New this month, a major award finalist: “How to Make a Slave and Other Essays”

Imagine yourself walking into Whole Foods with your grocery list. You grab your cart and amble toward the vegetables for your arugula, maybe the fish counter for salmon. All you think about, or have to think about, is getting your groceries and heading home. If you’re Jerald Walker, however, shopping in a 96% white conservative town 30 miles south of Boston, you’re ever vigilant of the reactionary profiling.

Mr. Walker is a black professor of creative writing at a nearby private college. “Thieves” is one of several essays in his newly released, page-turning collection about his perceptive, daily life in racism.

As he shops the aisles, Walker manages “what I sometimes imagine is an ultrasonic alarm.” He carefully observes the women’s open purses in their grocery carts, noting the visible wallets, “being mindful” to keep his distance. He knows his skin color will arouse suspicion and counteract the simple, normal reality of a professor in blazer and tie shopping for his wife. One shopper makes eye contact with him and protectively slings her purse over her shoulder. In line at the checkout, Walker ponders if she knowingly is racist and writes:

She is loading her food onto the conveyor belt, her purse still dangling from her shoulder, her thoughts, I suspect, a million miles from our encounter: Or maybe it never registered at all. Maybe her reaction to me was pure instinct, her body propelled into motion before her mind gave consent. Later, when I am trying to forgive her, this is what I’ll decide.

There are 21 essays in this powerful collection, each written with an easygoing style that’s engagingly transparent, ironic, spirited, intense and confident. Walker takes us off the curb as an observer nodding safely in self-satisfied understanding and allows us to drive inside his claustrophobic, murmuring worry about the American disease that never lets up for him. He captivated me, as he must captivate his students in the classroom, with his dry humor, keen eye for the ridiculous, and talent to upturn the comfortably familiar.

So many moments I want to share here, flickers of impact and the laughable, such as the time Walker is correcting a student’s essay on a commuter train and his pencil drops into the seat next to him under the right buttock of the sleeping white girl. Or the time he interviews for a teaching position that seeks candidates of color — Walker worries he’s not dark enough and considers going to a tanning salon. (Think about it: a black man walks into a tanning salon. Remember Whole Foods.) Or the time a doctor in the hospital of that white suburb, south of Boston, where Walker lives with his family, suggests without any diagnostic testing that Walker’s son’s seizures could be caused by syphilis. (His son is twelve.)

The stories I favor are not only upsetting but also uplifting [Walker writes in “Race Stories”]: they are rich with irony and tinged with humor; they are unique, in some way, and lend themselves to interesting digressions, and their protagonists always confront villains, even if not always with success…

Jerald Walker is the great-grandson of slaves. He grew up in the ghetto on the southside of Chicago and often refers to his childhood years of drugs and violence for contrast and source and definition. Another thread that weaves through his commentary is the weight of concern for his two sons. He struggles with how and when to have the race discussion, and in a way that won’t confuse or diminish their self-worth. He worries about what society wrongly will tell them about themselves.

The essay “The Heritage Room” offers evidence for that worry. When Walker vigorously defends his point of view during a contentious academic committee meeting, a colleague gets him kicked off the committee. She claims his behavior made her fearful. She doesn’t realize it, but the fear she feels is a common racist trope: a black man raising his voice equals anger and violence.

Much happens, including re-instatement on the committee, and then more happens, and Walker emails a witty expert strike at this story’s villain.

Dear Judy, I hope that you are not fearful that I will physically assault you, as you told me you were before when our opinions differed. When you see me approaching, just remind yourself that I am a college professor, not a hoodlum, and you’ll be fine.

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays is published this month by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press. It is a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, winner to be announced November 18.

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