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Bernard: Black History Month

02/29/12 7:55AM By Emily Bernard
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(Host) Commentator Emily Bernard is an associate professor of English and Ethnic Studies at UVM. She says that back when she was preparing the syllabus for her fall semester course "Race and the Literature of the American South," the irony of teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during black history month didn't occur to her.

(Bernard) As you may know by now, Black History Month was initiated by African American scientist Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Originally, it was Negro History Week. Today, it is officially called African American History Month.

This is a month to celebrate black heroes, and this year the theme is "Black Women in American Culture and History." Featured on the Black History Month website are images of Phillis Wheatley, a slave wrote poetry and challenged the common concept that black people did not have the capacity to make art.

Another image features the singer Marian Anderson who famously performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American R evolution refused her permission to sing in Constitution Hall.

Then there's the elegantly dressed Mary Church Terrell , a daughter of slaves, who became one of the first African American women to earn a college degree.

These images remind us that this celebration was created to counteract the popular black stereotypes that once dominated our cultural landscape, like Toms, Coons, Mulattoes Mammies and Bucks, to quote from the title of a book by Donald Bogle - in other words, the very stereotypes that Mark Twain employed in creating the character of the slave, Jim, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .

If Black History Month is the time to celebrate heroes and positive images of African Americans, then where does Jim, a slave, fit in? He's often referred to the book by the racial epithet we call the "n word." He's been called a minstrel figure, there to amuse the reader and to serve as the butt of Huck's jokes. Some say he has the only noble role in the novel. But enough people find his portrayal so offensive, and the epithet he's called so painful, that the book continues to be banned from libraries and classrooms across the country.

Still, I think it's possible that Jim stands at the very heart of why we have Black History Month at all. If African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth represents freedom; Jim represents our yearning for it. While W. E. B. Du Bois was an articulate scholar, writer and political activist, Jim, the slave, was, for the most part, voiceless. The heroes we remember during African American History month were exceptions to the rule that Jim represents.

African Americans have made tremendous progress since 1885, the year that Huck Finn was published in the United States . But the simple fact is that the book is still difficult for many African Americans to read without re-living, in some part, the painful experience of the past that continue to echo into the present. When we think of Jim, we recognize just how great our progress has been - but we also can't help but realize just how far we still have to go.

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