How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Breathe Summary and Analysis

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After his son suffered an unexplained seizure, Walker was fairly appalled when a doctor offered syphilis as a possible cause. Although Walker’s son was only twelve and no blood was drawn, the doctor had assumed that syphilis was a possibility based on Walker’s son’s race. Back at home, his son suffered a second seizure, and Walker and his wife, Brenda, quickly decided to journey to Boston Children’s Hospital, where Black patients were more commonly seen.

En route, Walker drove so fast that his wife demanded that he slow down. He envisioned being stopped by a white policeman, who would call him “boy” in a Southern drawl with tobacco stuffed in his mouth. Walker envisioned hitting the imaginary policeman in the head and then recognized that he was becoming overly “worked up.” He was reminded of the stress his father had carried before dying at sixty-eight; one of Walker’s brothers had died at only forty-seven. He recognizes that he has a high-strung personality, even more so than his father, which is compounded by his feelings of duty to protect his sons from harm. Sometimes he sees his sons’ faces when he thinks of Travyon Martin, who, at the time of writing, was recently killed. He has learned to use breathing exercises when his stressors begin to cause physical symptoms, but not even that can calm him when a doctor tells him that his twelve-year-old son could have syphilis.

Boston Children’s Hospital was crowded when Walker and his family arrived. After a two-hour wait, his son was finally called to an examination room, where Brenda reminded Walker of a seizure their son had experienced when he was a toddler because of a sudden temperature spike. Following the initial examination, the nurse told the family that a neurologist would be in to see them “shortly.” Two hours later, both Walker and his wife were angry; the neurologist had failed to appear.

Walker left the room and walked to the nurses’ station. He told them that he had been waiting to see a doctor for hours and that keeping them waiting this long was “unacceptable . . . bullshit.” He demanded to see a doctor “right now,” leaving everyone at the desk speechless. Moments after he returned to his son’s room, a doctor burst in, apologizing that no one had informed him that the Walkers were waiting.

Five days after the tests at Boston Children’s, Walker’s son was diagnosed with Paroxysmal Kinesigenic Dyskinesia, which is a neurological disorder that can trigger seizures in adolescents and last through their early twenties. Although frightening, the seizures themselves are harmless, which was a great relief to the Walker family. From this point forward, whenever Walker faces moments of high stress, he envisions something he has done as a father that is “worthy of the title,” adding this to his breathing techniques in order to calm himself. 

Analysis

In this essay, Walker explains how he breathes with intentionality to slow his physical stress response and to return to a place of mental and physical health. Wanting to avoid the early deaths that some Black men in his family have experienced, Walker often uses breathing techniques to decrease his anger. Breathing becomes a metaphor for Walker’s parenting; he views his role as a father as essential, much like breathing, and approaches those responsibilities with the same sense of intentionality. When his son faces a health crisis at age twelve, Walker is reminded of the moment when he whispered, “I’m here, I’m here” to this same son when he suffered a seizure at age two. Fatherhood is constant and enduring, becoming the focal point of Walker’s own successes. In fact, when his other stressors feel out of control, he returns to his role as a father as a means of validating and encouraging himself. Breathing, like fatherhood, is natural, yet it requires a focused sense of purpose to be most effective.

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