How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Inauguration Summary and Analysis

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Barack Obama’s inauguration was a momentous occasion, and Walker felt conflicted about whether to keep his sons home for the event. Ultimately, he decided to send them to school so that they could experience the moment with their classmates, much as Walker had marked the deaths of American leaders with his own peers. Still struggling with how to talk honestly with his sons about matters of race, he asked them if they understood who had won the presidential race. His oldest son responded that the one “with the high levels of melanin” was the winner. Trying to help them see the significance of this victory, Walker asked his sons what they thought it meant to have Barack Obama as president. After considering this question, his youngest expressed his hope that the victory meant that they could play Mario Kart after school.

Two months later, as he sent his sons to school on Inauguration Day, Walker hoped that his sons’ teachers would take time to appropriately reflect on the significance of the day—yet not in a way that would single out his sons, who were among the few Black students at their school. He considered that their words might inadvertently plant a “seed of self-doubt” that would grow over time, eventually manifesting in his sons as an unwillingness to bother competing in the world around them, which is so often seen in young Black men.

Walker watched the inauguration with his wife, and upon its conclusion she returned to her campus duties. After assisting with homework and piano practice, he felt the anticipation of speaking with his sons about the inauguration. Entering their room, Walker found his sons playing with their stuffed animals; they offered to include their father in the fun and handed him a giraffe. The play became a wrestling match, which was always a favorite form of entertainment between father and sons. During a break from the action, Walker asked his sons if they had seen the inauguration at school; they replied that they had, describing it as “good” and “long.” Walker asked what their teacher had said about the event, and his sons said that they had been told that Barack Obama was the first Black president. Neither son recalled any further information about the context, and they were excited to return to their wrestling match. Walker felt that he needed to more accurately speak to the significance of this moment, telling his sons that the journey of Black people “from slavery to the presidency means that African Americans are remarkable people, capable of achieving anything.” His sons began describing their dreams of becoming artists, and the conversation quickly took a different direction. Walker found that he was content to allow the moment to “float away” as he recalled the upbeat tone of Obama’s speech, which appealed to the better nature of humanity. 

Analysis

In this essay, Walker uses the metaphor of a tree to explain the weight of his ancestry. While the lower branches “bore the weight of the lynched,” the higher branches “bore the weight of the embittered.” Walker grew up in an environment where all adults hated whites and taught their children to embrace this same “bleak worldview.” Of course, trees bearing unnecessary weight often do not grow to reach their full potential, finding their growth stunted by the burdens placed upon them. Barack Obama offered a glimpse into possibilities that had never existed until this moment, seeming to lift some of those metaphorical weights. As Walker began to consider how to speak honestly with his young sons about the significance of Obama’s victory in language they would understand, he recognized the precariousness of the situation. Desperately wanting to avoid singling out their race as a point of “self-doubt,” Walker sought to find words that would encourage his sons instead. In the end, the conversation floated off like a “helium-filled balloon,” a bittersweet image representing both beauty and loss.

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