Even if it is widely accepted as a brilliant beginning to American literature, however, the novel has still had to endure various attacks and bans. The most commonly cited reason for this, today, is that the novel demeans African-Americans. But in what ways, precisely, does the novel do this?

Nat Hentoff mentions, in the introduction to Huck Finn written by Padgett Powell, that many critics focus on the "160 appearances of 'nigger' in the book" (Hentoff, vii). According to many African-Americans, "nigger" is a demeaning term which should have died out with the slavery institution. This is as it may be—there is no doubt that in modern society, "nigger" is considered an unwholesome word in almost all areas. This, however, was not so during Twain's period. It is simply ludicrous to believe that because a novel uses language appropriate to the time period in which it was written—or even in which it takes place—it should not be taught or accepted today. In the same way that one cannot judge a past civilization by modern standards, but by its contemporaries, must we judge literature and language. "Nigger" was the operative, common term in the American South during the time the novel takes place—it is, in fact, the only appropriate word. "African-American," the politically correct term used today, did not exist. It is impossible to give a complete and truthful picture of this time period without the use of the word "nigger."

A certain group of critics holds that this novel encourages racial prejudices. To use author David Bradley's words, "Yes, this book can be the spark that sets off the powder keg—but it's not the powder keg." Good people and beliefs are possible only in areas with backgrounds which strongly encourage them; conversely, racism cannot be started in an innocent mind merely by one book. Certainly a misinterpretation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could reinforce racial prejudices, but even the misinterpretation cannot single-handedly create them. The ideas must be already in place, waiting to emerge, for the book to trigger racist attacks.

The final most serious criticism of Huck Finn is that, through the behavior of African-American characters, it portrays the entire ethnic group as foolish, bumbling, or stupid. The biggest problem here is, of course, the novel's first-person narrative style. Because we see everything through the eyes of Huck, our first impression of the slaves he encounters is quite like similar to what these critics claim the novel's view is. We see here the tragedies that can arise from putting a book down in anger, without having finished it. For Huck's view changes throughout the novel, especially in regards to the "niggers" that are such a common part of his world. At the beginning, it must be said, they look foolish; Huck and Tom play a trick on Jim and claim it was due to witches (and he believes them!). Later, however, as Jim's character comes more into the open, and we see the great reverence in which Twain held Jim's people. In many ways, Jim is the hero of The Adventures of Huck Finn. It is in him, after all, that we see a great deal of humanity never seen in white characters such as the Duke and the King, or Pap. We see, for example, remorse for abusing his child before he knew how badly she'd been afflicted by the Scarlet Fever: "'Oh, de po' little thing! De Lord God Almighty forgive po' ole Jim, kaze he ain't never gwyne to forgive hisself as long's he live!' Oh, she was plumb deef and dumb, Huck, plumb deef an' dumb—and I'd been a-treating her so!" But the greatest moral decision we see from Jim is, in fact, far earlier in the book. The Ohio River joins the Mississippi near a small town called Cairo, and Huck and Jim are always on the lookout for this town, as it symbolizes the point at which they can head north, into what is, for Jim, the golden land of freedom. But they miss it in the fog, and continue to head South. Jim faces, here, an important moral decision: if he leaves the raft and heads North, he gains his freedom and can work to rescue his family from their fetters. However, he knows, unlike Huck, that his companion is truly an orphan, and that the voyage the boy is on is dangerous and should be guarded. He chooses to possibly sacrifice his freedom, and to venture into far darker danger than Huck faces, so that he can continue to watch over the boy. What, exactly, he planned to do is unclear to the reader; perhaps he hoped to cross the Gulf of Mexico itself. But it is an irrelevant point. In Jim we see good qualities unseen in any white character in the novel, and it cannot truly be said that the book is racist when such a character exists.