American Portraits

That Golden Moment: Jesse Owens and Identity

In this lesson, students will explore the life of Jesse Owens and how his identity shaped it. Through his example, students will understand how they can develop their own identity and how this development will help them advance freedom in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

Owens was born in Alabama in 1913, the youngest of 10 children. Like many Southern sharecroppers, his family had little wealth and Owens needed to help pick cotton. When he was nine, Owens’ family moved to Cleveland, where his father and brother got better-paying, more secure jobs in heavy industry. Owens also had to work to support his family, holding a variety of jobs while attending school….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Jesse Owens’ acceptance of his identity inspire you in the development of your own identity?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will explore the life of Jesse Owens and how his identity shaped it. Through his example, students will understand how they can develop their own identity and how this development will help them advance freedom in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Jesse Owens’ life and actions, and how his identity shaped them.
  • Students will understand how they can develop their own identity.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to focus and refine their personal identity.

Background

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper and grandson of slaves, rose from humble roots to become one of the most admired Americans and greatest athletes of the twentieth century. Owens defined himself by his accomplishments on the racetrack, but others struggled to see beyond his African American heritage.

His gold medal victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics proved the fallibility of the Nazi philosophy of Aryan superiority, but the treatment Owens received on his triumphant return to the United States highlighted the segregationist leanings of many in the country—even some of the nation’s highest leaders. Despite these challenges, Owens became an inspiration for many Americans and an example of how even the best of us could suffer in a society struggling with institutionalized racial discrimination.

Vocabulary

  • Sharecropper
  • Fallibility
  • Aryan
  • Triumphant
  • Institutionalized
  • Acclaimed
  • Segregation
  • Amateur
  • Enraptured
  • Adversity
  • Doctrine

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Jesse Owens?
  • What did Jesse Owens accomplish during the 1936 Olympics?
  • How did Jesse Owens’ experience in the 1936 Olympics help shape his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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