I was a senior in high school when my English teacher’s jaw dropped, “You’ve never read Mark Twain?” We sat in five rows of five, twenty-five white, middle class, racially and ethnically uniform students. Of course I didn’t understand how important it was to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until I became immersed in the novel and educated on the history surrounding it. In college, at University at Buffalo, I read Huck Finn again and added a second annotated copy to my personal library, the latter with more in-depth observations. By my second read of the novel, though it had only been three years, my life had changed dramatically. I was a sophomore in college, in a city more racially diverse than I had ever experienced.
I grew up believing racism did not exist any longer. I lived in a small town buried in the Adirondack Mountains. Most people were Christian and the majority of people were white. I went to a school of about 500 students, two of whom were black, and one Asian, adopted into a white family. I didn’t feel as though these minority students were treated differently in our forest-enclosed ecosystem. Racism was something we learned about in American History. It was in the past.
In Buffalo, I encountered racism. I found racism lurked in people I would least foresee, friends and roommates both black and white expressed viewpoints I had not ever expected to hear. The upbringing I had thought to be normal, with little diversity and no cable television, was anything but. I was seeing racism for the first time, firsthand. In my education courses at UB, I uncovered a history of segregation and racism within the Buffalo Public Schools. I struggled with contradictions of such a sensitive nature that I had no idea what to do or how to feel, except to continue to treat people, all people, in manner that I would like to be treated. I stayed conscious of my interactions and periodically analyzed my thoughts, words, and actions to make sure that I wasn’t allowing prejudiced beliefs to seep into my mind, consciously or unconsciously.
I knew there was a connection between Buffalo and Mark Twain. Clemens Hall, the building that housed UB's English department, was named after him, Samuel Clemens being his biological name. I had heard that he lived in Buffalo for a period of time, and that his estate, on Delaware Ave., had been demolished. Still, it wasn’t until years later that I discovered the original, handwritten manuscript of his most well-known and significant work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lived in a glass enclosure in the Central Library in downtown, Buffalo.
Seeing the physical, original text that allowed people to view racism and slavery as it was in Twain’s world was simply inspiring. He created a movement with these words, some jotted hastily in an explosion of thought and others where time lingered in the space between them. Twain brought to life a spectacular work out of ink and paper; it has transformed people's beliefs for over a century, still with resounding relevance today.
And with this priceless document, different pages displayed depending on the day you enter the Twain Room, artifacts from his life, and the trunk where the manuscript was found many years after his death decorate the Twain Room. A ghostly photograph of his long-gone Buffalo home, where only the carriage house now remains. Memorabilia born from his writing and persona, along with different editions of his books, line the walls.
As summer came to a close, I traveled to the Southern Tier to pay my respects. Samuel Clemens lived much of his life in Elmira, New York. He, along with his wife, children, and other family members, were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. I stood in front of his minimalist gravestone, inscribed with only his birth name, pen name, and the dates he lived. A tiny American flag tucked into the fall ground was the only adornment.
At Elmira College, my legs carried my body up the steps of his study, the circular room where he wrote so many of his timeless works. Originally located on the Quarry Farm estate that his in-laws owned, the study had been relocated to Elmira College in 1952 so that the public could access the historical building. It had originally been built so that Twain would be able to use the beautiful view to inspire his writing, and so that he would no longer smoke cigars in the house while writing. Though most of the belongings in the room were not his own, rather period appropriate, the structure was. The windows were original. The fireplace had been added after Twain could not rid the clouds of cigar smoke from the study's windows lining the entire structure. The addition of a fireplace obstructed his 360 degree view from his summit, but was necessary. Now photographs of his life in Elmira lined the walls above the windows, one taken of him inside the study as he looked out the window, another while he walked the steps down from his study to the main house.
The Twain curator was kind enough to provide me with a tour, answer my questions, and take my photo. A full bodied, beautiful young woman of a mixed racial background, I wondered how his work affected her differently than it did me. How had our different upbringings and interactions, racially influenced or otherwise, formed us and drew us to this literary icon? What did Twain mean to her that I had not and possibly will never unearth? Upon leaving, she handed me a copy of a short story he wrote in that very study, a first hand account of a former slave who worked for his family at Quarry Farm, called "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It."
In the story, Aunt Rachel explains why she has always has a smile on her face and is in good spirits. Clemens assumes it is because she has never had any trouble, that her life has been uncomplicated, a reflection of her optimism. Born into slavery, Aunt Rachel lost her entire family, her husband and seven children when they were sold off in auction. With painful detail, she recounts their loss, and how she vowed to find her youngest son with no direction in sight. She tells of how she survived after the war, and the night when everything changed and her son was brought back into her life.
People often believe what lies on the surface is the imprint of one's insides. Perhaps Twain wrote this story to display his own ignorance; or, maybe he was using himself as a vehicle for the reader to recognize situations where she has made assumptions. Regardless, Twain exercised the ability to show people for who they really are, beneath the tint of their skin.
I implore you, reader, to take advantage of Twain's foresight. We may be molded by our own experiences and the way we were raised, but the ability to sculpt ourselves into a better, more compassionate and less ignorant, version is not lost. Learn from others and empathize. The path to understanding oneself may be found within the experiences of another.
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