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'How To Make A Slave' Author On The Advice That Changed His Writing Career


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Jerald Walker, is the author of a new collection of personal essays called "How To Make A Slave And Other Essays." The title comes from Frederick Douglass' famous line, you have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. The book includes essays about growing up on Chicago's South Side, learning how to prevent his personal essays from turning into cliches about ghetto life, raising his two sons in a predominantly white suburb a block away from the college where he and his wife were teaching and wondering what impact that would have on their lives.

He's the author of two previous books, "Street Shadows: A Memoir Of Race, Rebellion, And Redemption" and "The World In Flames: A Black Boyhood In A White Supremacist Doomsday Cult." That book is about growing up in a family that belonged to the Worldwide Church of God that preached the races should be segregated and the apocalypse was imminent. Walker is a professor of creative writing at Emerson College. We recorded our interview Thursday, October 29, before the election.

Jerald Walker, welcome to Fresh Air.

JERALD WALKER: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Let's start with a turning point in your life. You were in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and submitted a story that you thought was quite good. It was about growing up on Chicago's South Side. Describe the story or personal essay that you had turned in.

WALKER: Pretty much everything I wrote back then was about how white society had pretty much ruined the lives of Black people, and we were miserable, angry, bitter and poised for absolute failure as a result. That was pretty much my theme at the time. And I submitted it to workshop, quite proud of myself for really capturing what it meant to be a Black person in America.

And my professor, James Alan McPherson, had a different view. And he - when he began to critique the piece, he prefaced it by talking about how Black gangsta rappers often use similar themes and tropes in their lyrics, but often these rappers don't live those lifestyles and, in fact, are quite successful and wealthy. And then McPherson, to my absolute horror, accused me of doing the exact same thing.

GROSS: And you were really angry, and you confronted him about it. What did he tell you about staying away from cliches about being Black in America and about growing up in the ghetto? 'Cause you had told him, like, everything I wrote in this is true and, like - describe what you told him when you got really angry with him.

WALKER: Well, I didn't sleep after workshop because I was so upset. And I called him the next morning and demanded a conference, and he agreed to meet with me. And when we met in his office, I went through the characters one by one, and I pointed out that they're real people. These are my siblings. These are my friends. We live in this community. I'm not making this stuff up. I'm not simply using these tropes for the enjoyment of a white audience, which is what he accused me of. And I demanded that he apologize.

And he was so stunned, I think, by my response that he stormed out of the room, and he ran into the hallway. And then the director came chasing him in one direction, and someone else chased him. And I sat there for maybe five minutes watching these people run back and forth, seeing my future career as a writer go right down the drain because I was a huge, huge fan of McPherson, and I felt that he had somehow misread me, misread my story. And if this man, this Black man who I so admired, saw no value in my stories, then I felt that there was no hope for me.

GROSS: I'll interject here that he was the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for writing. So, I mean, you not only admired him; he had real stature in the world of writers. But you thought about it and then talked to him again. And he gave you some advice, which is very interesting advice, and I'd like you to describe what he told you.

WALKER: Well, I think one of the things that cause us to sort of not see each other in the proper light is that what he thought that I was doing was trafficking in stereotypes. And I was. I don't deny that. But I was also, you know, a young writer, and I simply didn't have a handle on my material. But he said something to me that was so valuable that it did change the trajectory of my entire writing career. He told me that stereotypes are valuable but only as a way to entice readers into the text because what they are presented with at the beginning is familiar territory, but once they're in the text, he told me, you have to show them what's real. And I asked him, what's real? And he said, you.

And I didn't know what he meant by that, but I reflected on it for about a year. And I went back, and I asked him to do a directed study with me because I wanted to study myself to figure out what is real. And the thing that I came to realize after working with him for several years was that the philosophy that I had adopted, that Black people were primarily victims of white racism, was false by the very fact that I had overcome these obstacles to even be in the writers' workshop. And we're talking about a place with a 3% acceptance rate, and yet there I was standing there, proclaiming that Blacks had no future in anything because we couldn't overcome our obstacles.

And so he made me see that I was focusing too much on the obstacles in the Black person's life, too much on racism, too much on oppression, but not on the very qualities that made it possible for me to find myself standing before him.

