In “Once More to the Ghetto” from How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, what does Walker mean when he writes that “humanity” was the defining feature of his life in the ghetto?

When Walker writes that “humanity” was the defining feature of his life in the ghetto, he means that his neighborhood was fundamentally a civilized place where people did typical things, like say hi and ask how others are doing.

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After a brief interaction with a group of Black men in a Chicago neighborhood that Jerald Walker refers to as “unsafe,” Walker acknowledges the “humanity” that defined the exchange. According to Walker, humanity, not violence, had “defined” his “life in the ghetto.”

Walker’s conclusion seems to contrast with how he...

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After a brief interaction with a group of Black men in a Chicago neighborhood that Jerald Walker refers to as “unsafe,” Walker acknowledges the “humanity” that defined the exchange. According to Walker, humanity, not violence, had “defined” his “life in the ghetto.”

Walker’s conclusion seems to contrast with how he presents “the ghetto” for most of his essay. Before the end, Walker zeroes in on the violence of Chicago’s South Side. In other parts of the essay, it’s possible to argue that Walker depicts South Side residents as automatic threats. It’s as if they’re destructive machines, not people. Even when his son is sick, Walker refuses to pull into the parking lot of Harold’s Chicken Shack because he’s afraid he’ll be “murdered.”

Walker’s fears continue on the walk to buy beer. Walker is conscious of his pace. He doesn’t want to walk fast, because that could be “interpreted as a sign of fear.” He then points out how his clothes—an REI shirt, Birkenstocks, and cargo shorts—make him look like a misfit.

Yet Walker’s worries are unfounded. What takes place between the two groups is not violent. What occurs is quite common and peaceful. It’s what often happens between humans. The person in a “noose of gold chains” asks how they’re doing. One of the people from Walker’s group replies, “We making it, cuz.” The moment appears to push Walker to realize that “the ghetto” was a civilized place where people did typical human things like say hi and ask how they’re doing.

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