Ken Burns Classroom

Powerful Words, Part 1

Ken Burns Film: Mark Twain

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Language Arts

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period

“… I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it… All that I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me…”
– Mark Twain


Students identify and describe the influence slavery had on Mark Twain’s writing, and then determine the status of race relations and ethnic differences in their own lives.

Black people and black voices were part of Sam Clemens’ life from the beginning. Every summer as a child, Sam spent several weeks on his uncle’s farm, where an old slave called “Uncle Daniel” entertained the youngsters with ghost stories. One of Sam’s most lasting childhood memories was not so pleasant, however. It was of a dozen men and women, chained together, waiting to be shipped down-river to the slave market. “They had,” he said, “the saddest faces I ever saw.”

In this activity, students will focus on the powerful impact that Twain’s ability to tell a story in the vernacular had on his audience. Explain that Twain employed the way Mary Ann Cord used words – her inflections, pauses and unique patterns of speech – to frame her story in a clear and compelling manner. Ask one of your students to read her words aloud, then have all your students try their own hands at vernacular storytelling. (Note: Be sure that students ask permission to tape-record their interview subjects.)


When Twain became successful and prosperous, he never forgot these childhood memories of summers on the farm. He understood slavery to be cruel and unjust – an opinion he portrayed in Huckleberry Finn, his most controversial book.

  1. Ask someone whose background and life have been quite different from yours – perhaps a veteran, a person from a different part of the country, or a recent immigrant – to describe a significant experience in his or her life.
  2. Tape-record the story and then put in writing their words exactly as they used them – including inflections, pauses, and special phrases. Don’t “correct” their language.
  3. Now weave this vernacular into a short story to share with your classmates.

Twain’s use of the vernacular

In the film Mark Twain, we meet Mary Ann Cord, the former slave whose story so moved Twain that, changing her name to “Aunt Rachel,” he committed her words to paper in The Atlantic Monthly in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.”

“Aunt Rachel”… was our servant, and colored… She was sixty years old… a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than for a bird to sing… [I asked her:] “Aunt Rachel, how is that you have lived sixty years without trouble?”

[She said,] …“Misto Clemens, is you in ‘arnest?… Has I had any trouble? Misto Clemens, I’s gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you. I was bawn down amongst de slaves….

Born a slave in Virginia, Mary Ann Cord married and had seven children. In 1852, her heart was broken when her family was sold away from her at auction. She lost touch with all of them. Years later, during the Civil War, she was living in North Carolina when Union officers occupied her owner’s plantation. A black regiment arrived to guard the house. Cord continued her story:

I was a stooping down by de stove … an’ I’d jist got de pan ‘o hot biscuits in my han’ an was ‘bout to raise up when I see a black face comin’ aroun’ under mine an de eyes a- lookin’ up into mine … an I jist stopped right dah an’ never budged! Jist gazed and gazed, … an de pan begin to tremble, an’ all of a sudden I knowed!…“Boy!” I says, “if you ain’t my Henry, what is you doin’ wid dis welt on yo wris’ an’ dat sky-ar on yo’ forehead? De Lord God ob be praise, I got my own ag’in!”

Oh, no, Mister Clemens, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!

Hearing the old woman talk reminded Twain not only of the horrors of slavery, but also of the power of vernacular storytelling. Twain channeled that power in Huckleberry Finn by allowing Jim, the runaway slave, tell his story in his own words.

Extended Activity

Ask students why they think Twain’s work was (and still is) so influential. Explain that when Huckleberry Finn was first published, it was banned from many libraries because of its rough language and poor grammar, and because it celebrated the life of a boy who lived by his own rules. It remains controversial in some parts of this country today because of its portrayal of black people. Do your students think the controversy that surrounds the language Twain uses – especially the liberal use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn – detracts from the work’s impact? Do they believe the controversy is warranted? You might also discuss other famous works that have been banned, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.

National Standards

This activity fulfills the following standard established by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

  • Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

This activity fulfills the following standard established by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL).

Language Arts: Listening and Speaking

  • Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes. United States History: Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • Understands how the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions

About The Authors

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