GROSS: So he wanted you to write about the strengths of Black people and the things they've overcome, even if they're not having a successful career as a writer or getting into the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

WALKER: Exactly. It's not the victory; it's the fight. And I think that he made it clear to me that I was failing to talk about the fight. And he made the point that for people who could endure the brutalization of slavery and its aftermath, by necessity had to be more than the sum of that brutalization.

GROSS: And just to be clear, he wasn't saying, you know, like, Black people can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and nothing else is standing in their way; you could achieve whatever you want to. He wasn't taking that approach.

WALKER: Absolutely not. What he was simply saying is that we don't come from a tradition of defeat; we come from a tradition of resistance and fight and struggle and that these are the qualities that make it possible for people to have success. But they're also the qualities that simply make it possible for you to situate yourself in the whole span of humanity, that we are people, like all people, who do not simply identify themselves solely as victims of some oppression or some obstacle.

GROSS: Your wife is biracial, and you raised your two sons in a suburb that was 96% white. Your home was a block away from the campus, which is very convenient. It was the campus where you both taught at the time. So describe the gap between how you grew up on Chicago's South Side and how you raised your sons when you were living in this neighborhood that was 96% white, what they were exposed to.

WALKER: Yep, it's as if our lives have flipped in some way. When I was being raised, the neighborhood we lived in was white. When my parents first moved there, we were - I was born in a housing project, and then my parents managed to get the money to move to a middle-class white community. And then white flight occurred. The whites all left. And so by the time I was maybe 14 years old, the neighborhood was entirely Black and was quickly becoming an inner-city slum. So I didn't - from the age of 14 or so, I didn't see any white people in my community at all. But I did see a lot of the elements of what you can come to expect in a neighborhood that's impoverished. So there was lots of crime, drugs, gangs and that sort of thing. My boys, by contrast, have always only lived in largely white communities. And they know nothing of what it means to be in a community that is saturated with guns and violence, drugs and any of those things.

GROSS: How old are they now?

WALKER: Right now, they are 18 and 20.

GROSS: In your book, you wonder, how is it going to affect them to grow up in predominantly white communities? Do you have any regrets about that? Do you think that - like, what do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of them having grown up that way?

WALKER: Well, one of the disadvantages is that there's a - certain cultural aspects of Black life that they just don't know much about. The various musical forms and certain types of community gatherings and backyard barbecues and ways of speech, they don't know much about that except for the way most people learn about it who don't - who aren't raised in those communities, by watching videos. But the advantage is that they didn't have to worry about the things I worried about as a kid, such as trying to get to and from school without having some gang beat me up or chase me or random gunfire or any of the things that are pretty common in inner-city communities.

So - but I still worry that because my sons are raised in a community without those sorts of, well, dangers, that they would take their lives for granted in some way and not recognize that they are very, very fortunate to have been raised this way. And I wonder if, as a result of this relatively cushy lifestyle, that they will find themselves overly sensitive to forms of racism that they will surely encounter.

GROSS: To show them that they were, you know, protected from the things that you had to endure when you were growing up, you told them stories about growing up on Chicago's South Side and told them about - well, did you tell them about how your brother was shot in the back in a McDonald's, about how another brother was in and out of prison, how your sister-in-law was addicted to heroin and died of an overdose? Did you tell them stories about, you know, your family and friends?

WALKER: I told them all those stories, and it horrified them. And they wanted no part of that lifestyle and that community. You can't blame them. But I did tell them that. And so I worried later when my mother was having her 80th birthday party and she wanted all of her kids to go. And so I told the boys, we're going to the ghetto. And they kind of freaked out about it, and they were unduly fearful of this community.

And this was my fault because I wanted them to appreciate all of what they had around them - the good schools, the good communities, the opportunities to go and travel and all of these great things. I wanted them to recognize, you're lucky. And so that was the positive. But then when it was time to take them to my home, they were not in any position to be able to appreciate what were good qualities about these communities. And I couldn't blame them.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like between the stories you have told them about growing up and the news reports about the murders in Chicago, that they were really terrified about going to the South Side and visiting your mother on her birthday.

WALKER: They were terrified. And to be honest, I was a little bit terrified, too. You get a distance from these communities, and you begin to generalize the experience. And all I could really think about were the hardships and the scary encounters I had when I lived there. And I forgot about the more specific instances of just having fun and having good times and playing basketball and running around with my friends and going to house parties, and that there were these good things.

And it was too late for me to convince my sons of this because I had already primed them for the horrors of this community. So I did regret it. But we went on the trip. And they did not get shot, as they feared. And it wasn't a bad experience. And hopefully, they will carry that with him as much as the horror stories I've passed along.

