How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Dragon Slayers Summary and Analysis

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Walker attended a Christmas party where he was confronted by a white man who insisted that Walker should hate all white men. This man was undeterred by Walker’s insistence that he had not suffered any injuries of “lasting significance” because of whites. The man “reminded” Walker of the injustices of slavery and insisted that white people were Walker’s oppressors. Walker politely replied that he had never been a slave. Instead of shying away from this conversation, Walker rather enjoyed it, noting the pleasure in “driving white liberals up the wall” by denying them the chance to pity him.

The man had spotted him standing alone at the appetizer table and had begun a conversation about politics, football, and their children. After learning of Walker’s position as an African American Literature professor, the man had asked whether he had any Black students in the course. Walker explained that he asked his students to think “like blacks,” but not in the ways they had likely been trained to believe. Instead of examining Black literature as “records of oppression,” Walker taught them to see the “heroic” actions of Black Americans throughout history. After all, he contended, his very presence in the modern United States is a testament to the courage of slaves and their descendants.

Outraged, the white man insisted that Walker was simply letting whites “off the hook” and absolving them of any obligation to atone for the injustices of the past. Eventually, he stormed off to tell his wife about this Black man who was a “traitor” to his own race. Walker refuses to see himself as a “victim,” a perception of Blacks which he has found common to both Blacks and whites.

Walker recalls a course he took with Frank Conroy, who taught him to obsess over the clarity of his own writing. The following semester, he took a workshop with James Alan McPherson, who profoundly impacted Walker’s work. McPherson, the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as countless other awards, used Walker’s paper as a standard of subpar writing, telling the class that the author, like many rich rappers, was “selling out [his] race for personal gain.”

Incensed, Walker demanded a personal meeting with McPherson. During this meeting, he insisted that McPherson had misread him, noting his own troubled past in the “ghetto” as well as his personal hardships. McPherson left and later returned, and Walker apologized for his anger. They talked briefly about where their respective “people” were from; McPherson told him that his own people were from Georgia, adding that “that place is a motherfucker.” The resilience and toughness of this comment struck Walker, but he nonetheless felt rejected by the man’s appraisal of his work. Feeling defeated, he thanked McPherson for agreeing to meet with him and stood to leave. McPherson called to him as he reached the door, noting that stereotypes are valuable “only if you use them to your advantage.” He asked that Walker use stereotypes to entice readers into a sense of comfort and to then “move them beyond the stereotype” by showing them what was real. When Walker asked what was real, McPherson instantly replied, “You.”

Realizing the profundity of this statement, Walker asked McPherson to supervise an independent project for him. Over the next four years, the two examined Black culture, from intellectuals to filmmakers to ex-cons. Walker realized through their work that “life is a motherfucker” and that living it anyway is “where humanity is won.” Furthermore, he realized that he had “become [his] own stereotype,” seeing himself as a victim...

(This entire section contains 959 words.)

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of pain and defeat—even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. His own stories failed to reflect the resilience of those around him who had struggled with racism, drug addiction, and violence. Eventually, McPherson served as the dissertation chair for Walker’s work in interdisciplinary studies.

Walker thus finds that his students in African American Literature may be initially surprised by the way he structures his course, but by the end of the semester they are encouraged by the heroic nature of Black Americans—perhaps because “it is the nature found in us all.” When they ask him where this approach comes from, Walker tells them that he inherited it from his father.

Analysis 

In this essay, Walker challenges those who unintentionally place limits on Black accomplishments. The man at the Christmas party represents whites with seemingly noble intentions; he believes that Black people have been handed a great injustice and that white people should be held accountable for the travesties of the past. However, Walker insists that this issue is much more complex than viewing all white people as his “oppressors”—and even insists that it is dangerous for Blacks to consistently view themselves as victims. Instead, he believes that his own existence, as the descendant of slaves and other Black people who have struggled to survive, demonstrates a sense of bravery and heroism that he is proud to inherit. He, too, once found it easy to categorize himself as a victim until a Black mentor challenged his thinking. The power of this mentorship breathed new life into Walker’s engagement with literature and education, and he realized that he needed to teach African American literature in a way that showcased the heroic nature of this ancestry. The ripple effect created by this shift in perspective continues from Walker to his students, who are encouraged by Walker’s unconventional approach. McPherson’s influence thus continues reaching students, challenging them to spend less time concentrating on the “dragons” of history and more time understanding the ways in which Black Americans have forged their own metaphorical swords and have skillfully used those swords in their battles.

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