The Race Card

My freshman English students struggle to connect with the reality of legal segregation as an influential and tangible element of our country's historical past.
Grade Level

While studying Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, for one class period students are thrown into a microcosm of segregation and are forced to endure an identity that is impartially given to them. Students are handed one playing card as they enter the room and instructed to find their seating area according to their suit. In four clearly separated sections of the room, their suit and rules are posted. Every student is instructed to write their suit and card number on a folded piece of paper serving as their identity for the period. Students are addressed by their suit and card number only. The two suits in the front of the room are given preferential rights, such as the option of working in pairs or as a group. The two suits in the back are limited to minimal if any freedoms and will be instructed to work on their own. Other regulations can be manipulated within the confines of one’s own classroom rules.

Each suit is given a character. Their objective is to find specific examples in the novel where their character's identity determines the rights they have. For example, the main character Grant is reduced to waiting two and a half hours just to ask Sheriff Guidry's permission to visit an illiterate prisoner named Jefferson on Death Row. Sheriff Guidry's group would be seated in the front and have the most rights in the class, while the group analyzing Jefferson's identity would be in the back. Once settled in groups, this task takes about 30 minutes. The specific instances from the text should be labeled with page numbers for references and then collected. Every character sheet is then copied by the teacher for each member of class.

After these sheets are handed out in the following class period, each group is asked to briefly present the identity of their assigned character and how their classification affected the rights they had in the novel. A discussion follows to process the student's experience.

The objective of these lessons is to help foster a connection between the student and a fictional character through an activity a young learner can feel.

James M. Chesbro
Fairfield College Preparatory School
Fairfield, CT


Why not take CHESBRO'S card game one step further by purchasing playing cards with multicultural information on the faces? The set from the International Women's Air & Space Museum celebrates women of air and space ($10). They can be ordered at www.womensairandspacemuseum.com.

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Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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