GROSS: What would you have done differently, in retrospect, in terms of telling them about your life growing up and what you were - what you and your family were exposed to?

WALKER: I probably would've done exactly what James McPherson told me to do, and that's to give a more broad, a more comprehensive account of Black life and not to simply talk about the bad parts. And maybe, in fact, we should've spent more time visiting these communities. But I mean, the thing about me - and this is where we get into my psychology, and that may be a good or a bad thing. But when you get out of a place like that and you do - you find yourself focusing more on some of the negatives - you're in no hurry to go back. You kind of feel freed of it. And the weight of these communities - and there is weight. There is lightness and there is fun, but there is a weight, and it can't be denied. And I was not too eager to assume that weight again any time soon or more than I needed to.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerald Walker. And his new collection of personal essays is called "How To Make A Slave." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jerald Walker, author of a new collection of personal essays called "How To Make A Slave."

You've written about what it was like to grow up on Chicago's South Side and move to your part of the neighborhood. When it was predominantly white, you were, like, the second Black family on the block. And then you watched the neighborhood change. White people left when Black families started moving in. Describe, like, the changes that you witnessed growing up there as the white people left and more Black families moved in. What were the other changes that you saw?

WALKER: Well, the white people left. And if that had been the extent of it, I think things might have been OK. But many of those white people actually owned the businesses in the neighborhood, and so those went, too, and they - or they closed. And what happened was that the businesses, which were family-friendly sort of businesses, mom and pop stores, increasingly became liquor stores and bars and the kinds of places that cannot help a community be a family-friendly place. So we saw that happening.

And then because the housing market collapsed, the tax base collapsed. And the schools, then, were not very sufficiently funded. And so I - the schools - we didn't have books often. And we - or we shared books, or the books were in tatters. And people moved into the neighborhood because the whites fled. And they didn't care what they sold their homes for, they just wanted to get out of the place. And so people moved in with extra-high interest rates. And they often couldn't afford to stay there. And so they foreclosed. And so more and more over time, the elements of a slum presented itself. So by the time I was 16 years old, I was living in, probably, one of the most notorious neighborhoods in this country.

GROSS: How did you change as the neighborhood changed?

WALKER: I adapted to it. I went from being, you know, a nerdy, kind of a studious person to, at the urging of one of my older brothers, needing to master the criminal enterprises that were sprouting up. And he insisted that if we were going to survive, then we needed to do what people in the community were doing. And so when I was 14 years old, one of my older brothers gave me marijuana to start selling in high school. And that was the start. But there were other acts of delinquency that he also encouraged so that we could survive. He saw our survival as being a mastery of these criminal enterprises and not a victim of them. The core belief that I held of myself was that I was a dork. I was not cut out for this lifestyle. And I was terrified of it.

But the outwardly appearance that I wanted to present was that I was as bad as anybody else. I was tough. And I could hold my own with these elements. And if it meant fighting, I would fight. If it meant dealing drugs, I would deal drugs. If it meant committing petty crimes, I would commit petty crimes. And so I did those things during the day. And at night, I cried myself to sleep trying to figure out, who am I? And am I a creature of this environment with no opportunity for getting out?

GROSS: And during the period when you were into, like, petty crime and, you know, selling drugs and doing drugs, you write that in your teens, you wore your hair in a permanent, a la James Brown, weighted your pinky fingers with bulky costume jewelry, carried a straight razor in your sock, cupped your crotch at every opportunity and snarled a great deal. And you write, I was very frightening and very unoriginal.

WALKER: Exactly. That's exactly - I mean, that was the uniform of the neighborhood of kids my age. You needed to look as if you were about to commit some horrendous crimes against someone if they gave you the slightest indication that they were afraid of you. So we all walked around looking like we were these, you know, vicious killers. But we were just teens. And we were just dressing in a way that we thought we were supposed to dress. And we were acting in the ways that we thought we were supposed to act.

But I think deep down inside, none of us really believed that. Some of us did. And for those of us who bought into that stereotype, they either died or ended up in prison. Or you can find them now drifting around the South Side of Chicago, ravaged from the alcohol and drugs they used. But many of us, at some point, took that uniform off and put on others and explored different opportunities.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerald Walker. And his new collection of personal essays is called "How To Make A Slave." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jerald Walker, the author of a new collection of personal essays called "How To Make A Slave." He's the author of two previous memoirs, "Street Shadows: A Memoir Of Race, Rebellion, And Redemption," about growing up on Chicago's South Side, and "The World In Flames: A Black Boyhood In A White Supremacist Doomsday Cult," about being raised in a family that belonged to the Worldwide Church of God. Walker is a professor of creative writing at Emerson College.

