Suggested length: 2-7 days
This unit is central to a study of Huck Finn. It gives necessary background before students begin reading the book so they are prepared for the racial issues they will encounter. It poses questions about issues such as racism, censorship, and intellectual freedom. And, because it connects to contemporary issues, it will help motivate students to become engaged in the material.
At this time you may also want to introduce students to biographical information about Mark Twain, and provide additional historical information about post-Reconstruction America as well as the turbulent 1840s in Missouri, where the story takes place. A good source for historical background is Chapter Four in Shelley Fisher Fishkin's book, Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). See also General Resources for Web sites and the bibliography.
Companion Readings for Teachers
Henry, Peaches. "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huck Finn." In Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James Leonard et al., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992, 25-48.
Jordan, Winthrop. "First Impressions." In The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 3-25.
Powell, Thomas. "The Subject of Racism." In The Persistence of Racism in America. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992, 1-5.
Companion Readings for Students
"Unfit for Children: Censorship and Race." In Understanding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, 29-45. Additional selections from this book may also be useful.
For supplemental reading, you may also want to use Nat Hentoff's young adult novel The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (New York: Bantam, 1982), which is about one school's attempt to ban Huck Finn.
Racism is obviously a complex and difficult subject. Although teachers may feel uncomfortable discussing the topic, it is key to appreciating and understanding Huck Finn. Use the discussion questions and readings below to help students begin to think about the issue and how it relates to charges that the book is racist. You may want to create a K-W-L (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart that the class updates throughout the reading of the book. As their understanding of the issues deepens, students can use the chart to reexamine their thinking.
To begin the dialogue, have the class try to establish a definition of racism. Use the following discussion questions and activities to introduce the use of the word "nigger" in the book, as well as for teaching tips on handling sensitive issues. (Although stereotypes are discussed in the next section, you may want to preview the topic by introducing it here.) Students can then tackle the discussion questions below as a whole class, in small groups, as journal topics, or through personal response essays that could be shared in a read-around.
To look at the historical roots of racism, have students read and discuss Winthrop Jordan's "First Impressions" which describes the reaction of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English travelers to West Africans. Using the class definition of racism, would the English voyagers be considered racist? Why or why not?
Other curriculums and trainings tackle the subject of racism and the "N" word, such as "The Shadow of Hate" curriculum from Teaching Tolerance and the Anti-Bias Study Guide developed by the Anti-Defamation League's World of Difference® Institute. Click here for more information and how to contact these organizations. The following books may also be helpful: Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education, edited by Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart, and Margo Okazawa-Rey (Washington, D.C.: Network of Educators on the Americas, 1998); Teaching for a Tolerant World, Grades 9-12, edited by Carol Danks and Leatrice Rabinsky (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1999); and Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach by Louise Derman-Sparks and C.B.Phillips (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).
For background and discussion, you may want to choose selections from books such as Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum (New York: HarperCollins, 1997). Two articles written by young people that may be useful are The 'N' Word: It Just Slips Out by Allen Francis and That Black Girl by Carmen R. Thompson.
* Source: Teaching Tolerance, Spring 1993, 58-63.
Next: Section 1: The "N" Word
See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill
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