How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Kaleshion Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740

Walker reflects upon the mandatory haircut of his youth: the kaleshion. His father, as well as most Black fathers he knew, felt that it was a crime for young Black boys to have hair. While most boys were allowed to try different styles by ages seven or eight, Walker was forced to endure the kaleshion until he was ten. Finally, in 1974 when Afros reigned supreme, he was allowed to grow his hair, and he swore that he would never again have a kaleshion. 

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Unfortunately, an incident with a barber temporarily thwarted this resolution when Walker was in his mid-twenties. After asking for a trim, Walker was shocked by his own reflection when he looked in the mirror and saw that the barber had given him a kaleshion. Livid, he left without paying for the disastrous cut and ran to his girlfriend’s apartment. After peeking through the curtains to see who was outside, his white girlfriend screamed, not even recognizing Walker because of his much-shorter hair. She ran to the front room to call the police, and Walker realized that her actions placed him in real danger. If both officers were white, which was likely, he might have to face their weapons while trying to prove his identity. Finally, after he pulled out his driver’s license and pressed it to the window, Walker’s girlfriend recognized him, sparing him any further conflict. He swore to never visit another barbershop. Later at a bar, he recounted the incident to the bartender, who laughed and encouraged Walker to share the story someday.

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After writing lots of other stories, Walker was invited to read at a prestigious literary conference. Feeling encouraged, particularly after realizing that a “quite famous” writer was scheduled to participate, Walker began to imagine that this event could prove pivotal in his career. He imagined that the famous author secretly admired Walker’s work.

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Latest answer posted August 20, 2021, 6:25 pm (UTC)

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The night before the conference, Walker decided to give his sons and himself their standard at-home haircuts, still imposing his barbershop ban. Referring to the style of their haircuts as “the Obama,” Walker successfully trimmed his sons’ hair before using the clippers on himself. Unfortunately, the guard fell from the clippers as he began cutting, leaving a wide swipe of pale scalp in its wake. Seeing the damage, his wife encouraged him to simply give himself a kaleshion, but Walker instead decided to camouflage the bald strip with mascara.

At the conference, the famous writer enjoyed thunderous applause following his reading. Walker felt inspired, though he worried that the mascara might begin dripping down his face during his own reading. Hoping that the famous writer would acknowledge Walker’s work, he immediately sought out the writer’s face as he took the podium. Walker was surprised to find that the writer had already left and had taken all of his materials with him. Walker was seized by self-doubt and returned to the memory of looking at himself in the barber’s chair, not even recognizing his own reflection in the mirror.

He looked away from the writer’s empty seat and greeted his audience, telling them that he would like to begin by sharing a story about his hair.

Analysis 

It would be a mistake to dismiss “Kaleshion” as a lighthearted essay in the collection; woven into the humor are painful truths regarding the Black experience. Following a haircut that removes one inch of Walker’s hair, the author’s girlfriend finds him unrecognizable. She screams in terror at the sight of him outside her window, and Walker realizes she, like any white police officer responding to the scene, will fail to see the resemblance between his “old face” and his new one. He needs to “convince” his white girlfriend that she actually knows him, fearing the weapons which the white officers might utilize if he fails to do so. He must “beg” his girlfriend to let him in; even the sound of his voice isn’t enough to assuage her fear. His girlfriend’s reaction reflects her shallow knowledge of Walker, yet it also reflects an ominous threat. Because of her misunderstanding, Walker finds himself in peril, pleading with his white girlfriend to recognize him so that he doesn’t have to face armed officers. Finally she turns the “deadbolt” to let him in, the word itself a grim reminder of the consequences Walker could have faced for appearing to threaten a white woman.

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