There's a story I'd like you to tell, and this is a really, you know, horrifying story. You were 21. It was 1985. You were on the way to buy coke from a friend who was a dealer when you were robbed at gunpoint. Describe what happened.

WALKER: This was - I dropped out of high school when I was 16 years old for a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons was that the high school I went to was so crime-riddled, and just getting there and back was an ordeal. And so I got involved with drugs and alcohol. And by the time I was, you know, in my early 20s, I had a strong appetite for cocaine. And a friend of mine was a dealer. I didn't have any money, but he said he would give me some on credit if I simply went to pick it up. And so I went to his place of business.

And I walked into the alley to go to his third-floor apartment. And some guy came out of the shadows and put a gun to my head, and he asked for money. And I said, I don't have any money. I'm here to get drugs on credit. I'm broke. And he searched my pockets. He couldn't find anything. And he told me to go up the stairs and get my drugs. And so I did. I went upstairs. I saw my friend. I told him what happened. We both laughed about it because this sort of thing is pretty common. And I got the drugs, and I left.

And 30 minutes later, I received a phone call from my brother saying that my friend, the dope dealer, had been shot. He'd been murdered, shot six times at the very place where the man had put the gun to my head. And I have never stopped believing that one of those bullets was for me, that I was meant to die that night in the alley. And that has - it motivated me. That very night was the last night that I ever used drugs. And I had to turn my life around because I had just been given a preview of what was coming for me.

GROSS: But it sounds like you had previous encounters that would have been kind of frightening. I mean, you had been robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint before. You had friends who were in jail, friends who were killed, family who had been in jail, family that was shot. So what was different about this episode?

WALKER: I think the thing that made this one different was the feel of the barrel of the gun pressing against my temple. And there are close calls, but you can't get much closer than that. And I knew that it was simply a matter of chance that that man had not shot me. And the other instances, as with this one, when I got upstairs and saw my friend and we laughed about it, the close calls are kind of funny because there's a little bit of a distance to them. And you think, yeah, that happened. It's happened before. It'll happen again, but I'll be OK. But when you have the gun against your head and when 30 minutes from that point, the friend you just saw is lying in a pool of blood where you stood, that makes something click that nothing else had the ability to make click.

GROSS: Had you thought about the possibility that the guy who held the gun to your head would follow you up the stairs and try to get drugs that he could either use or sell?

WALKER: I thought that there was a possibility he would be waiting for me when I came down. But - I was prepared for it. I was simply going to give him the drugs and go about my way. But I was - I mean, by that point in my life, having lived in that community and communities like it, you're so used to these encounters that they almost don't faze you. And you usually leave them with your life intact. It's just another event that happened. You tell your friends about it. You get high later, and you even laugh about it. But when it reaches an end like this one reached, it shifts your perspective on things. And I could've continued to lead that life, as my brothers did in that community. But I just decided that I've got to see what else there is out there.

GROSS: So what was your first step away from the life you'd been living?

WALKER: I had a job at that point. I was working at a medical center near me. And I would take the train in Chicago to and from my job. And the stop before my exit was the stop for the University of Illinois at Chicago. And every day on my way to work, I would see these young people my age, when we reach that stop, get off the train and go into this building. And I would continue on, and I would do my horrible job, and I would come home. And I would experience this every day.

And then one day - and I don't know what made me do it - but one day I got up, and I went with them. And I followed them down the stairs and across the street. And they got to the building and I went inside. And then I left. But the next day, I did it again. And then I left. And then the third day, I went in, and I followed someone to the library. And I took a book off the shelf. And I just sat there pretending to read it. And I looked around at all these people who were studying and I began to feel comfortable in that atmosphere.

And then one day, I bought a backpack with the school logo. I bought a sweater that said, UIC Flames. And I filled my backpack with books from my book-of-the-month club selection that I had accumulated. And I would go to the library and pretend to be a student until I convinced myself, I belong here. This place is for me. And so I made an appointment to see an admissions counselor. And I went to see them, and I said, look. I want to I want to be a student here. What do I have to do? And I told them I was a high-school dropout. I pretty much flunked all my classes. And he laughed in my face. He said, you can't come here. You'll never be accepted here. And I was so dejected. And I left.

