The Book Club

Huck Finn, Racial Transvestite

Dear Walter,

Reading your passage about anti-Mormon discrimination, I was uncertain of whether you were telling the literal truth, having fun at my expense–or ironically contesting African-American claims on victimhood. In either case, please elaborate; inquiring readers wish to know.

In addition. You failed to answer my question about Wideman’s choice of tragic material from his own life. Do you think it soul-imperiling to remain by choice in that painful place? Put yourself in the writer’s place–the way you put yourself in Huck’s.

A related issue. My central campaign during my first years as an essayist for the New York Times was to dislodge the popular view that black identity consisted mainly of poverty and social pathology–and that middle class normalcy was for the province of white folks alone. This notion drives many African-American boys to adopt the gangster pose as a way of claiming their Street Credentials and ethnic bona fides. Filmmakers, writers, and the suburbanites who spent millions on Gangster Rap (when it was still hot) encouraged this mindset by viewing urban pathology as thrillingly “authentic.” Tourists on safari, in other words.

My point about Wideman’s view of his characters who died violently is that he sometimes discounts the fact that people make choices whose consequences can’t all be attributed to racism or oppression from white folks. That is what I was getting at when I asked if you, Walter, felt responsible for the urban bloodshed depicted in this book. It is overly romantic to feel responsible for something that you’ve had no part in either directly or through exercise of broader social power.

And. If you have viewed African-Americans in literature principally through Twain, you need to broaden that porthole. Zora Neale Hurston (novels in dialect and Spunk, a collection of short stories.) Langston Hughes (the Jesse B. Semple stories), Jean Toomer (Cane), Ralph Ellison (“Cadillac Flambe”), Albert Murray (The Omni Americans). Also see Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? Fishkin argues plausibly that Huck Finn’s vocal patterns and cadences were taken from a black boy Twain met and wrote about while gearing up for the novel. From the Fishkin’s point of view, there were TWO black folks on that raft, an early dialectic on the subject of race, by a slave talking in slave talk and a black boy dressed up in white face.