“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator
The Mark Twain Circle affirms the courageous citizens who are risking their health and safety to protest police brutality. We stand in solidarity with the Black and Brown communities whose suffering under systemic racism exposes the vicious underbelly of American culture. We call on government agencies to uphold the social contract – to defend, not attack, the citizens who have trusted them for protection. And we embrace CHANGE: change in the training and culture of U.S. policing, change in the education system of our future citizens, and not least, change in our own hearts and minds as we constantly reevaluate our own basic assumptions.
We repeat the names of the recent dead, despite understanding that they represent only a fraction of those wrongfully killed by the authorities pledged to protect them: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Monika Diamond, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner, Freddie Grey, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Pamela Turner, Tamil Rice. In repeating the names, we keep them with us, reminders that it is our constant duty to struggle against injustice.
We are confident in our ability to change ourselves and our systems because, as teachers, scholars, and readers of Mark Twain and of American culture, we know that change is possible. Twain himself provides a model. Growing up as the son of slave owners, firmly rooted in the tumultuous environment of the nineteenth-century United States, he was also a world traveler and, most importantly, a world thinker. In our efforts to understand him, we have learned that he struggled to understand global change, from germ theory to electronics, U.S. racial conflicts to worldwide rebellions against imperialist domination. In the process, he changed: the Mark Twain of the 1900s, who vociferously protested the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and satirized King Leopold’s rape of the Belgian Congo, was not the same person who snarled about the “infernal abolitionists” in a letter to his mother in 1853.[i] Over the years he had become, as Philip Foner has written, one of America’s foremost social critics, speaking up against injustice — whether perpetrated by individuals or by their governments.
The Mark Twain Circle of America has and will continue to pursue educational programs designed to uncover and interrogate systems of racism and racist violence in American culture. Our panel at the 2019 American Literature Association conference evoked the memory of the transatlantic slave trade in a session on “Mark Twain and Racial Identity,” and members of our organization have spearheaded the Elmira Center for Mark Twain Studies’ upcoming Quarry Farm Symposium on “American Humor and Matters of Empire,” which aims to honor the rhetorical, ideological, and historical distinctiveness of African American comic traditions. The teachers among us routinely interrogate American racial assumptions as they and their students wrestle with Twain’s writings and their legacies. These strategies, long our practice, will continue, and we invite all those interested in Mark Twain and in American cultural history to join with us as we strive to contribute to the struggle for racial justice in America.
[i] Letter from Samuel L. Clemens to Jane Lampton Clemens, August 24, 1853, in Mark Twain’s Letters, vol. 1, 1853-1866, edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael Barry Frank, Kenneth M. Sanderson, Harriet E. Smith, Lin Salamo, and Richard Bucci (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 4.