But I had learned something about myself - that there was a place like that for people like me. And I simply had to find it. And that place turned out to be the local community college. Thank goodness for them because they accept everyone, even me.

GROSS: McPherson ended up paying for your tuition to go where?

WALKER: No, it wasn't McPherson.

GROSS: Oh, it wasn't McPherson. That was somebody else.

WALKER: No, that was when I went to my junior college. I took a creative writing course on a whim because I had failed three other courses in different subjects. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do, so I randomly took a course in creative writing. And my professor, Edward Holmwood (ph), said, you ought to be at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And I had never heard of that. I had barely heard of Iowa. And he said, you should go there. And he took me to view the campus. And I got the - saw what the tuition was. And I said, I can't possibly pay for this. And he said, I will pay for you. And so he paid my tuition.

GROSS: It's an amazing story that he would do that for you.

WALKER: It is an amazing story. And what's also amazing about it is that he did it for a lot of people. I mean, I would like to think that he singled me out out of his thousands of students over the years. But there are stories like that of this person who, on a community college salary - it's not the kind of income where you can do this thing and have it not have an impact on your life, but he did it. And when he saw someone who he recognized had something that could be developed and might have them come into their own as a person and as a scholar, then he made the investment. He's an extraordinary man.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerald Walker. His new collection of personal essays is called "How To Make A Slave." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jerald Walker, the author of a new collection of personal essays called "How To Make A Slave."

Both of your parents were blind. Were they both blind from birth?

WALKER: No. My father lost his sight when he was 12 years old. He fell down a flight of stairs, hit the back of his head and started having migraines. And then his vision started leaving slowly. But he was so afraid of what was happening that he didn't tell anyone. And finally, after, I think, about two months of his vision dimming, he was having breakfast one day with his grandmother, who was raising him at the time. And he knocked his fork accidentally off the table. And he turned to reach for it and he froze. And his grandmother said, Tommy (ph), pick up your fork. And he said, I can't. And she said, why not? And he said, because I can't see it.

And that's when his grandmother figured out that something was wrong with him. And so they rushed him to the hospital. And the doctors found that there was a clot on his brain that was affecting his vision. He was promised that surgery would solve the problem. And he had brain surgery. And the doctor made a mistake, we believe, because when my father woke, the small amount of light that he could see at that point was completely gone. And he was absolutely, 100% blind from that point forward.

GROSS: What about your mother? Was she born blind?

WALKER: My mother was not born blind. She was born with what we believe to be glaucoma. But in rural Arkansas in 1936, there was no way of having it diagnosis because they didn't have access to medical care. And so her - one of her eyes was clouded with mucus. And so they did what you do in these communities. They tried home remedies, which included urine from a cow, cigarette ash, drops of gasoline, cigarette smoke and an assortment of other things until, one day, the tide of mucus receded and basically left a small, grey stone. So that was that for that eye.

And then later, when she was 9 years old, she wanted to go out to play one day. And her mom said, no, you have chores to do. And my mother did not want to do the chores. And so she ran outside. And she turned back to see if her mother was chasing her and didn't see that in front of her, her brother was driving a wagon with a two-by-four in the back of it. And by the time my mother turned back around to see where she was going, her brother had stopped the wagon. And the two-by-four was in the perfect position to come in contact with her good eye, which it did.

GROSS: That sounds horrible. One of your earlier memoirs is titled "The World In Flames: A Black Boyhood In A White Supremacist Doomsday Cult." And you grew up in what you describe as a cult. It was the Worldwide Church of God. What did that church - tell us a little bit about that church.

WALKER: All right. I'll begin by saying it was awful. One of the things - well, this is the basic - the teachings of the church. They believed that in 1972, the world would come to an end of sorts, which is to say the heavens would open, demons would descend. There'd be earthquakes and fires and riots and looting. And everything would be pretty - basically, Armageddon. It would be terrible. But the people who were chosen - the chosen ones, as we were known - would be taken away to a place of safety. And for three years, from 1972 until 1975, while this chaos and mayhem took place, we would be protected.

