How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Balling Summary and Analysis

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Walker found a career opportunity following the emergence of unflattering reports that a private college in Boston lacked much-needed racial diversity. After seeing their ad searching for a creative writing professor and noting the preference for applicants of color, Walker “could not believe [his] good fortune.”

He considered that his skin might not be dark enough to suit the needs of the hiring committee. After all, he recalled being chosen last in basketball, always after his darker peers had already been selected. He noticed that being darker presumably made one a better dancer and fighter, as well. He considered going to a tanning salon but ultimately decided against it. 

The application required the previous publication of a book. As fate would have it, Walker’s first book was slated to be released during Black History Month, which worked perfectly. He began working on his cover letter, stressing that he was an African American with experience in teaching African American literature and that his memoir “chronicle[d] his experiences as a black teen in a Chicago ghetto.” His wife accused him of pandering. Walker denied the accusation, explaining that he was “balling,” and shared his experience of being picked last for basketball. When his wife suggested that maybe he just wasn’t any good, Walker considered that his crossover did need a little work, as well as his defensive skills and rebounding. However, he maintained that the “key to balling was improvisation,” being able to adapt to any situation and to perform as needed. This is how he approached his application. He succeeded in obtaining an interview and began preparing by reading his interviewers’ bios and skimming their publications. 

The interview lasted an entire day. He was astounded that none of his interviewers was Black but considered that this could prove to be “fortuitous.” As he entered his final interview with the vice president, Walker wasn’t sure whether to address the bad publicity the school had recently received. After some informal conversation, she addressed the issue herself, asking whether he had heard about their “problems with diversity.” Walker acknowledged that he had, and she expressed her hope that he wouldn’t see them as a “bad institution.” Referring to the issues as “growing pains,” Walker stated that these types of troubles are common to the entire human condition and that all individuals must work to improve them as a society. This pleased the vice president, and Walker was pleased with his “sweet crossover,” one that she never even saw coming.

Analysis 

With a stroke of humor, Walker examines various stereotypes regarding lighter and darker pigmentations in an essay titled for one’s ability to adapt to a specific moment. He considers getting a tan so that he will look darker, yet he imagines that his presence in a tanning salon would send the clerk into a panic; the connotation of Black skin in this context might create a sense of fear among “ghostly Caucasians,” who ironically pay money trying to acquire darker skin themselves. Walker laughs at the potential outcome because he notes that “few things evoke more sympathy for a black man than his false arrest.” Later, however, he provides some insight into how shades of Black skin are viewed within the Black community. Walker is certain that he was chosen last for basketball because he wasn’t as dark as most of his peers; his wife’s rebuttal offers a perspective based on his lack of ability at the sport, and Walker indirectly admits the veracity of her statements. When a college finds itself in the midst of negative publicity over its lack of diversity, Walker intentionally crafts his image to better appeal to their need for a Black presence, perhaps even inflating those qualities which the school’s white administrators might be drawn to. While Walker’s anecdotes are humorous, there are fundamental truths embedded within the humor, reminding readers of the intentional and unintentional ways in which race can be leveraged in society.

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