You want to show a young man overcoming the ignorance of his own culture?
Make him an outcast to start with, the offspring of the town drunk, and send him on a long trip. There is nothing at home for him to return to, nothing to be conservative about. Put him on a raft with an older, wiser person of a different and maligned race, and even lower social status, a person of excellent character, a gentle man, courageously attempting to escape his bondage and rejoin the family from which he has been unjustly separated. And send them down the culture’s most emblematic river together.
That’s the operative word: together. It was the shared adventures of Huck and Jim that educated Huck, shattering his deeply ingrained inherited assumptions about black folks in general and slaves in particular – so ingrained in fact that he actually thought he might go to hell for not turning Jim into the authorities. It is hard to imagine a more confined space than that of a raft, a more intimate neighborhood.
And just in case his readers didn’t get the point, Mark Twain sends Tom Sawyer on a much less adventurous trip, with no such company as Huck had, to the place where he meets up with Jim and Huck. And there, Tom has so little understanding of the value of Jim as a fellow human that he uses him as a plaything in an imagined adventure.
And remember this: Tom has been going to school, while Huck has been playing hooky – and Jim is not even allowed to learn to read.
I took two high school students, both of them wonderful young people, on a much shorter, vastly less adventurous trip one day– from The Athenian School to watch a soccer game in Oakland, about a forty minute ride. They were of different gender and race and economic status, and neither had ever been in the other’s home. But they were friends. They genuinely liked each other. We were chatting, enjoying each other’s company, as we came to a certain neighborhood in Oakland, and one of the students exclaimed, “God, I’m glad I don’t have to live here!”
There was a fraught silence – until the other said, “I live here. And I like it here.” I was amazed at her equanimity, her lack of anger. Her forgiveness of his ignorance. She understood her friend had had no education in these matters. He couldn’t know.
How long would it have taken, though, for that ignorance to begin to be eradicated, if those two kids had not shared the same school?
But a more provocative question is: Why didn’t we do what Mark Twain did? Why didn’t we engineer those kids’ experience so that they would truly know each other? Why did we miss the chance for them to understand the rich culture of the other’s neighborhood? Why weren’t they ever in each other’s homes? We engineered the rest of the curriculum. Why did we leave such a critical element of it to chance?