Huck Finn’s Confusion

I read to Becton at night. Parents are supposed to read to kids, but I also read to Becton to calm him down so he will sleep. It usually works. But, last night, was different.

We have been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We are at the point in the story where Huck – a white boy, and Jim – an adult runaway slave, who are rafting on the Mississippi River, are almost to Illinois – a free state. Jim is very excited. He is making plans to get a job and make enough money to buy his wife out of slavery and, eventually, to buy his children too.

Huck and Jim have been great companions on this trip. Huck only thought of Jim as a slave when reminded of that fact in dangerous situations where Jim might be discovered and returned. Huck had been protective of Jim all along. But now that freedom is close at hand, Huck becomes confused. Why is he going along with this? Isn’t he supposed to turn Jim in? Huck knows Jim’s owner and he’s sure she never hurt Jim. How is this fair to her?

Huck decides he has to betray Jim and he takes off down the river in a canoe to do just that. However, when Huck encounters two slave hunters with guns headed for the raft where Jim is waiting, Huck suddenly fabricates a story to keep the men away from Jim…

Becton stopped my reading at several points. He asked, “What’s the difference between a slave and a runaway slave?” I explained. As I did, I realized that Becton’s puzzlement came – not from a lack of knowledge about the definition of a “slave” – but from a lack of familiarity with the idea of trying to change one’s status and the stress and anxiety that produces in other people.

Becton was also curious about the concept that slaves were worth money and different amounts of money. Becton wanted to know how much he would be worth if he was a slave. The question itself made my skin crawl. I told Becton I was uncomfortable talking about people I loved as if they were property. Becton didn’t mind. He wanted to know if he’d be worth $60 since he was 60 lbs. And he wanted to compare the worth of each member of our family. I told him I had no idea what we’d be “worth” in the time of slavery but that I’d play along. (I secretly hoped I would discover some educational value in this discussion.) I suggested that I might be worth $150 since I was grown and capable of working in a home or a field. Daddy would be worth more, say $250, since he was stronger. What about Emily? Well, Emily might be more valuable than me because she was physically grown but still fertile and able to produce other slaves…

A crazy as this may sound – I realized there was a comparison to be made between Huck Finn’s feelings about runaway slaves and our changing adoption practices. Many of us are Huck Finns. We say “yes” to opening what was closed, to eliminating corruption and creating more transparency, and to treating all human beings as equals. But when we step right up to the edge of the cliff of change, we get confused. After all, if the people in power – the agencies or attorneys, or the parents who adopt a baby or a child in a closed adoption – have done nothing deliberately wrong or malicious, why should they endure hardship as a result of change? They were just following the rules and customs. If we open adoptions and allow contact between an adoptee and his/her biological parents, the adoptive family’s life together will be disrupted and altered in ways we cannot predict. If we do all that it takes to rid inter-country adoption of practices that make “voluntary” relinquishment suspect, fewer children will be adopted and it will cost more money to adopt the ones who are placed. Why should we suffer when we’ve done nothing but get-along?

There is a huge gulf between “getting along” and standing on equal footing with someone who has been oppressed. Even if change sounds good in theory, the reality can be frightening. When I was a young girl, my best friend and I used to watch the TV soap opera about vampires and werewolves called “Dark Shadows.” One time we asked my friend’s mother, “Why do you think they gave the program that name?” Her response was something like this: “Can you think of anything scarier than ‘dark shadows’? Vampires and witches and warlocks are scary. But if you know what’s coming, you can prepare. The scariest thing of all is NOT knowing what’s out there.”

The way I see it is that if we don’t have the courage to step off the cliff or face the dark shadows, we will stay stuck where Becton and I were last night – putting a value on each person based on a list of objective criteria that really isn’t “objective” at all because fallible human beings created the list. Here is a list of some of the American “values” I’ve gleaned from my personal experience: (1) a mother who places her child for adoption is worth less than a mother who raises a child; (2) a woman who gives birth is more valuable than an infertile woman; (3) a man and a woman who marry each other are more valuable than a single person, a homosexual, an older person who needs to be cared for, etc.; and (4) a blond, blue-eyed, light-skinned child is more beautiful than a brown-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned child. The list goes on and on. You get my point.

Change is scary and often painful. We understand Huck Finn’s confusion. But I’m putting my money behind the part of Huck that knew and loved Jim and threw up a wall to protect him when the time came to take action.

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