How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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How to Make a Slave and Other Essays is dedicated to the memory of James Alan McPherson, a fitting tribute to the man who reshaped the way Walker approached the subject matter of his own writing. McPherson provided unflinchingly critical feedback on Walker’s early work, urging him to become a more authentic writer; he insisted that Walker should avoid clichés about the Black experience that merely left readers comfortable within stories that fit well-known stereotypes.

Because of this feedback, Walker grew as a writer, searching for what was “real” about himself and about Black culture. After much work, he recognized that his existence as a Black man is a living testimony to a long line of strong and resilient people who came before him. This collection of essays thus represents what is “real” about himself and his own life—from growing up on Chicago’s South Side to teaching and raising a family in a predominately white suburb. Through his essays, Walker discards the narrow lens through which Black lives are so commonly seen and instead presents a nuanced and varied representation of the Black experience.

Walker’s essays are not singularly focused on the Black experience; rather, they call readers, regardless of race or ethnicity, to live better lives. Through his intentional parenting, Walker calls for all parents to seek purposeful conversations with their children about life’s struggles and quandaries. He challenges parents to recognize the value their own stories have in shaping their children’s lives and to seek out moments of opportunity to share their personal joys and shortcomings.

Walker also challenges readers to be introspective about the way they perceive the world around them, always remaining open to modifying their beliefs. He acknowledges that it is easy to perceive that one is on the receiving end of a particular injustice, such as he feels when restaurant reservations are “lost,” yet contends that, sometimes, there is no actual injustice. Instead, everyone finds themselves victims to bad fortune, technical malfunctions, and gross yet unintentional oversights from time to time. Even though injustice is a real and constant possibility, Walker extends grace as often as possible, trying to allow for human error and to believe that humanity is full of decent people with good intentions. Walker uses second-person narration and present tense in some of his essays to compel readers to join him in this view, though not without at least a dash of irony: “Allow for these possibilities the next time your reservation is missing. … And when you are taken to a table in an unoccupied overflow room.”

Often, Walker’s essays call upon readers to acknowledge the racism they encounter in the world around them. When Walker is stopped by a security guard in a building on his own campus, he points out that “students flowed around [him], showing no interest in [his] detainment.” When Walker refuses to produce identification until the guard asks all of the white students for their identification, some of the students finally “pause to take note of what [is] happening.” Walker makes the case that everyone needs to live with a greater conscious presence, recognizing the struggles of those around them and supporting those who are treated unjustly.

When he was young, Walker’s white girlfriend claimed not to “see” race, which frustrated him because he “see[s] race in everything.” He also scoffs at wealthy and pretentious white women, like those he finds at Whole Foods, who visibly react to his Blackness by grabbing their purses when he approaches. He isn’t sure that these women are even aware of their reaction and considers that it might be...

(This entire section contains 733 words.)

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a subconscious reflex. Layered within this story is an unspoken truth: that even a subconscious negative reaction is unacceptable—and that no one should navigate their life so thoughtlessly. Instead, it is each individual’s personal duty to move through the world with as much awareness as possible of their actions’ impact on others.

Though Walker’s essays present a highly personal portrait of what it is like to be a Black American man, his themes are inclusive, calling for readers to be better citizens. He insists that we are all racists and that we can only make real progress by acknowledging this truth. His essays speak to a universal human calling to treat others with greater kindness, endless compassion, and faithful love.

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