How to Make a Slave and Other Essays Themes
The main themes in How to Make a Slave and Other Essays are racism and stereotyping, fatherhood, and identity.
- Racism and stereotyping: Walker details the racism and stereotyping he faces in his daily life as a Black American man and argues that “we are all racist.”
- Fatherhood: Many of Walker’s reflections about race also focus on his two sons and his role and responsibilities as a father.
- Identity: Walker describes how an influential professor challenged him to think critically about his identity and appreciate the Black community’s resilience.
Last Updated on July 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
Racism and Stereotyping
Many of the essays which Walker includes in this collection encompass the racism he has faced as a Black man. As an adult, he has chosen to live in a mostly white community and teaches at a predominantly white college. He sometimes finds himself scanning the crowds around him, searching for another Black face and inwardly celebrating when he locates one. Walker constantly reflects upon his actions in light of his race; he doesn’t want to be perceived as overly threatening and realizes that his presence makes others, particularly white women, uncomfortable. Even a simple shopping trip to Whole Foods is riddled with anxiety as shoppers physically respond to Walker’s race. A security guard at Walker’s place of employment cannot see beyond her preconceptions about Walker’s race, perceiving him as a threat even though he is dressed to reflect his professorial status. At restaurants, it is not unusual for Walker’s reservation to be “lost” upon his arrival or for his family to be seated apart from white patrons. Walker tries to summon grace, understanding that people may not even be aware of the way they respond to his presence, and he also understands that he must allow for actual oversights in seating and technical glitches in reservations that could happen to anyone, regardless of race. However, it is clear that there are many moments when he is treated differently—and unfairly—on the basis of race.
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Walker also identifies stereotyping within the Black community and acknowledges his own flaws in this regard. When he met his wife, who is biracial, he assumed that she would be particularly aware of the complexities of race because of her position. Instead, Brenda is much more laid-back about many of Walker’s points of contention. Additionally, when walking in the South Side of Chicago late at night, Walker stereotyped the group of men who approached him on the street. Focused on their clothing and swagger, Walker became increasingly anxious about the danger they seemed to present before realizing that they meant no harm.
Walker thus demonstrates that “we are all racist,” as he tells a colleague. He therefore believes that engaging in honest self-reflection and acknowledging our own prejudices is fundamental in forging a better world.
Adrian and Dorian, Walker’s two sons, are the focal point of many of his reflections about race. He struggles with being forthright with them about the conflicts they will likely face; he is also intentional in creating opportunities to allow for genuine and open conversations. When his oldest son transitions into high school, Walker (erroneously) believes that his son will encounter difficulties because of his race; he establishes himself as his son’s “designated driver” to school, allowing time to foster conversations about any of those struggles. Often, Walker finds himself wanting to engage in deep and potentially painful conversations about race with his young sons but finds himself letting those conversations go as a means of preserving his sons’ innocence. Because his own innocence was shattered early in life, protecting his sons’ youthful worldview seems particularly crucial.
Walker also pays homage to his own father, a blind man with a fierce spirit. When facing legal repercussions for a hit-and-run that Walker had committed, his father made no excuses and showed up to court as expected, never pressing his teenage son for a confession of his crimes. When Walker’s students ask him where his own heroic spirit comes from, he credits his father.
Walker recognizes the immense responsibility of raising children well. He wonders if he can be the father his sons need and seeks to honor the role bestowed upon him by constantly evaluating how he can best guide Adrian and Dorian. The significance of this role is best captured in the way Walker calms himself in moments of intense conflict: he envisions something he has done as a father that is “worthy of the title.”
James Alan McPherson first challenged Walker to examine his own thoughts about his identity when he criticized his writing. McPherson accused Walker of relying on stereotypes of the Black experience for his own personal gain, much as some Black rappers create songs about the hardships of living in the ghetto—all while living in the white suburbs with their families. Walker was thus challenged to move beyond seeing his Black community as victims and to recognize the incredible resilience that his ancestors had demonstrated through their survival.
Walker also addresses the complexities of growing up Black in a predominantly white community. His brother-in-law enjoyed many securities during his childhood, including a safe neighborhood, comfortable housing, and good schools. Yet as an adult, he struggles to reconcile his fairly privileged childhood with his Black identity. He thus imagines that he is “gangsta,” encouraging his young nephews to embrace that role as well. Walker’s brother-in-law lifts his Black identity from rap videos, much as other Black students in Walker’s classes seem to do. Although Walker considers himself the “real deal” as a “brother-from-the-hood,” he recognizes that the Black experience spans far more than the limited stereotypes portrayed in gangsta culture. Through his essays, Walker pays respect to some of those diverse voices, including the family, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, students, and strangers who have shaped his life.