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 1: Exploring the Controversy
  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.

The Controversy

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 In Understanding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson.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.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is the teaching and reading of Huck Finn so controversial?

  • How have the criticisms about the book changed over the years?

  • How do these various criticisms reflect a changing America?

  • How does knowing about the history of the controversy make you feel about reading the book?

  • Under what circumstances, if any, do you think a book should be taken off a school's reading list and/or out of its library?


  • Using the film, the library, and the Web, have students construct a timeline that shows the different challenges Huck Finn has faced since it was published. For each challenge, the timeline might include quotes from detractors, as well as responses from the book's defenders.

  • Using the film and/or additional research, have students choose one of the challenges made against the book and design a poster to express that point of view -- for instance, a poster that could have been created by the Brooklyn Public Library in 1907 warning parents not to let children read the book. Remind students that they don't have to agree with the point of view they portray, just convey it accurately. Ask students to present their posters and explain the challenge they have represented.

  • Have students research a current arts controversy through newspaper and magazine articles, as well as the Internet. Throughout the unit, have them keep a compare-and-contrast journal between that current controversy and Huck Finn. They might consider how political, cultural, historical, and other factors play a role in the two controversies. At the end of the unit, have them present a comparison in the form of an essay, chart, dialogue, or collage.

  • Have students investigate the historical and societal factors surrounding the novel, such as West African civilization, the Middle Passage, slave religion, abolition, and Reconstruction and its aftermath. Ask students to work in small groups and, using the General Resources as well as other resources, have each group choose a research topic. Each group can present its findings as part of Section I or as an ongoing report throughout the Huck Finn unit. Be sure that the students explain how their topic is connected to the novel.

On Racism

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.

Discussion Questions

  • What is racism? Is it a belief? Is it an action?

  • What causes racism? What beliefs do people invoke to try to justify racism? In what kinds of situations do we see or find racism?

  • When did you first recognize your own racial, ethnic, religious (or other) identity? What does it mean to you to identify yourself in this way? What do you like most and least about being a member of your group?

  • How has racism affected you or people you know?*

  • Do you think most minorities have a positive or negative image of whites? Do you think most whites have a positive or negative image of other races?*

  • What's the biggest misconception blacks have about whites? Whites about blacks?*

* Source: Teaching Tolerance, Spring 1993, 58-63.


  • In order to look critically at the Huck Finn controversy and give their own opinion of it, have students gather evidence of whether or not Huck Finn is racist as they read the novel. For example, students should be directed to pay particular attention to when the word "nigger" is used, who uses it, and how. Click here for a final activity based on this activity.

Next: Section 1: The "N" Word

See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill

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