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Huck Finn Teacher's Guide
Culture Shock Huck Finn in Context: The Curriculum

Section 5: Reclaiming the Self -- The Legacy of Slavery
  Suggested length: 7-14 days
Ending the Huck Finn unit with a look at slave narratives and an examination of the legacy of slavery today is essential to teaching Huck Finn in a fuller context. Students who may not have studied slavery in other classes will better understand Twain's account of slavery as fiction. They will also examine the conditions under which slaves lived, and the varied ways in which they resisted these conditions. Although we suggest reading Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, you may want to use other readings from The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Mentor, 1987), such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Students will thus end their study of the book with an image of slaves not as passive or helpless, but as strong and proud.

Some students may reevaluate Jim in a less favorable light after reading other slave narratives. This provides a good opportunity to review Twain's goals in writing the novel and the difference between the impact and power of fiction versus nonfiction.

The suggested poems will help make some of the themes in this section clearer. Have students read If We Must Die and For My People to examine the issues of resistance and the legacy of slavery. Discussion and activities will help students explore how the legacy of slavery continues today, and, through a final look at Huck Finn, will tie all the pieces of the unit together.

The topics in this section are complex and rich enough to be studied on their own for much longer than two weeks. What follows here, however, are readings, discussion questions, and activities whose primary goal is to help students connect a study of slave life and resistance to their study of Huck Finn. (The resources listed here and in the Bibliography can also support a deeper study.) Additional background may also be given by films such as the Africans in America series You may want to team-teach with a history teacher a lesson about life under slavery.

The original Cherry Hill curriculum suggests that students will more fully appreciate the character of Jim if they understand the importance of folk religion and superstition and their place in African American culture. To add this to the section, you may want to consult the following sources:

  • "Black Religious Thought in America, Part I: Origins." In Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology, by James H. Cone (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999).

  • Chapter 5. In Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices, by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

  • "Conjure" by Albert Raboteau. In Slavery in American Society, edited by Lawrence Goodheart (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company, 1993).

Companion Readings for Teachers and Students

Note: These poems can be found in various anthologies.

Dunbar, Paul Lawrence. "Sympathy." In Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. New York: Anchor Books, 1993, 351.

Harper, Frances W. "The Slave Auction." In Children of Promise: African American Literature and Art for Young People, edited by Charles Sullivan. New York: Harry A. Abrams, Inc., 1991, 40.

McKay, Claude. "If We Must Die." In Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. New York: Anchor Books, 1993, 467.

Mintz, Steven. "Introduction" and "Conditions of Life." In African American Voices: The Life Cycle of Slavery, edited by Steven Mintz. Revised edition. St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1993, 1-28 and 69-83.

Salem, Dorothy C. "Slave Resistance." In The Journey: A History of the African American Experience. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1997, 116-124.

Walker, Margaret. "For My People." In Children of Promise: African American Literature and Art for Young People, edited by Charles Sullivan. New York: Harry A. Abrams, Inc., 1991, 99.

Discussion Questions

  • Does Huck Finn contain a realistic portrayal of slave life? Why or why not?

  • In what ways did slaves resist?

  • How did Jim maintain his pride, dignity, and integrity, despite being enslaved? How did he resist slavery?

  • What did freedom mean to Jim?

  • What did freedom mean to Huck?

  • How does reading Douglass's autobiography affect your understanding of and feelings about Huck Finn?

  • Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; now you shall see how a slave was made a man." What does he mean? How can you apply this quote to the story of Jim in Huck Finn?

  • Look again at the class definition of a hero. Does Frederick Douglass fit the description? How does he compare to Jim and Huck?


  • To bridge a reading of Frederick Douglass or other slave narratives with your study of Huck Finn, have students do one or both of the following activities:

    • What would Jim want to say to Frederick Douglass if he read his autobiography? What would Frederick Douglass want to say to Jim if he read Huck Finn? Have students write an exchange of letters or dialogue between the two.

    • Have students work in small groups to find as many points of comparison between the two texts as they can, such as beliefs about slaves, descriptions of slave life and slave masters, stereotyping, and themes of family, learning, freedom, superstition, or religion. Ask each group to take one of these topics and find quotes from both texts that illustrate their commonality on that issue. Then have them create a visual representation in the form of a poster, drawing, or cartoon that expresses the common meaning.

  • Huck Finn was written after slavery was abolished but during a very turbulent time in American history. How did this affect what Twain wrote? Ask students to imagine that they are Mark Twain and to write a letter to his editor explaining how the events of the period influenced him to write Huck Finn not as the simple boy's adventure story he originally intended but as an indictment of slavery and racism instead.

  • Have students write their own For My People poem, in which they define who their "people" are and describe them in similar terms. Have students share their poems and combine them into a class book to keep on display.

  • Have students research the historical background during which Claude McKay wrote If We Must Die. Ask them to write or report on the conditions that existed, and then have them analyze what the speaker of the poem means by "fighting back."

Next: Section 6: Final Projects

See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill

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