How to Make a Slave and Other Essays Characters
The main characters in How to Make a Slave and Other Essays are Jerald Walker, Brenda Walker, and Adrian and Dorian Walker.
- Jerald Walker is the book’s author. Raised on Chicago’s South Side, Walker is a Black American college professor who writes about his own experiences with both humor and honesty.
- Brenda Walker is Jerald Walker’s wife and a college professor. She is biracial and grew up in the suburbs, and she is less focused on race than her husband.
- Adrian and Dorian Walker are Jerald and Brenda Walker’s sons.
Last Updated on July 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328
Jerald Walker is the author of this collection of essays. The book focuses primarily on Walker’s own life experiences, ranging from his early childhood days growing up in Chicago’s South Side to his current life as a married father and college professor. Walker witnessed and experienced various acts of violence during his youth and dropped out of school at age sixteen. He subsequently became entrenched in the drug culture surrounding him, which culminated in a gun being held to his head just prior to a cocaine pickup when he was twenty-one. The friend who had given him the drugs was found dead thirty minutes later, shot six times in the exact location where Walker himself had been held at gunpoint. This proved to be a turning point in Walker’s life, and over time he transformed himself into a writer and professor who seeks to meaningfully impact the lives of those around him. Walker challenges the way others think, urging them to confront the hidden truths about their own behaviors and biases. Most of his essays are delivered with a dose of humor, but all contain deep and often painful truths about the Black experience in modern America.
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Brenda Walker is Jerald Walker’s wife and the mother of their sons. She is biracial and was raised in the suburbs, where she attended excellent schools and lived in a safe neighborhood with a supportive community. Her background contrasts sharply with her husband’s, which is sometimes a point of contention. Walker had expected Brenda to think about race a great deal because of being biracial, but instead he finds that she talks very little about race and is unable to “see it everywhere” as he does. Brenda is a professor at a local college, like her husband. She accompanies Walker to various social gatherings, and while Walker sometimes finds himself upset by conversations centering on racism during these events, Brenda maintains an easygoing demeanor. She does not engage in such conversations, preferring to keep social interactions light.
The older of Walker’s sons, Adrian is once told that people with his skin color are “stinky” by a classmate. Although he quickly forgets about the comment, his father does not, certain that the entrenched racism of their mostly white community will rear its ugly head when Adrian begins high school. Walker begins driving Adrian to school so that they will have time to engage in conversations about any struggles Adrian might be having. Interestingly, it is Adrian who helps his father process an upsetting conversation about racism during one of these drives. After asking his father about the source of his evident frustration, Adrian listens intently and then tells his father that he should be proud of himself for standing up for the students on his campus. Adrian and his brother are Walker’s greatest sources of joy, and Walker works to be an incredibly supportive father to them.
Dorian is the younger of Walker’s sons by about two years. When they visit Chicago, Dorian is particularly worried about the danger the city presents and becomes increasingly ill as they near the South Side; his mother and brother are convinced he is about to vomit in the car. The collection follows a loose chronological order, and Dorian is fifteen in the final essay. At that point, he has developed a habit of contradicting everything his father says.
Thomas Walker is Jerald Walker’s father. Walker characterizes him first as a strong man who insists that his son cut his hair neatly and provides a sense of optimism and stern love for his six children. It isn’t until much later that Walker discloses that his father is blind, as is Walker’s mother. Thomas Walker purchases a car so that his teenage children can act as chauffeurs, thereby granting Thomas and his wife freedom from having to walk everywhere. He is astounded when he receives a summons to appear in court for a hit-and-run. Though he cannot read his son’s facial expressions as he interrogates his children, Thomas ascertains that Walker is the guilty driver. In court, Thomas whispers to his son that he knows Walker is responsible for the hit-and-run. The case is ultimately dismissed. As an adult, Jerald Walker considers his father “heroic.”
James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson, the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, led a workshop which Walker attended in college. McPherson gave him advice which changed his career and his life, helping Walker realize that stereotypes are only valuable as a means of enticing readers into a text—but that the ultimate goal of writing is to show readers what is real. Although Walker was at first livid at the criticism he received, believing that McPherson didn’t understand him at all, the two ultimately forged a close relationship, and McPherson agreed to supervise an independent project for Walker. Together, the two studied various aspects of Black culture, and Walker realized that he had unintentionally “become [his] own stereotype.” Because of McPherson, Walker learned that his stories needed to represent more than the negative aspects of the Black experience and that they should also testify to Black Americans’ enduring spirit of perseverance.
Jim Walker is Jerald Walker’s slightly younger twin brother. Jim married a drug addict and struggled for a decade to save the marriage; his wife’s addictions caused frantic and erratic behavior which culminated one evening as she nearly severed Jim’s thumb with a knife. When she threatened to use the knife on their children as well, Jim realized that his marriage was over. Years later when Walker’s family visits Chicago to celebrate their mother’s eightieth birthday, Jim asks his twin brother to go on a beer run and smirks when he realizes Walker is now afraid of the city streets.
Judy is a colleague of Walker’s who writes to their department chair to complain about Walker’s “threatening” behavior during a disagreement in a committee meeting. Walker is banned from the committee and is shocked when Judy invites him into her office weeks later. Thus begin efforts toward a reconciliation, but those end when the two find themselves once again on opposite sides of a disagreement in a different meeting. Afterward, Walker emails Judy to indicate his hope that she will not fear an impending physical assault from him and asks that she remind herself that he is a “college professor, not a hoodlum.” Judy files a complaint against him, which is dismissed by the administration.
When Walker is a younger man, Vicky is a fellow student at his community college, and the two are invited to a group dinner by one of their professors. Vicky and Walker become friends and begin hanging out with their friend Tony in bars. One evening after too many drinks, Vicky invites Walker to stay the night at her apartment; he declines, anticipating how angry his current girlfriend would be about such a choice.
Tony is a classmate at Walker’s community college during his younger and premarital years. Tony is gay and becomes convinced that he can sway Walker into becoming romantic with a man. Walker enjoys an easy friendship with Tony, even as Tony becomes openly jealous when other men flirt with Walker in gay bars. One evening after too many drinks, Walker and Tony return to Vicky’s apartment, but Walker decides to leave; he kisses Tony in parting.
Buggy was a fixture in Walker’s childhood community. He was once a phenomenal basketball player and was reportedly scouted by the Bulls before serving in Vietnam. After returning, Buggy suffered from unnamed mental disorders, fighting with people who didn’t exist and becoming easily agitated. As a young child, Walker learned to keep an eye on Buggy because of his unpredictable behavior.