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How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

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Notes From Your Bookseller

A deeply personal set of essays. While they circle wide-ranging topics from cultural to political, it is Walker's bravery in sharing personal experiences about friends, family and colleagues that helps the reader grasp issues of race. Walker's voice is clear, sharp and empathetic. How to Make a Slave enters into perfect dialogue with Claudia Rankine's Just Us: An American Conversation.

Finalist, National Book Award in Nonfiction
Winner, Massachusetts Book Award

A Book of the Year pick from Kirkus, BuzzFeed, and Literary Hub

“The essays in this collection are restless, brilliant and short.…The brevity suits not just Walker’s style but his worldview, too.…Keeping things quick gives him the freedom to move; he can alight on a truth without pinning it into place.” —Jennifer Szalai, the New York Times

For the black community, Jerald Walker asserts in How to Make a Slave, “anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punchline.” It is on the knife’s edge between fury and farce that the essays in this exquisite collection balance. Whether confronting the medical profession’s racial biases, considering the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson, paying homage to his writing mentor James Alan McPherson, or attempting to break free of personal and societal stereotypes, Walker elegantly blends personal revelation and cultural critique. The result is a bracing and often humorous examination by one of America’s most acclaimed essayists of what it is to grow, parent, write, and exist as a black American male. Walker refuses to lull his readers; instead his missives urge them to do better as they consider, through his eyes, how to be a good citizen, how to be a good father, how to live, and how to love.

ISBN-13: 9780814255995

Media Type: Paperback(1)

Publisher: Ohio State University Press

Publication Date: 10-30-2020

Pages: 152

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

Age Range: 18 Years

Series: 21st Century Essays

Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, winner of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, Iowa Review, and Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. The recipient of James A. Michener and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Walker is Professor of Creative Writing at Emerson College.

Read an Excerpt

I was at a Christmas party with a man who wanted me to hate him. I should hate all whites, he felt, for what they have done to me. I thought hard about what whites have done to me. I was forty, old enough to have accumulated a few unpleasant racial encounters, but nothing of any lasting significance came to mind. The man was aston- ished at this response. “How about slavery?” he asked. I explained, as politely as I could, that I had not been a slave. “But you feel its effects,” he snapped. “Racism, dis- crimination, and prejudice will always be a problem for you in this country. White people,” he insisted, “are youroppressors.” I glanced around the room, just as one of my oppressors happened by. She was holding a tray of cana- pés. She offered me one. I asked the man if, as a form of reparations, I should take two.

It was midway through my third year in academia. I had survived mountains of papers, apathetic students, cantankerous colleagues, boring meetings, sleep deprivation, and two stalkers, and now I was up against a man who had been mysteriously transported from 1962. He even looked the part, with lavish sideburns and solid, black-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t an academic, but rather the spouse of one. In fact, he had no job at all, a dual act of defiance, he felt, against a patriarchal and capitalistic society. He was a fun person to talk with, especially if, like me, you enjoyed driving white liberals up the wall. And the surest way to do that, if you were black, was to deny them the chance to pity you.

He’d spotted me thirty minutes earlier while I stood alone at the dining room table, grazing on various appe- tizers. My wife, Brenda, had drifted off somewhere, and the room buzzed with pockets of conversation and laughter. The man joined me. I accepted his offer of a gin and tonic. We talked local politics for a moment, or rather he talked and I listened, because, being relatively new to this small town, it wasn’t something I knew much about, before moving on to the Patriots, our kids, and finally my classes. He was particularly interested in my African Amer- ican Literature course. “Did you have any black students?” he inquired.

“We started with two,” I said, “but ended with twenty- eight.” I let his puzzled expression linger until I’d eaten a stuffed mushroom. “Everyone who takes the course has to agree to be black for the duration of the semester.”

“Really?” he asked, laughing. “What do they do, smear their faces with burnt cork?”

“Not a bad idea,” I said. “But for now, they simply have to think like blacks, but in a way different from what they probably expect.” I told him that black literature is often approached as records of oppression, but that my stu- dents don’t focus on white cruelty but rather its flip side: black courage. “After all,” I continued, “slaves and their immediate descendants were by and large heroic, not pathetic, or I wouldn’t be standing here.”

The man was outraged. “You’re letting whites off the hook,” he said. “You’re absolving them of responsibility, of the obligation to atone for past and present wrongs . . .” He went on in this vein for a good while, and I am pleased to say that I goaded him until he stormed across the room and stood with his wife, who, after he’d spoken with her, glanced in my direction to see, no doubt, a traitor to the black race. That was unfortunate. I’d like to think I betray whites too.

Table of Contents

How to Make a Slave 1

Dragon Slayers 7

Before Grief 16

Inauguration 21

Kaleshion 29

The Heritage Room 36

Unprepared 42

Feeding Pigeons 49

Breathe 56

The Heart 63

Balling 68

Testimony 75

Smoke 82

Wars 89

Simple 94

The Designated Driver 100

Strippers 108

Thieves 116

Once More to the Ghetto 120

Race Stories 136

Advice to a Family Man 142

Acknowledgments 149