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Finalist for the 2020 National Book Award in Nonfiction
“The essays in this collection are restless, brilliant and short.…The brevity suits not just Walker’s style but his worldview, too.…Keeping things quick gives him the freedom to move; he can alight on a truth without pinning it into place.” —Jennifer Szalai, the New York Times
For the black community, Jerald Walker asserts in How to Make a Slave, “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.” It is on the knife’s edge between fury and farce that the essays in this exquisite collection balance. Whether confronting the medical profession’s racial biases, considering the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson, paying homage to his writing mentor James Alan McPherson, or attempting to break free of personal and societal stereotypes, Walker elegantly blends personal revelation and cultural critique. The result is a bracing and often humorous examination by one of America’s most acclaimed essayists of what it is to grow, parent, write, and exist as a black American male. Walker refuses to lull his readers; instead his missives urge them to do better as they consider, through his eyes, how to be a good citizen, how to be a good father, how to live, and how to love.
About the Author
Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, winner of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, Iowa Review, and Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. The recipient of James A. Michener and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Walker is Professor of Creative Writing at Emerson College.
“[These] powerful essays offer an incisive glimpse into life as a Black man in America. Walker demonstrates the keen intellect and direct style that characterized his acclaimed 2010 memoir, Street Shadows….Crafted with honesty and wry comedic flair, these essays are both engaging and enraging.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Walker … delivers a stylish and thought-provoking collection of reflections on his personal and professional life.…[His] rich compilation adds up to a rewardingly insightful self-portrait that reveals how one man relates to various aspects of his identity.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“In these absorbing essays, Jerald Walker adds race to the commonplace (a little girl helping her younger brother with his homework, a job interview, a family dining out, a teenager crashing the family car) and shows us something knotty, fraught, and unforgettable, not just about race and the commonplace, ‘living while black,’ but about living while human. Walker is furious and funny. He is talking to himself about his life and allows us to listen in.”—Judges’ citation, 2020 National Book Awards
“How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by South Side native Jerald Walker was one of the year’s smartest sleepers, an often hilarious roundup of stories about the obliviousness of white liberals, race and restaurant seating, and the writer’s own mentor.”—Chicago Tribune
“These aren’t essays. This is hypnosis, a spell of enchantment cast over the reader by a masterful writer whose crystal-clear vision is not only original but revelatory. I laughed out loud, nodded at Jerald Walker’s delivery of so much truth, and just shook my head at how gracefully he achieves so much so quickly in every piece in How to Make a Slave. All I can say is, ‘Wow.’ And you can’t just consume one; you’ll find yourself gobbling down every essay here and hungering for more. No one—absolutely no one—I’ve read is writing better than Jerald Walker about race, being black, and the depths and complexities of our humanity.” —Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, winner of the National Book Award
“This piercing and restless collection slices through this country’s agitated racial landscape with the tenacity of a thunderbolt. Walker manages to be all of us—we are all the college English department’s pet token, we are all the potential Whole Foods crime wave, we are all the Negro middle American agonizing over a return trip to the implosive inner city from whence we came. These fresh, revelatory snippets of black life deserve a rollicking collective Amen! and an audience of both the converted and the curious.” —Patricia Smith, author of Incendiary Art
“I’ve been waiting for this, the first collection of essays by one of our best essayists, for years. Jerald Walker’s How to Make a Slave is notable for its persistence of vision. These essays are relentlessly humane even as they stare into America’s split, racist heart. And like America and Americans, this book is both funny and fucked up, and neither can exist without the other.” —Ander Monson, author of I Will Take the Answer
“Ignited by the everyday sparks of racial conflict—whether on a college campus or in an aisle at Whole Foods—these extraordinarily candid essays crackle with humor and dramatic tension. As ‘race stories,’ they also add a creative and subtle twist to an issue too often expressed in predictable polemics. This new collection establishes Jerald Walker as truly one of the most gifted essayists of our time.” —Robert Atwan, Series Editor, Best American Essays
“If there is a book you need to read as our country is about to devour itself, it is How to Make a Slave. Walker’s sharp voice cuts through the social malaise of our culture, delivering intimate moments of his life—from a boy in South Chicago to a young student writer trying to find voice amid a myriad of black stereotypes to a father raising two boys in a divided country. These essays enlighten us through depth and complexity of thought and the veracity of experience.” —Ira Sukrungruang, author of Buddha’s Dog and Other Meditations