Black Response to Twain

Famous African Americans Respond to Twain

“I have never known [Mr. Clemens] to be stirred up on any one question as he was on that of the cruel treatment of the natives in the Congo Free State. In his letter to Leopold, the late King of the Belgians, in his own inimitable way he did a service in calling to the attention of the world the cruelties practiced upon the black natives of the Congo that had far-reaching results. I saw him several times in connection with his efforts to bring about reforms in the Congo Free State, and he never seemed to tire of talking on the subject and planning for better conditions.”
North American Review (1910)

Booker T. Washington
Educator, author, orator

“Twain hid his conflict in satire and wept in private over the brutalities and the injustices of his civilization.”
—unpublished manuscript (c. 1935-1937)

Richard Wright
Novelist, poet, essayist

“Jim is the best example in nineteenth-century fiction of the average Negro slave (not the tragic mulatto or noble savage), illiterate, superstitious, yet clinging to his hope for freedom, to his love for his own. And he is completely believable, whether arguing that Frenchmen should talk like people, or doing most of the work on the raft.”
The Negro in American Fiction (1937)

Sterling Brown
Literary critic, professor at Howard University

“It is this treatment of race that makes Pudd’nhead Wilson as contemporary as Little Rock, and Mark Twain as modern as Faulkner, although Twain died when Faulkner was in knee pants.”
—introduction to Twain's Pudd’nhead Wilson (1959)

Langston Hughes
Poet, social activist, columnist

“Nobody calls Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson a novel of racial protest, but the comment it makes on what they call race relations is pretty strong. It’s a wild book. I’ve never seen anything so strong.”
—interview in the San Francisco Chronicle (1964)

LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
Poet, novelist, essayist

“The spoken idiom of Negro Americans, its flexibility, it musicality, its rhythms, free-wheeling diction, and metaphors, as projected in Negro American folklore, were absorbed by the creators of our great nineteenth-century literature even when the majority of blacks were still enslaved. Mark Twain celebrated it in the prose of Huckleberry Finn.”
— (1970)

Ralph Ellison
Novelist, literary critic

Huckleberry Finn is a black novel. Yes, you’ve seen pictures of Samuel Clemens, and he’s white. Super white. White hair. White suit. White skin. But nobody’s ever seen Mark Twain, who was a figment—and a pigment—of Samuel Clemens’ imagination. And Mark Twain was black.”
—address delivered in Hartford, Connecticut (1985)

David Bradley
Novelist, Winner of Pen-Faulkner award

“The 1880s saw the collapse of civil rights for Blacks as well as the publication of Huckleberry Finn. This collapse was an effort to bury the combustible issues Twain raised in his novel. The nation, as well as Tom Sawyer, was deferring Jim’s Freedom in agonizing play.”
— (1996)

Toni Morrison
Novelist, Nobel Prize Winner

“Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have held in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.”
—on receiving first Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center (1998)

Richard Pryor
Adapted from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.