How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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How to Make a Slave Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905

The titular essay of this collection is written as a set of instructions; Walker speaks directly to the reader as he explicates the necessary steps in creating a school project on slavery. Frederick Douglass is central to the project, and Walker asserts that you’ll need to begin by declaring that Douglass is your own personal hero. However, since this is a ten-year-old’s project, the heroic sentiment isn’t accurate, because learning more about Black history makes it difficult for you to feel comfortable with your own life. You can feel good about Douglass’s narrative when he beats his own master, and your classmates will cheer when you proclaim Douglass’s famous quote: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” A dark-skinned classmate, whom you and others nickname “Congo,” swears that he wouldn’t have “taken that stuff either.” You walk home with your miniature replica of Douglass staring out of your back pocket, and you wish Black history had “some funny parts.”

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You manage to recall a more humorous moment in Black history, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was caught on wiretap by the FBI screaming “I’m fucking for God!” during sex. At age twenty-five, however, the humor is lost as you wonder how King could have done such a thing. You try to come to terms with moral subjectivism as a means of reconciling the man with his actions. You try to have this conversation with your white girlfriend, who has told you that she doesn’t see race and is the first post-racial person you have ever known, though the term hasn’t been invented yet. You think she’s just stupid, and because you see race in everything, she thinks you are stupid, too.

You move on to a mixed-race girlfriend because you believe she gives race a great deal of thought. But you are disappointed to learn that she rarely mentions race and that she does not, in fact, see it everywhere. While she was raised in a stereotypical suburban neighborhood, enjoying excellent schools, Fourth of July neighborhood parades, pristine streets, and minimal racial diversity, you grew up in a neighborhood riddled with gangs and drugs, believing that all white people would always be racists.

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The two of you have two sons a few years later and settle into a neighborhood that is ninety-six percent white and conservative. Both of you become professors at a local college, and on the Fourth of July, you watch your young boys wave American flags during parades. You wonder how long your children can be happy in this environment.

Only a couple of months later, your older son comes home from school upset that a girl has told him that his skin color makes him “stinky.” You begin hiding in his closet to observe his emotional state over racial discrimination, and you believe that he is handling things well. Your wife asks that you not make a big deal out of the incident, and you remind her about Congo’s nickname; you are certain that these comments can have lifelong impacts. 

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Latest answer posted August 20, 2021, 6:25 pm (UTC)

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Your younger son, whose skin is lighter than his brother’s, begins to notice the difference in Black skin tones. While his older brother’s skin resembles yours, his own color is closer to his mother’s; hers looks more like his grandmother’s, which is the same color as all the kids in preschool. He asks why skin is different colors, and you respond that you don’t know. 

You wonder if this is your moment to begin discussing race. You hide again in the closet to spy on your sons’ conversation, and when you decide to seize this moment of parental guidance, your emergence terrifies your unsuspecting sons. They scream and begin crying as your wife rushes in to calm them. You begin to seriously doubt whether you can be a good father to these boys. 

After deciding not to subject them to a conversation about race, you reconcile yourself to sleeping alone while your wife continues to comfort the boys. You plan to find your wife the following evening, scoop her some of her favorite ice cream, and remind her of Douglass’s words as you stare into her eyes. She will be confused, but you can explain.

Analysis 

The opening essay in Walker’s collection utilizes second-person narration, which integrates the reader into this experience of examining race. Recognizing that the Black experience has a painful history in the United States, readers are reminded that well-known Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. present challenges themselves. While they do convey a sense of heroism through their courageous actions and their influence on American society, they can also make it difficult to “feel good” about American life. Historical leaders such as King have proven to be quite human in their flaws, and as Walker discovered, this can be unsettling to contemplate. Readers are also reminded that the Black experience varies greatly, as exemplified in the differences between Walker and his wife. Both their backgrounds and their perspectives reflect a spectrum of opportunities and challenges, and these experiences shape their parenting styles. Attempts to discuss race with their young sons demonstrate the complexities involved in navigating those diverse experiences in ways that will prove meaningful to young, innocent minds.

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