How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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The Heritage Room Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

Walker attended monthly department meetings at the college where he taught. They met in the Heritage Room, named for the dozens of portraits of African Americans displayed throughout the room. Walker was the first Black teacher hired in the 161-year history of the school, and he classified himself as the “Token Negro.” He recognized the other types in his academic surroundings: the Intellectuals, the Complainers, the Comedians, the Socialites, the Rebels, and the Mutes.

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Judy, a member of a shared committee, had previously complained about Walker, writing to the department chair to indicate her fear of his actions during a meeting. Walker was removed from the committee for a year, although he insisted that he had not responded to Judy in anger; instead, he had argued his point passionately. But his defense did not persuade the chair.

One evening, Walker returned to his office to work and was surprised to find Judy inviting him into her own office. Walker was hesitant to accept and had a “bad feeling about being there.” After exchanging pleasantries, Walker confronted Judy about her previous actions. She claimed that he was so angry that it frightened her, and Walker pointed out that her perception of his actions were a reflection of her racism. He noted the shock on Judy’s face, “as only white liberals can [look] when confronted with such a charge.” He believed that Judy must have recognized the truth of his statement on some level. He continued, telling her that he had argued his point passionately, “maybe even self-righteously”—but not angrily. He also insisted that Black men have a right to respond in anger without people assuming that they are going to become violent.

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Judy asked that Walker hug her in parting, and in that moment, she whispered that she was not a racist. Walker replied, “Of course you are” and then added, “I’m one too. We all are. It’s important that this be acknowledged.” 

Seemingly believing that she had something to prove, Judy made it her personal mission to have Walker reinstated onto his previous committee. She and Walker continued to meet periodically, discussing his children, their classes, and sometimes even race. All of that changed during another committee meeting when they again found themselves on opposite sides of a heated debate. Walker was particularly annoyed that Judy attempted to lecture him on his own area of academic expertise, which seemed to confirmed status as the “Token Negro.” This time, Walker was genuinely angry.

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The following day, Walker emailed Judy, telling her that he hoped she was not fearful of him following their recent difference of opinion and that if she simply reminded herself that he was a “college professor, not a hoodlum,” she would be fine. Judy filed another complaint, this time a six-page condemnation of his behavior indicating that he had harassed her based on her gender. Walker felt embarrassed for Judy, realizing that his email had revealed her own racism, as evidenced by her excessive reaction. He regretted sending the email, and the complaint was dismissed.

Although Walker attempted to put the incident behind him, he still sensed tension between himself and some of his colleagues following Judy’s complaints. Judy refused to speak to him thereafter, and the only time they shared space was in the Heritage Room, where Walker smiled—unlike the stern African American portraits displayed around the room.

Analysis 

Judy’s response to Walker reveals a great irony in her perception of the world around her. She wants to believe that she isn’t racist, even though her repeated actions clearly indicate otherwise. Her attitude infects those around her, as evidenced by the lingering sense of tension that Walker experiences from some of his white colleagues even after the complaints against him are dismissed. Walker is willing to acknowledge his own shortcomings, conceding to Judy that he, too, is a racist and that he believes that everyone is. Yet Judy seeks “absolution,” not authenticity, and fails to see the truth inherent in her own actions against Walker. Ironically, it is not Walker’s anger which destroys their collegial relationship—it is Judy’s. While she fears Walker’s open display of passionate disagreement because he is a Black man, Judy’s own quiet anger grows like a cancer while she remains seemingly oblivious to her own faults.

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