Friday, May 31, 2024

James, better known as Jim

I had read Huckleberry Finn a few times, first as an adventure story, but later came to appreciate it as a master satire.  

For a few chapters "James" seems to parallel "Huckleberry Finn", but from the perspective of Jim.   Then there is a TWIST,  an intriguing "What if" tangent but I do not want to give any hints.  Percival has changed the timing of the story closer to the Civil War.

Twain had picked up both black and southerner dialects --"n****r" in this the original and in the spinoff Everett was even more vernacular such as "bullshit".  Jim speaks an educated form of English, but only to a few select slaves.  He is very careful not to speak that way in front of any whites.  We don't know how, but he also can write.  Whites are afraid of educated slaves.  The possession of a pencil can be life threatening.

There is a lot of religious skepticism.  Jim has little  faith in religion expressing that it seems to be a tool of the white slavers.   Two con men (also included in the Twain version) use religion as a tool to squeeze money out of gullible white people.

Percival Everett lays quite a lot on the minstrel movement including incorporating the real Daniel Decatur Emmett (who wrote the Dixie song) and his Virginia Minstrels as major characters.  Jim has a beautiful tenor voice just when Emmett's tenor has disappeared.  Here Jim can pretend to be a white putting on black face to entertain whites.  Jim is surprised to learn the minstrel movement is the white's way of mocking their slaves.  While with the minstrels Jim encounters another runaway slave who passes as a white.  Slaves developed a cakewalk to mock whites, but the minstrels misinterpreted and used it in their mockery routine.  

Stephen Foster was another song writer who developed a reputation using the black slave music style, but some claimed he went on to trying to humanize blacks by changing his lyrics over time.  Today we recognize the black influence on music.  Elvis Presley was fairly open about borrowing songs from blacks.  While attending the University of  Guelph I went to a coffee house that had the original singer, Big Mama Thornton for "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog".

There is more violence revealed from the slave perspective including beatings, lashings, deaths, rapes and murders.  The reality contained more violence than Twain wanted to portray.

The last sentence of the book; "Just James"  reminds us this has been a black slave runaway perspective.  Hit me like 'Bond, James Bond".

As a student, Percival Everett played jazz and wrote term papers for other students to help pay his way.  Percival is an English professor at the University of Southern California.  His book, "Erasure"(2001) was adapted to the movie "American Fiction" (2023).

If you enjoy political and racial satire, you will love this book. 

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