How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Testimony Summary and Analysis

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Walker has a deep love of basketball, in part because he believes the sport embodies values that have “sustained” Black people for centuries: drive, improvisation, and poise. The street tournaments he enjoyed as a teen, beginning at sunset and accompanied by trash can fires and music “like war drums,” brought both camaraderie and occasional violence. 

In October 1980, two particularly talented members of Walker’s basketball group were missing; one had recently died of a heroin overdose, and another had recently been arrested for robbery. The arresting officer’s nephew played on the opposing team, though the nephew insisted that he didn’t have an uncle.

Bets were placed, and a local reverend served as the game’s referee. Chosen for his former basketball talents instead of his profession, he was trusted by both teams. Missing their key players, Walker’s team was clearly outmatched and was losing by twenty-three points with five minutes left in the game. June Bug, the team’s unofficial spokesman, called a timeout and pushed his way through the spectators toward Buggy. 

Buggy had once been a phenomenal player and had supposedly been scouted by the Bulls while he was still in high school. His life drastically changed when he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War; upon his return, he fought people whom no one could see and would sometimes charge people, even children, “with a wild look in his eyes.” 

Buggy considered June Bug’s offer to play, pulling at his chin hairs and taking “three fast hits from [his] joint” before heading toward the game. As he approached the court, the players began giving testimony to his talents, saying that during his prime, he could out-dribble anyone using only one finger and that his “rainbow jumpers” swished every time. Younger spectators and players who hadn’t witnessed Buggy’s former glory found all of this difficult to believe.

During the game, Buggy seemed confused. He never called for the ball, and when it was thrown to him, he immediately threw it to another player. Both teams began cheering for him: “Shoot the ball, Buggy! Shoot the ball, Buggy!” The chanting and laughter continued throughout the game; when it was over, Buggy hoisted a fresh joint to his lips and took his customary place underneath a crabapple tree. Money changed hands as the game concluded. 

Analysis 

This essay defies expectations in its ending. In a work of fiction, the opportunity to play basketball again might have rekindled Buggy’s sense of purpose. Spectators likely would have cheered as Buggy demonstrated his legendary prowess, and engaging with the team might have turned Buggy’s life around.

“Buggy,” however, is a reminder that these are not fictitious stories. Instead, they reflect the very real struggles of people with often painful life experiences. Buggy was once a talented young man whose experiences in Vietnam stripped him of the ability to participate in the things he loved and robbed him of his potential.

Yet the young men in the tournament pay testimony to Buggy’s worth. By inviting him to play with the group, June Bug acknowledges Buggy’s talents and former life, validating him and recognizing his place in local legend.

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