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Book Review: How To Make A Slave and Other Essays - Jerald Walker

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Short Review: How To Make a Slave and Other Essays, a 2020 National Book Award Finalist and the first essay collection by writer Jerald Walker, is an enthralling, fascinating, and thought-provoking look at race, self-identity, and what it means to be a parent to black children in the 21st century in America, with almost all of the essays clocking in at under seven pages. The collection, which reads more like a series of tight and compact short stories, is powerful, timely, and ushers in the reign of a new black literary icon in today's America. Highly recommended.


Long Review: Jerald Walker may be the most underrated essayist in America today.


Walker, a professor of creative writing at Emerson College, has been known for years as one of the most powerful black voices in literary America, publishing two former memoirs dealing with his experience as a black boy growing up on the Southside of Chicago during the 1970s and ‘80s, and numerous essays in various publications, most of them on the topic of race and how it has shaped his life and the lives around him. He has been published in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, Mother Jones, Oxford American, and The Iowa Review, amongst others, and he has been anthologized in the Best American Essays series five times. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, arguably the best MFA program in America, and prior to teaching at Emerson College, he was a professor of English at Bridgewater State University. In the time since his graduation from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has also been a visiting professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT and in the MFA in Nonfiction Program at the University of Iowa.


Despite his impressive resume, he has never published a collection of essays until now, and one wonders, after reading through the slim but brilliant 151-page collection, why he has waited so long to do so. Luckily, the National Book Awards in 2020 took notice of this collection, the work becoming shortlisted for the award in the Nonfiction Category before ultimately losing out to a biography on Malcolm X, but that doesn’t extinguish the power of this collection whatsoever.


Race is the common theme that runs throughout all of these essays, whether in subtle or stark ways, and it sets the stage early in the first essay of the collection, sharing the title of the book: ‘How to Make a Slave.’ The essay itself, short and tight at only six pages, speaks with readers directly about the experience that Walker has had over the course of his lifetime in regard to discovering race and how it impacts his life versus the life of white people around him. It starts with a description of an elementary school project where he had to give a presentation on Frederick Douglass and make a cut-out of him, and it goes on to dwell on the fact that black history is often serious, depressing, and heavy, unlike that of white history. The essay moves into a discussion of Walker’s exploration of black history as he grows older, such as discovering the FBI tapes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s infidelities and the humor of what King says in some of them, and how he wishes that he could make the overall historical weight on black people lighter in this country. It ends with a discussion of a racist comment made by a white child to one of his two black children and how he must grapple with explaining to the son why white people say such things to black people sometimes. It is a great start to the collection and sets the stage early for the frank and deep conversations about race, duality, and white Americans’ complicity in the suppression of black Americans at all turns since the country was founded.


Immediately following the first essay is the strongest one in the collection in my opinion, an essay titled ‘Dragon Slayer.’ It begins with Walker chastising white liberals and their reveling in the unfortunate aspects of racism, specifically how they like to talk directly about the problems that black people face because of racism instead of how the problems affect them and how they also rise above the adversity in many cases, and it goes onto describe Walker’s time spent at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop during his college years, focusing on his writing mentor and the biggest lesson he was taught. Walker writes: ‘My stories showed people being affected by drug addiction, racism, poverty, murder, crime, violence, but they said nothing about the spirit that, despite being confronted with what often amounted to certain defeat, would continue to struggle and aspire for something better.’ In other words, his writing mentor forced him to recognize that he shouldn’t be writing stories about the bad things that happen to black people, aka the ‘dragons’ of the essay title, but instead how they defeat the forces set against them and how they rise above in the end, aka the ‘dragon-slaying’ of the title. It is a powerful essay, and it made me realize what the important difference is between stories that seem to revel in poverty-racism porn compared to those that are written by writers such as Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead, which are more character explorations of how black Americans overcome their surroundings and circumstances.


From there, the collection doesn’t stop—there is not one bad essay, something near-impossible for a piece of work that features 21 different essays. In “Before Grief,” an essay that was previously selected for the Best African American Essays 2010, Walker dwells on the loss of Michael Jackson and what Jackson meant to the black community at large and him personally. In ‘Inauguration,’ we see Walker struggle with how to describe to his young sons the importance of President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, and a similar sentiment pervades “Kaleshion,” an exploration of racial dynamics when looking at the difference of dating white women and black women as a black man. “The Heart” is a poignant essay to a brother who does not know how to leave a wife who mistreats both him, their children, and herself, with Walker being a brother who wishes he could help before sharing the pain and anguish he feels on the inside when he has to watch the family unravel as his brother doesn’t take his advice, and “Testimony,” an essay dealing with the importance of basketball to black kids growing up on the Southside of Chicago and their experience one day with a PTSD-afflicted vet on the basketball court itself, speaks to the subtle effects of war and how they silently manifest themselves in ways that people don’t see on the surface.


Other essays are so different from ones that I’ve read before that I found myself marveling at them: “Strippers” is a description of a visit that Walker took to a strip club with two fellow married friends after celebrating the success of chemo on their son’s cancer, and it turns into an exploration of class differences and how all people, no matter what job they are doing, are people at the end of the day who deserve to be treated with respect, and the entire thing is written in the second person. “Race Stories,” one of the later essays in the collection, does a brilliant job at describing an all-too-familiar incident where Walker was stopped by a white security guard in a campus building on the basis of racial profiling, and he reveals what happened by framing it as a story he’s telling to fellow faculty members at a faculty dinner, which makes the essay feel more like a short story in the most thought-provoking way. “The Heritage Room,” treading similar waters, is a frank discussion of a fellow faculty member who accused Walker of sexual harassment on the grounds of him fitting the ‘dark scary black man’ stereotype after he sent her an email referencing an earlier racist comment she had made, and “Feeding Pigeons” is an enthralling piece of prose that describes Walker’s experiences with several gay friends and a professor when he was in college and compares it to a current incident, where a student he failed in one of his classes accuses him of hating straight people, despite Walker being straight himself.


“Once More into the Ghetto,” one of the final essays, is simultaneously Walker marveling at how far he’s come from his former lower-class, drug-ridden childhood and a sarcastic and chiding exploration of how his children look at the place where he grew up in Chicago as a warzone, somewhere far away and imaginary, like Iraq, which is further entrenched when they visit family members there and go over the top when acting scared for their lives.

Many of these essays, in the most serious sense of the word, are the best I’ve read in a long time. Race is the throughline with all of them, whether it’s pronounced or not, and Walker doesn’t shy away from calling out the white patriarchy when he can, or the seeming hypocrisy of white women when it comes to exploring the aforementioned ‘evil, sex-hungry black man’ stereotype that still pervades so much of America today. He does all this in essays that last no longer than a few pages somehow, his ideas and points so distilled, frank, and blunt that they pack the same kind of force as a sucker punch, and they left me still thinking about them days after I had completed the collection and returned it to my local library.


And, if an author ever wants something out of his readers, it’s that—to keep thinking about the ideas, themes, and overarching human elements of their work, whether that be fiction or nonfiction, long after a reader shuts the cover on it for the last time, and Walker far exceeds that goal with this outstanding collection of essays.


Rating: 5/5 Stars.





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