should they be modelled by a reader, would be beneficial to society. As the protagonist of Twain’s novel, he is not necessarily a bad role model. Questioning the beliefs one was raised on and thinking for oneself are admirable qualities. Jim is along for the ride and the two of them regard each other as equals. They both want to be as far as possible from where they started. Comradery between a white boy and a runaway slave is a positive visual and the novel should not be disregarded in its entirety. There are important historical lessons to be drawn from the novel, granted it is coupled with the right amount of criticism.
In contrast to the lacking description of slavery in Twain’s novel, Harriet Jacobs paints a vivid picture of the struggles of slaves even after they have reached the “free” world of the north. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a painful autobiography by author Harriet Jacobs that outlines her life as an escaped slave in New York. It is a story that she would have preferred to keep private, but strongly believed that her words may help in the antislavery movement. In her novel she goes by the pseudonym Linda Brent. Her commentary on life after the Fugitive Slave Act is passed is deeply insightful; there are steep hills and valleys on the path to freedom and Jacobs sees that clearly. In the novel, Linda Brent rejects an offer from her employer Mrs. Bruce to buy Linda’s freedom from her previous slave master. She felt that the act of exchanging money for her freedom was proof that she was a glorified slave, despite living in a northern state. It meant that she didn’t have the right to her own freedom, and that the system of slavery was winning. Linda acknowledges the kind intentions behind her employer’s offer, but still feels sick to her stomach upon finding out that the transaction went through without her knowledge. Being bought made Linda feel as if she was “valued…by dollars and cents” as opposed to having inherent value as all human beings do (Jacobs). This type of degradation was mind-boggling to her, especially due to the fact that New York was supposedly a “free state”. Because of the passing of the Fugitive Slave Acts combined with the passive attitudes of people in the north, even free states were not truly safe. This autobiographical account perfectly captures the frustration of halted progress; to take a huge leap forward by living in a free state, only to take two steps back by being hunted all over again.
Linda was not alone in her plight; runaway slaves all over the northern half of the United States felt the fear and frustration caused by the Fugitive Slave Acts. The Fugitive Slave Acts were laws that permitted slave owners to hunt and recapture their runaway slaves within all U.S. territories. The laws were enacted by Congress in 1793 and began by penalizing those who helped slaves escape to the north. The laws then went on to permit the capture and return of runaway slaves in any U.S. territory. After hearing rampant criticism for the first laws, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was created; these laws added even more ways to capture runaway slaves and made the fines and punishments even harsher for anyone found to be aiding slaves’ passage to the north. These laws were among the most controversial of the nineteenth century, and are a dark spot in the narrative of American history. Harriet Jacobs felt this law deeply has its effects reached all the way to New York, a state supposedly against slavery. She was forced out of the state multiple times to escape the bounty hunters who aimed to return her to her master. In her novel, she expressed her disbelief that this law would permeate the north, a place that had touted its reputation as safe for former slaves.
Jacobs’ novel foreshadowed a long history of back-and-forth progress. Deep faith in white supremacy not only justified an economic and political system in which plantation owners acquired land and great wealth through the brutality, torture, and ownership of other human beings, it also endured long after the institution of slavery was gone (Bobo, 2011). The narrative from Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn confirms the southern delusion that racism is a surface level belief that can be absolved by mere thought; it is so ingrained that they are unable to see it in themselves. Even when slavery was abolished, the economic and political system was so deeply entrenched that the passing of the black codes, and eventually the Jim Crow laws, did not hinder the white South’s morality. Racism was a consequence of, not a precursor to slavery. Once it was instituted it became separate from slavery and acquired a social policy of its own. Harriet Jacobs predicted it, while Mark Twain inadvertently went along with the narrative.
