Section 6 Section 5 Section 4 Section 3 Section 2 Section 1
Huck Finn Teacher's Guide
Culture Shock Huck Finn in Context: The Curriculum

Section 2: Behind the Mask -- Exploring Stereotypes
  Suggested length: 2-7 days
One of the major criticisms of Huck Finn has been that the character Jim is only a racist stereotype and that students will come away from the book with an image of him -- and African Americans in general -- as silly, superstitious, obedient, and passive. In this section, students define what a stereotype is, and look at the historical roots of African American plantation stereotypes, such as "Sambo," "Nat," and "Mammy." Referring back to Jordan's First Impressions can elucidate the earliest sources of African stereotypes, while the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker will help students understand the attitudes of white society toward slaves.

Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes will help students go "behind the mask" of stereotypes. These selections offer opportunities to discuss how the "mask" can also be a form of resistance. You may also want to use Chapter 5 of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), in which the author sees that "the mask" can be a powerful weapon.

Students (and parents) may feel that identifying and discussing stereotypes only serves to reinforce them. It's important to clarify that the goal of Section II is to recognize the historical roots as well as contemporary manifestations of stereotypes and therefore more critically examine how Twain uses those stereotypes in Huck Finn. In addition to the readings listed below, you may find helpful background information in Donald Bogle's book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York:Continuum Publishing Company, 1998) and Joseph Boskin's Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Before examining negative African American stereotypes, it's useful to help students develop a deeper understanding of the history and culture of African Americans by looking at the rich and varied heritage of Africans before they were enslaved and brought to America, as well as during slavery. The original Cherry Hill curriculum briefly covered the culture of West Africa and information about the Middle Passage. You may want to assess students' prior knowledge on these subjects, and confer or team up with a history teacher to develop a lesson plan that provides adequate background knowledge. Two good sources to consult are African American Literature (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1992), an anthology and textbook containing overviews and excerpts, and The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South by John W. Blassingame (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). See also the Bibliography for other suggested books.


Companion Readings for Teachers and Students

Note: The poems listed below can be found in various anthologies.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "We Wear the Mask." In Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. New York: Doubleday, 1993, 350.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "Slave Women." In Slavery in American Society, edited by Lawrence Goodheart. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1993, 166-169.

Hughes, Langston. "Minstrel Man." In Children of Promise: African-American Literature and Art for Young People, edited by Charles Sullivan. New York: Harry A. Abrams Publishers, 1991, 36.

Jordan, Winthrop. "First Impressions." In The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, 3-25.

The documentary "Ethnic Notions," produced and directed by Marlon Riggs (1987), traces the development of stereotypes and the roots of racism in America. It has been used in secondary schools and universities to explore these issues and may be useful in conjunction with this section. It is available in many libraries and through various distributors, including California Newsreel, 415-621-6196, or HR Press, 800-444-7139.

Discussion Questions

  • What are stereotypes? Why and how are they formed? Have students form a working definition of the word "stereotype" as they did with "racism" in Section I.

  • How were stereotypes used to justify slavery? To reassure slave owners?

  • Why might slaves themselves have reinforced stereotypes?

  • How have slave stereotypes influenced portrayals of African Americans today?

  • What do the Hughes and Dunbar poems express?

  • What are some "masks" that oppressed groups use? What is the function of such a mask? How can masks be used as a form of resistance?

Historical Roots

Companion Readings for Teachers and Students

"Foreword," "Introduction," and "A Founding Father's View on Race." In African Americans Opposing Viewpoints, edited by William Dudley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997, 9-34.

Discussion Questions

  • Using Jordan's First Impressions selection, have the class list as many stereotypes as they can and discuss their origins. What were they based on?

  • What was Jefferson's view on African Americans? How did he use slave stereotypes to make the argument that blacks are inferior?

  • Before reading Banneker's reply, ask students how Banneker, a free, self-educated, and noted black scientist, might have responded. Ask students to imagine what he might have written. As they read Banneker's actual letter, have students note similarities and differences between what they predicted and what Banneker wrote.

  • Revisit the students' earlier exploration of contemporary stereotypes. How have the stereotypes described in Jordan's First Impressions and in Jefferson's writings endured?


  • Show students some of the illustrations from the original Huck Finn. Ask students to discuss or write about why these illustrations may now be seen as offensive, what stereotypes they reflect, and what effect they might have had on the reader when it was published. How would they affect your reading now? How does the text of the book challenge or undermine the stereotypes in the illustrations?

  • Ask students to consider portrayals of African Americans in movies, television, and advertising today. What are the common stereotypes? How are these stereotypes related to the slave stereotypes? Have new stereotypes arisen as well? Have students research the topic through books, magazine articles, and the Internet. Then have them write a letter to the editor, draw a political cartoon, or create a pictorial collage that details what they found and their opinion of it.

  • After reading the Dunbar and Hughes poems, ask students to explain how the poems reflect or reveal the "mask" in an essay or drawing. You may also have students read and dramatize the poems by dividing the class into small groups. Assign each group one of the poems and give them twenty to thirty minutes to find a way to read the poem so that its meaning -- whatever their interpretation -- is clear to the rest of the class. Students may not add words, but they can rearrange or repeat words or phrases. After the presentations, bring the class together to talk about the similarities and differences in the portrayals.

    Next: Section 3: The Development of Character in Huck Finn

    See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill

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