Chris Adcock
English Language Arts, Reading Literature
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Civil War
  • Grade 11 ELA
  • Identity
  • Persona
  • Poetry
  • Race
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    Race and Identity in America

    Race and Identity in America


    In this lesson, you will explore identity and race in “The Wife of His Youth.” You'll also conduct a small research project and present information to the class about race relations in America after the Civil War.


    • Read the lesson and student content.
    • Anticipate student difficulties and identify the differentiation options you will choose for working with your students.
    • Decide how you will evaluate the student presentations.
    • Determine how you will have students conduct research during Task 4 if Internet access is not available in your classroom.
    • Make plans to group students for their research and presentations.
    • Make sure you are able to display the research topics for the class.
    • Decide how you will have students complete the homework assignment and whether you will provide additional direction. Depending on available resources, they could look for articles online, in a library, or from a selection you provide.
    • It may be difficult to complete all of this lessons’ tasks in one class period; decide in advance how you want to manage and allot time.

    Race in America Reflection

    • It might be helpful to refer back to the conversation between Mr. Ryder and Liza Jane.
    • This topic could lead to a vibrant class discussion. Decide whether you will facilitate a whole class conversation after the students have time to reflect or whether you will choose a different option.
    • The concept of race is highly charged and socially defined. Allow students to share different opinions while maintaining an emotionally safe and respectful space for all points of view.


    Take a few minutes to write down your thoughts about race. As you write, consider the following questions.

    • What do we mean when we talk about race in general?
    • In “The Wife of His Youth,” how does this meeting between two characters, both of whom are African American, express a great divide between races in America?
    • How does the meeting express the divide within particular racial or ethnic groups?

    Open Notebook

    Submit your writing to your teacher.

    Ryder on Race Share

    • Put students in pairs and have them share their thoughts on this passage.
      • ELL: This particular expression, “ground between the upper and the nether millstone,” can be easier to understand visually. If possible, provide a visual that illustrates grain being ground between millstones. Another similar expression that you can introduce to students is “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
    • Discuss the different nuances between the phrases “do the best we can for ourselves” and “self-preservation.” Are they the same thing? Does one have to do one’s best to preserve one’s self, or is doing one’s best a higher goal?
    • Circulate around the room among the pairs to assist students with their understanding of the passage.

    Work Time

    In the story, much is made about the color of one’s skin. For Mr. Ryder, and the people of his social network and race, the lines that are drawn between the races andwithin the races seem to be of utmost importance.

    Chesnutt describes Mr. Ryder’s views on race in the first part of the story. Reread the following passage.

    "I have no race prejudice," he would say, "but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn't want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. 'With malice towards none, with charity for all,' we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature."

    With your partner, discuss the passage. Consider the following questions.

    • How does Ryder view himself in relation to whites?
    • How does he view himself in relation to darker-skinned African Americans?
    • What does Ryder mean by the phrase “absorption by the white race and extinction in the black”?
    • How does his claim that “self-preservation is the first law of nature” connect to later events in the story?

    Lincoln Address and Reflection

    • Encourage students to make notes in the text of the speech for easy reference later.
    • If necessary, introduce the term allusion to your students.
      • ELL: Clarify the difference between an allusion and a direct quote or citation. It can be helpful to provide examples of each for students to better grasp the distinction.
    • Have students work with a partner or in small groups for this activity. Students may benefit from reading the speech first in its entirety, then breaking down each paragraph.
    • Remind students to use topic sentences as clues to the purpose or content of each paragraph.

    Work Time

    In the phrase “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” Chesnutt alludes to President Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

    Read Lincoln’s speech with a partner. Discuss and make notes about the following questions.

    • What was Lincoln asking for, and how does race play an important part in his message?
    • Why would Chesnutt choose to allude to this speech when describing Ryder’s view of race?

    Civil War, Before and After

    • Put your students in small groups and let them know how you want them to conduct research. They could look for sources online if the technology is available, visit the school library, or choose from a selection that you provide.
    • Direct students to research the legal and social position of African Americans before and after the Civil War. Assign each group to one of the topics below; if necessary, you can assign the same topic to more than one group: ELL: Students who are recent immigrants may benefit from more context about this period in American history. You can use their contributions here to assess whether that is the case.
    • SWD: Provide the topic in writing to each group as a visual reference.
    • ✓ Were marriages between slaves considered legal?
    • ✓ How did politicians justify these marriage laws?
    • ✓ Why did slaves attempt to marry, given the legal status of their marriage?
    • ✓ How did marriage laws change for former slaves and free blacks after the Civil War?
    • ✓ What legal status did interracial people have in the United States after the Civil War?
    • ✓ Were they considered black, mixed race, white, or some other ethnicity?
    • ✓ What was the rationale behind that legal status?
    • ✓ After the Civil War, were former slaves considered citizens?
    • ✓ Did they have all the rights of other Americans?
    • ✓ In the North, what was the legal status of free blacks before the end of slavery?
    • ✓ In the South, what was the legal status of free blacks before the end of slavery?
    • ✓ What is lynching, and how frequently was it practiced after the Civil War?
    • ✓ How did lynch mobs attempt to justify their actions?
    • Violence of this kind can be disturbing for students; think carefully about assigning this topic, and remind students who are researching it to avoid graphic images or ideas that may be gratuitously provocative.
    • Display the topics for the class.

    Work Time

    Move into your small group as directed and listen to your teacher’s instructions on conducting research. Your group will be assigned a research topic.

    When your group has been assigned a topic, do the following.

    • Find one or two reliable sources of information on the topic.
    • Organize a few key points that you think will be of interest to your classmates.
    • Plan to give a 2-minute presentation to the class on your topic.


    • Keep the presentations short. If time permits, allow questions.
    • Be prepared for emotional responses from students; the history of slavery can be difficult for many people to face.

    Work Time

    Share your group’s presentation and listen as your classmates share their research.

    • Make notes on ideas that you want to explore further.

    Open Notebook

    Race Quick Write

    • Let students know how to submit their work to you.
    • Encourage them to write freely about the ideas they have considered today.


    In a Quick Write, respond to the following prompt.

    • What did you learn today about ideas of race in the United States and the history around those ideas?

    Open Notebook

    When you finish, submit your writing to your teacher.

    Race in America Articles

    • Let students know where you want them to find articles and how they should submit their homework to you.
      • SWD: It can be helpful to provide specific websites or resources for students to use to find articles, so that students have very clear and concrete guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate for the assignment. For students with significant reading challenges, provide a selection of articles that you have predetermined are both appropriate and accessible.
    • Provide additional direction, if needed, about what kind of articles will be most appropriate for this assignment.


    • Find two articles that deal with modern race relations in America.
    • Write a Gist for each article.

    Open Notebook

    Submit your articles and Gists to your teacher.