How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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How to Make a Slave and Other Essays Summary

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays is a 2020 collection of autobiographical essays by American writer Jerald Walker.

  • The title essay is written in the second person and outlines Walker’s relationship with matters of race and racism from elementary school up to the present.
  • In “Dragon Slayers,” an interaction at a party leads Walker to describe the influence that his teacher and mentor, James Alan McPherson, had on his own writing.
  • “Before Grief” explores Michael Jackson’s complicated legacy, while “Inauguration” recalls Walker’s family’s experiences on the day Barack Obama took office.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays is a compilation of essays by Jerald Walker which primarily reflect on the stories that have shaped the author’s own life. The essays are arranged loosely in chronological order; some are written in the second person, heightening a sense of intimacy with readers, and others are written in the first person. The collection explores how to live and love well, and reflects the author’s experiences of growing up and living in America as a Black man.

In “How to Make a Slave,” Walker uses second-person narration to consider how he has interacted with race throughout his life, beginning with projects in elementary school. He remembers how race complicated a relationship with a white girlfriend and then how he began dating a biracial woman, who would eventually become his wife, because he believed that she would be particularly sensitive to issues involving race. Later, he struggles with how to engage in authentic conversations about being Black with their young sons and wonders if he can ever be the father his children need.

In “Dragon Slayers,” Walker is confronted by a white man at a social gathering who insists that Walker should hate all white people because they are his “oppressors.” Walker refuses to see himself this way, which infuriates the man. Walker then explains how James Alan McPherson influenced his life and encouraged Walker to see himself as strong, not oppressed. McPherson was the first Black man to win a Pulitzer Prize for writing, and he criticized Walker’s early work, explaining that Walker was relying too heavily on common Black stereotypes. He challenged Walker to see the resilience in Black stories and to write about what is “real.” His mentorship directly influenced the trajectory of Walker’s writing.

The iconic influence of Michael Jackson is the focus of “Before Grief.” Walker strongly identified with the Jackson 5, and he and his siblings often produced their own version of the Jacksons’ music, aptly referring to themselves as the Walker 6. Michael Jackson grew up minutes away from the Walkers, and his family, like Walker’s, was devoutly religious.

Barack Obama’s inauguration is the subject of “Inauguration,” which provides a moment for Walker and his wife to reflect on how far Black people have come since the days of slavery. Walker longs to talk to his young sons about the momentous importance of the day but ultimately finds himself incapable of explaining it in a way that his young sons can understand. In the end, he is content to listen to his sons’ dreams of becoming artists and to let the conversation float away.

“Kaleshion” explains that Walker’s father believed it was a crime for Black boys to have any hair; he thus forced Walker to have a kaleshion cut until he was about ten. Years later, Walker accidentally shaves a bald spot into the center of his head just before a conference where he is scheduled to present. His wife urges him to return to the kaleshion, but Walker refuses. At the conference, he imagines that his work will impress a famous author who is the keynote speaker; when Walker stands to speak, he realizes that the famous author has already left.

In “The Heritage Room,” Walker describes working with a particularly challenging colleague named Judy. Judy interprets any disagreement with Walker as threatening and has him dismissed from a committee because of her inaccurate perceptions. After spending some time reconstructing their relationship, Judy again feels threatened when Walker disagrees with her during a committee meeting. Walker encourages Judy to recognize her own biases, telling her...

(This entire section contains 1314 words.)

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that everyone is racist and that it’s important to acknowledge this.

“Unprepared” describes how when Walker is seventeen, he is given a ride by a man who wants him to give sexual favors in return for the lift. Walker explains how he remained level-headed during this unexpected encounter; he also reflects upon how stereotypes often work against the truth, recalling how a particular serial killer’s crimes were unbelievable to many in the Black community because they believed serial killers just couldn’t be Black. Walker asserts that to believe that any race can only be so bad also means that it can only be so good.

Walker teaches a creative writing class, and in “Feeding Pigeons” he explains that many LGBTQ+ students use this class to share their experiences. One student’s father is infuriated when Walker fails his son, insisting that Walker has “a thing for them gays.” Walker recalls one particularly close friendship he once shared with a young man named Tony and acknowledges that he has loved a few gay people in his time.

Walker’s young son is given inadequate medical treatment in “Breathe,” and Walker and his wife switch hospitals, determined to find answers that do not reflect biases against their Black son. The experience reminds him of the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, and Walker utilizes breathing exercises to try to remain calm as he desperately seeks answers for his son’s sudden onset of seizures.

In “The Heart,” Walker discusses his twin brother’s tumultuous marriage; after marrying an addict, Jim spent a decade trying to hold their family together. Each of their three children were born addicted to drugs, and the chaos reached its pinnacle one night when Jim’s wife tried to stab him and nearly severed his thumb. Walker always imagined that she would eventually kill Jim and has conflicting feelings when she ultimately dies.

When a local community college receives bad publicity over its lack of diversity in “Balling,” Walker sees a personal opportunity. He explains how he persuades the school to hire him, though his wife accuses him of “pandering.”

“Testimony” describes the street basketball tournaments that were familiar to Walker growing up in Chicago. On this particular night, the team chose to include Buggy, a man who was once a phenomenal basketball player; following his service in Vietnam, Buggy had never been the same, suffering from unspecified mental challenges. The team’s inclusion of Buggy in the basketball tournament was a testament to his place of honor in the community.

“Smoke,” “Thieves,” and “Race Stories” provide first-person accounts of racial discrimination, which is a common occurrence in Walker’s life. Walker sometimes struggles with making allowances for random oversights that do not necessarily reflect racist intentions. He also testifies to the importance of vocalizing blatantly discriminatory actions, pointing out that such occurrences happen repeatedly even on his college campus.

Walker creates intentional moments to engage deeply with his sons, as is evident in “The Designated Driver.” He considers his own father “heroic,” signifying the importance of strong men in their sons’ lives. In “Simple,” Walker explains how his blind father seemingly managed to stay one step ahead of his son, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of his character.

After spending many years living in predominantly white neighborhoods, Walker returns home to the South Side of Chicago in “Once More to the Ghetto.” He struggles to overcome his own fears about the dangers of the streets, particularly since he is taking his wife and sons with him. When he encounters a group of men on the street late in the evening, Walker grows increasingly nervous about their intentions, worried that the rest of his group seems to be oblivious to the potential danger. The men pass without conflict, and Walker is reminded that “humanity” defined his young life, not violence. 

The collection ends with “Advice to a Family Man,” which is largely a hypothetical musing about what might happen if Walker were to try to collect the pencil he has dropped on the train—and which has landed under a thin white woman’s buttocks. He concludes by imagining himself at the side of his wife and sons, present before they can even anticipate his arrival.

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