As a consequence of southern denial, new policies were enacted to keep rich white southerners in the lifestyles they had grown accustomed to. The motivation of free labor for southern states was the beginning of a new slavery. The Jim Crow laws were enacted at both the state and local levels and aimed to enforce race-based segregation in the southern United States. These laws were created to unfairly target African Americans, who were too poor to pay fines and instead were sent to jail (Bobo, 2011). In the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson from 1896, these laws were declared constitutional. It was in this case that the “separate but equal” legal precedent was first laid out. With no way to pay their way out of jail, prisoners were sold as forced laborers to railroads, plantations, and dozens of larger businesses throughout the south. Through most of the 20th century, prisoners became “younger and blacker”, and the lengths of sentences increased dramatically (Alexander, 2012). The nation’s first prison boom occurred just as racial polarization was introduced as a political tactic to gain conservative Republican votes.
The polarization would only continue to grow as African Americans began to organize themselves into a force to be reckoned with. The civil rights movement was one huge leap forward in the fight against inequality, but even it had its flaws. In one of his more famous quotes, Martin Luther King Jr. said,
The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws-racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society … and suggests that radical reconstruction of society is the real issue to be faced.
The defining features of the movement began in 1954 with the decision of Brown v. Board of Education. It then proceeds through a series of peaceful public protests and marches, and ends with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The media of the time loved to relegate the struggle for civil rights to the south, and in effect weaken the movement as a whole by limiting the objectives of the movement. The power that media has, both fiction and non-fiction alike, to set the status of the time can have extremely negative effects when abused. Around this time, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was gaining popularity in American schools. However, with the way it was being taught, it did American schoolchildren a great disservice. The teaching of Huck’s adventures aided a political agenda aimed at mitigating talk of slavery and civil rights.
Some years later, Nixon called for a “war on drugs”, something that seemed targeted at “violent” black communities. The absence of explicitly racist rhetoric in his claims about crime and welfare, however, meant that the racial nature of his arguments could claim plausible deniability (Alexander, 2012). The conservative Republicans could safely vote Nixon into power, and effectively hunt down large portions of the African American population. Due to the impact of globalization and deindustrialization, black inner-city communities found themselves without legitimate employment opportunities. This increased incentives to sell drugs in order to survive, as joblessness and crack swept inner cities right as backlash against the Civil Rights Movement manifested itself through the war on drugs.
With more African American men in prison today than were enslaved in the mid 1800s (not including Latino men or women of color), mass incarceration has become the new face of discrimination in the United States (Alexander, 2012). Whenever discussed, the mass incarceration epidemic tends to be described in race neutral terms, avoiding the fact that nearly 90% of those incarcerated are black or Latino (Bobo, 2011). It is necessary to acknowledge that ending time in prison for low-level drug charges greatly reduces the percentage of minorities in the prison population. For any change to be affected, the idea of race and racism needs to be present in order to create a truly equal society. As Michelle Alexander, an expert on the topic of mass incarceration, states, “mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (Alexander, 2012). Historically this kind of misrepresentation is not new and shows many similarities to the incomplete picture drawn in Twain’s novel of the pre-war south.
However, this is not to say that no progress has been made. In 2014, the Supreme court case Burrage v. The United States took the first big bite out of the war on drugs. The Supreme Court justices decided, in a unanimous vote, that Burrage could not be held liable (and given an extra sentence for) for the death of a client he had sold heroin to; this was due to the fact that Burrage’s actions were considered contributing factors and not the primary cause. This decision prevents judges from creating sentences that are essentially double the recommended length. In the case, Burrage was given a 20 year sentence for dealing heroin, and an additional 20 for causing the death of one of his clients by providing the product that killed him. Most states do not include a general statute that defines the necessary causal relationship between the defendant’s actions and the resulting death; this means there is a wide range of judgements to be made in cases that are very similar. This leaves room for bias and prejudice to influence the outcome of a trial. Burrage v. The United States helps to narrow that spectrum and prevent unnecessarily long sentences. All it takes to move forward is a small group of people unwilling to accept the status quo; people like Huck, like Harriet Jacobs, and these justices are all catalysts for change.
The history of racism in America holds the key to understanding the injustice and oppression that still exists. True equality can never be achieved if there is no understanding of the injustices of the past; mass incarceration is a new form of discrimination, much like slavery and Jim Crow laws were the institutions of discrimination in the past.