Sunday, November 18, 2007

Huck & Jim in the 21st Century

When it starts to get cold out it’s not uncommon for me to get up on a Saturday morning, get in a good run and then sit in my front window and take in a good book. I love a good mystery, and that day I was hip deep into Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River” when I saw Monte bouncing up my front steps. I got up to unlock the door so he could get into the apartment, sat a root beer on the kitchen table and went back to the living room to sit in the sun. Monte walked in, scooped up the soda as if there was always one sitting there waiting for him, and joined me in the front.

“I’ve heard of that one,” Monte said, dropping into the sofa cushions hard enough to bounce. How does a skinny kid like that make such an impact. “Is it any good? I’m looking for a book right now.”

“Really?” I lowered my book to make sure I’d heard him right. “Over the summer I had to blackmail you into reading.”

“Yeah, I know, and it was worth reading a book a week all summer to see you in that studio in Virginia Beach, rapping. But after all that, it turned out I really dug a lot of the stuff you gave me. And the whole reading thing kinda got to be a habit. So should I take that one off you?”

I had to think for a minute. “This probably ain’t the best for you for pleasure reading. It’s kind of heavy.”

Well, what else you got, H?” Monte asked. “Gimme something fun.”
After some thought, I said, “You know, when I was your age I really dug historical stuff like Treasure Island. Oh, hey, I know. Ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”

Monte waved a derisive hand at me. “Please! Ain’t that the one about the Southern white boy floating on the river with a grown slave? Why would I want to read that crap?”

How much things had changed since I was growing up. I had to wonder if people had changed that much too. “I’ll admit that back in Berlin I was looking for stuff about America and nothing’s more American than Mark Twain. But the book’s not about sitting on a raft. Huck’s an outcast on the run, with no where to go. As a teenager I could relate. The book’s about family, and how this kid deals with murderers, thieves and con men. There’s a lot of action.” And, I thought to myself, there is a powerful message about honor that every young man ought to get.

“But, Hannibal, nobody wants to read that book no more.” Monte got back on his feet, and I wondered for the hundredth time what kept his pants from falling down. “It’s banned in a lot of schools because everybody knows it’s racist.”

“That’s a pile of crap,” I said, a little louder than I intended. “In the book, Jim is strong, brave, generous, and wise.”

“You mean Nigger Jim?” Monte asked.

“Not once,” I said, suddenly recognizing a conversation I’ve had before. “Twain does use the N word a lot in the book, but he never once uses the phrase "Nigger Jim". And the book, if you read it, is overwhelmingly against racism. It was critics, and Twain’s biographer, who started saying Nigger Jim, not Huck Finn, and not Mark Twain.”

“But the writer does say nigger a lot, right?”

I laughed in his face. “What, like you care? All that rap you listen to, those guys use the N word every ten seconds. So give me the whole “I’m offended” routine.”

“So, you’re saying all the teachers got it wrong?”

“I’m saying it’s a rough book, but not racist,” I told him. “Dig. All the people Huck and Jim run into on the Mississippi are drunks, killers, bullies, swindlers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, hypocrites, loudmouths or just morons. Jim is the only man of honor in the whole damned book.”

I had Monte thinking, I could see that by the way his eyes went up and to the right while he was noodling through what I said. This was usually when he would hit me with a surprise. He emptied his soda can before he started again.

“Well, I guess I might want to read a book just because the schools and libraries don’t want me to. But if Jim’s so cool, how come the book ain’t about him?”

“Well, that was the time,” I said. “Still, Jim is one of the most controversial characters in American literature, and yeah, maybe that is a good reason to pick up the book. And after you read Huck Finn, you can pick up “My Jim” by Nancy Rawles. That book IS about him, only it’s told from the point of view of an ex-slave named Sadie. She’s remembering Jim, who she was in love with, and using the lessons she got from him to get ideas to help her granddaughter. “

“Oh, so there’s a sequel,” Monte said. “I do like reading a series.”

Maybe later I’ll tell him that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is actually a sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” But Tom’s book isn’t nearly as socially conscious so there’s no good reason to always start a series at the beginning. Instead I made him a promise.

“I’ll tell you what, Monte. Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll have a whole reading list for you, just right for a bright young Black teenager.”

“I ain’t saying I’ll read everything you come up with,” Monte said, “but I’ll at least give it a try. When it’s too cold to be on the court outside, a really good book turns out to be a good way to pass some time.”

(Hannibal raps and Monte reads in the latest Hannibal Jones Mystery Damaged Goods)


Blogger Dr. Foo said...

I hope you'll post that list as it gets put together and updated. It'll be interesting to see what Hannibal (and the people he confers with) come up with for the reading list.

3:08 PM  

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