‘How to Make a Slave’ Offers Restless, Brilliant Thoughts About Race

Were they or weren’t they? Being racist, that is. In Jerald Walker’s telling, the (white) wait staff at the restaurant where he and his (Black) family decided to dine one night had lost their reservation on purpose, compounding the insult by relegating the Walkers to a table in a tiny back room. He asked the server for a booth. “She responds with a look that’s equal parts offended and confused,” he writes, “as if you’ve requested a back rub and a donkey.”

This episode is recalled in “Smoke,” one of several essays in Walker’s “How to Make a Slave” that are narrated in the commandeering second person and present tense, a voice that turns out to be uncomfortable, unstable and unfailingly apt. It’s an invitation and an enlistment. Do as I say, Walker seems to enjoin, and you’ll see as I do. What he sees often changes. At the restaurant, he tells you to notice along with him how the back room eventually gets “packed with white diners, wholly oblivious, it seems, to the civil rights struggle playing out in their midst. Wonder if you have misread the situation, by which you mean the decade.”

For Walker, “Anger is often a prelude to a joke, as there is broad understanding that the triumph over this destructive emotion lay in finding its punchline.” The title essay instructs you — yes, you — to prepare a presentation on Frederick Douglass for grade school, deliver it and then goof around with friends after class: “Enjoy how wonderful it feels to laugh at that moment, and as you walk home, with Douglass staring somberly out of your back pocket, wish Black history had some funny parts.”

This is Walker’s third book, and his first to be a finalist for a National Book Award. In “The World in Flames” (2016), he described growing up Black in the then-segregationist Worldwide Church of God — a constellation of words that sounds confounding, but an experience that he evocatively conveys. An earlier book, “Street Shadows” (2010), traced his life as a husband, father and professor after several years as a self-described “dope fiend.”

Against his wishes, the publisher festooned the cover of “Street Shadows” with “prostitutes, hoodlums and a driverless Cadillac, its owner, presumably, bound and gagged in the trunk.” The reductive sensationalism turned out to be useful when Walker applied for a job at a private college that was trying to rehabilitate a reputation for discrimination. Before his interview, Walker rehearsed his facial expressions to project the image of “someone who could gracefully diversify cocktail parties as the host’s only Black friend.”

Walker presents himself in that essay, “Balling,” as gleefully exploiting the expectations and hangups of white liberals, using their presumptuousness to his advantage. Another essay has him getting buttonholed by a righteous white man at a party who insists that Walker ought to feel oppressed. It’s not that Walker believes that racism has disappeared; if anything, he insists that the opposite is true. “Racism is part and parcel of our culture, the great American disease with which we are all afflicted,” he writes. “There will be no cure until we accept this diagnosis.”

It’s as declarative and as sobering a statement as any in this book — but Walker refuses to leave it at that. Where he plays the pessimist, ever ready to assume people’s sinister motivations, his wife sees things differently: “Her tolerance for racism was extreme, in your view, which was to say she resisted it only if it were actually occurring, whereas all you required was its possibility.”

The essays in this collection are restless, brilliant and short; all but one are fewer than 10 pages. The brevity suits not just Walker’s style but his worldview, too. Longer pieces would require the kind of connective tissue that might risk turning the essays into closed systems, sealing off entries and exits. Keeping things quick gives him the freedom to move; he can alight on a truth without pinning it into place.

He’s candid about his own insecurities, which never get fully resolved. His formative years on the rougher edges of Chicago’s South Side are a source of both fury and pride. Walker envies his wife’s middle-class suburban upbringing. He recounts driving through her old neighborhood when an oblivious teenager stepped in front of the car, and he had to restrain himself from laying on the horn. “If I had been raised in this suburb,” he writes, “I bet I would have only thought to toot it.” But he feels for his brother-in-law Rob, whose childhood as a Black boy among white people raised hard questions for him about his identity. Rob greets the family with a strenuous “How’re things popping?” “Things are popping,” a wry Walker answers, “fairly well.”

Walker dedicates the book to James Alan McPherson, who was his teacher and mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. During their first encounter, McPherson was unsparingly critical of Walker’s story about a “den of heroin addicts.” Walker insisted that the story was authentic, rooted in his own experiences, but that didn’t matter to McPherson, who urged him to notice how he was clinging to a vision that constrained him. “Stereotypes are valuable. But only if you use them to your advantage,” McPherson said. They offered a “comfort zone” that could pull a reader in. After that it was a writer’s responsibility to do more, and “show them what’s real.”

“What’s real?” Walker asked.

Without hesitating, McPherson said: “You.”

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