O, nobody knows a who I am, a who I am, a who I am
In Huckleberry Finn and throughout his life and work, Mark Twain interrogated his culture's categories and conventions of what it meant to be "black" or "white." This is not to say that he did so consistently or consciously, or that he invariably succeeded in transcending those categories and conventions. On the contrary, it could be argued that, in a number of key ways, he left them in place. Rather, Twain wove back and forth between challenge and affirmation, rejection and assent, as regards his culture's norms of "blackness" and "whiteness." The issues explored in this book suggest the merits of re-examining some of the assumptions that have informed discussions of Twain's response to the racial discourse of his time.
In this context, the verdict offered by Guy Cardwell in 1991 is unwarranted and reductive. He writes,
It becomes obvious that the attitudes toward race that Clemens held during his maturity were unremarkable and essentially unambiguous. . . . He and most other humane writers of the period assumed the existence of a natural racial hierarchy, accepted as a premise the biological inferiority of Negroes. 1
Despite Cardwell's contention, little about Twain's attitudes toward race is either "obvious" or "unambiguous," and the extent to which he "assumed the existence of a natural racial hierarchy," implicitly reaffirming it in his art, is by no means clear.