WLP professor Jerald Walker’s ‘How to Make a Slave and other essays’ wins the Annual Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction


Courtesy of Jerald Walker

Writing, literature, and publishing professor Jerald Walker won the Annual Massachusetts Book Award for his nonfiction work.

By Margarita Ivanova

Writing, literature and publishing professor Jerald Walker brought home the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction this year for his essay collection entitled How to Make a Slave and Other Essays.

The book, which was also a National Book Award finalist last year, consists of a series of Walker’s essays written over a period of 16 years. He discusses a diverse range of topics, ranging from his childhood, to parenthood, to thought provoking conversations like the legacy of Michael Jackson, which are shaped by his experience and education. 

The book’s featured themes stem from one common question: “What is it like being an African American living in today’s society?”

In an interview with The Beacon, Walker said that when he first began writing, he initially wrote essays and short stories that painted African Americans as societal victims, and only focussed on the negative attributes of white people, rather than the positive attributes of Black people.

“I worked on stories that showed African Americans as victims of racism and oppression and poor treatment by society at large, which is all true, but [a professor of mine at the University of Iowa] James McPherson thought it was also important for me to write stories that had the opposite message, which was to say that African Americans were also strong and brave heroic survivors,” Walker said.

Walker hopes he can provide thoughtful, well written, and humorous essays to a range of audience members.

“For people who have similar experiences to mine, the book affirms those experiences and lets people know that they are not alone,” he said. “And for people who are coming to my work with very different experiences, my hope is that they will nonetheless see themselves on the page.”

Walker’s writing is largely shaped by his experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. He said his first book, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, especially drew memories from his childhood within “tough, poor, crime ridden communities.” Falling into a cycle of trouble as a high school drop out, Walker experienced police brutality on a regular basis.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of confronting with officers, because they were hitting you in the back of the squad car with their sticks,” he said.

Walker said it’s important to confront racism when you see it, especially through the power of writing. He drew an example from his time at Emerson, when in 2008 a security guard allegedly racially profiled him and three other Black faculty members as they entered the Little Building for the Annual Faculty of Color Dinner. 

“It was funny because I have a quirky kind of a mind, and even while it was happening, I was thinking to myself ‘This is going to make a phenomenal essay,’” he said. “And so I wrote an essay about that, even though it was my institution, and even though it made some of the administration a little bit uncomfortable. But as I said, when these things happen, they have to be called out and addressed and made public so that people know they can’t get away with it. The result in my situation was the security guard being fired.”

Throughout his work, Walker often uses writing as a tool for mediation. 

“I typically write about whatever’s plaguing me,” he said in an interview. “If something’s been on my mind and I’ve been thinking about it for a while and if it’s something puzzling me, I simply try to figure it out through the course of an essay.”

According to Walker, this approach not only resolves personal conflict, but promotes messages that carry weight to a much larger audience. Walker’s content has progressively evolved since the start of his writing career, primarily because of the influence of McPherson, to whom he dedicates How to Make a Slave and Other Essays.

“He was one of my teachers who saw that I had potential, recognized that I was wasting it with a bad approach to literature, and he took me under his wing and mentored me for four or five years,” Walker said. “He helped me shape my worldview, and that worldview is evident throughout this essay collection.”

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays also consists of many pieces of Walker’s life as an adult trying to raise two children.

“There’s a lot on parenthood and some of the mistakes I’ve made, and the ways that I’m trying to get better at this every day,” Walker said.

Melissa Karen Sances ‘22, a student receiving her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, has taken two nonfiction workshops with Walker and read all of his work, including the award winning essay series. 

“The collection is exemplary for many reasons,” Sances said. “[Walker’s] writing is so tightly crafted that not one word is extraneous. He writes six of his essays in the second person, which allows him to both address and include the reader in his experience, to help them consider what it means to him and to them. This is especially important because he’s writing about complex topics like race and rage.” 

“That said, Jerald is never a victim in his essays or his prose,” she continued. “He often uses humor very effectively in this regard.”

Walker’s mentors played a vital role in shaping his motivation to stick with writing, which was often perceived as a risk by those around him, like his family. McPherson, along with Walker’s first creative writing professor, Edward Homewood, were the sparks of hope that ignited Walker’s drive.

“If I hadn’t met professor Homewood specifically, I would not have been a writer,” Walker said. “When I met him, I was a 24 year old high school dropout, and I was attending the local community college trying to get my life back on track, and I randomly took a creative writing class. I’d never written before or taken a class. He read one of my stories and said to me ‘You should be at the Iowa writers workshop.’”

Homewood later ended up paying for Walker’s college tuition, and Walker’s first published book was the last Homewood read before his death.

Along the way, Walker also experienced constant, racially-motivated discouragement—sometimes from his peers.

“Even when I attended my graduate program, my classmates did their best to try and discourage me by saying ‘I don’t know how you got into this program,’ ‘this writing sucks,’ ‘you must be here on some minority fellowship or affirmative action,’” he said.

This type of anxiety-inducing risk and backlash within the creative industry is something most Emerson students can relate to, and Walker encourages students to turn that doubt into passion. 

“If you sometimes get discouraged when writing, that is common, and that’s part of the process, and you have to do what one of my creative writing teachers said, to ‘proceed on faith,’” Walker said. “You have to believe that the end result will be worth it. ‘How to Make a Slave’ was rejected by over 20 publishers and I kept sending it out until someone took it. Keep revising it and sending it out, and hope that the right reader receives it.” 

“Sometimes rejections are a matter of the wrong reader reading your stuff,” he continued. “It’s not a commentary on your talent or the work you’ve done.”

Walker constantly brings encouragement into his classroom setting, yet also maintains a relationship built on respect and honesty with his students, according to Sances.

“Jerald is unflinchingly honest, and he pulls no punches about the importance of careful craft,” she said. “I’ve had many professors who coddle their students, but Jerald tells it like it is. His criticism is on point but never personal, and when he compliments writing, he is genuinely impressed.”

Walker said that although your work may not result in a published book, you have to believe that the process itself is going to be worth it. For him, it was a 20 year process, but it was worth it in the end. Seeing all of his writing come together and win awards was a gratifying experience.

“The value of these types of awards is not just so that you can hang some plaque on the wall, but just so that you can get some validation from an outside source that the work you’re doing is valuable and important and worthy,” Walker said.

When Walker heard the news that How to Make a Slave and Other Essays won an Annual Massachusetts Book Award, the first thing he did was tell his wife, who played a major role in shaping the title of the book.

“My wife was actually working from home that day and she was on a Zoom call and I stood before her and made hand and face gestures until she managed to figure out what I was saying,” he said.

The book title How to Make a Slave comes from Walker’s title of the first essay in the collection. 

“The phrase is a quote from Frederick Douglass, who one day decided he would not take any more beatings from his slave master,” Walker said. “Before Douglass fought back, he said, ‘You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.’  In my essay, I quote that phrase to my wife when I make the decision to no longer be a slave to unreasonable fears of racism.”