And in 1975, by the end of this destruction, Jesus would return to Earth and say, you have seen what I can do. It's not good. Here is your chance to follow me. And everyone who decided to follow Christ at that time would be saved and have eternal life. Everyone else would burn in hell in the lake of fire. So for the people who agreed to follow Jesus - and why wouldn't you after all of this - the people who had been chosen would be his army. And we would be supervisors over this eternal life. And that seemed like a pretty good deal to my parents.

GROSS: But it was also preaching segregation and justifying slavery. What language did they use to do that?

WALKER: Oh, (laughter) there's any number of verses from the Bible that you can use to justify segregation and slavery. And many of them can be found in Leviticus. I can't cite chapter and verse now, but they're there because I heard them frequently. And we were told that the races were meant to be separated, that Black people were the descendants of Ham. And we were cursed. And therefore, we were supposed to be enslaved, that that wouldn't be so much of a big deal in the afterlife, although we would still be segregated in the afterlife but that that was simply the way it was. And my parents accepted that, along with a lot of other Black people, which still puzzles me to this day.

GROSS: How seriously did you take this when you were growing up?

WALKER: I bought into it 100%. I didn't - I mean, when you're, you know, raised in a religion and this is what you're taught from birth - and I was - it all made sense to me. And it was a horrifying thing. And then we had a problem. 1972 arrived, and the skies didn't open. 1975 arrived, and Christ did not return. And then we started learning of scandals at the head of the church, that there was money being embezzled. There were a lot of sexual activity. There was child molestation. There was all of this stuff. And we slowly but surely realized that we had been victims of a massive, massive con.

And so I discovered this when I was 14 years old, right when my neighborhood was going from being a middle-class neighborhood to being a slum. So having had all of my beliefs ripped from me and then finding myself in this community where I had no idea how to think about myself and about the world and about life, I had to try to make myself into something new. And the thing that was presented to me in large part by my brother but by the community was to be a, you know, young thug. That was what I had to replace the religion with.

GROSS: There was a big financial scandal, I believe, involving the church because the church leaders got very rich. And was your family expected to contribute a lot to the church? Did they lose a lot of money in the process?

WALKER: My parents gave 10% of their income to the church for the entire time we were members of it. And my - we were poor. I mean, we weren't low income. We were several levels below low income. But every year, we had to pay our tithes, which was 10% of my father's salary. And for a man raising six kids on one salary as a teacher, that's a huge sum of money. So we went without heat often. We went without certain clothing and, you know, vacations, that sort of thing. No chance of that. Our money went to the church because that was required by the teachings. And so my parents were devastated. They were so devastated, in fact, that once the scandals broke and we discovered that we were being ripped off, my parents stayed because the church broke into probably 16 different factions. And my parents - they stayed for several more years beyond the truth of the scandal.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerald Walker. And his new collection of personal essays is called "How To Make A Slave." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jerald Walker, author of a new collection of personal essays called "How To Make A Slave."

In this time of growing awareness of the number of police shootings of black men and women and protests that have happened around the country, are you thinking back to your childhood? And did you have or did your family and friends have encounters with the police that you're being reminded of?

WALKER: Oh, sure. There was one incident in particular when a friend of mine, we were - I don't know what we were doing - something that caught the police's attention. And they put us in the back of their squad car. And it's two white officers. And they were teasing us. And they were calling us names. And we were calling them names. And it kind of seemed to be kind of a funny thing. And they were taking us to prison - I forget what we were doing, maybe just getting. They caught us with weed or something. But they were taking us to prison.

But something happened where these two officers had to go on a different call. And so a different squad car came to pick us up. And so my friend and I - we were probably 14, 15 years old. We got in the back of the new car. And I continued with the jokes. I thought, this is what we're going to do with the cops today. We're going to call them names. They're going to call us names. And so I started calling these two white officers names. And they weren't laughing. And they weren't in a joking mood - until one officer - he pulled the car into an alley. And he - the second officer took my friend out of the car. And the first officer got in the backseat with me and put his gun in my ribs and said, I am going to kill you.

And I think he might have done it if my friend had not started fighting with the officer that had him. He started screaming. He was banging his fist on the hood of a car, doing everything that he possibly could to get the attention of people. And people did come out to see what was going on. And my life was saving that instant. But beyond that, we had regular encounters with the police where they would chase us, they would catch us, they would beat us. I don't know of anyone who was actually killed by the police, but there were many, many opportunities because we had some pretty intense encounters with the officers who patrolled our community.

GROSS: What have you been doing in response to the police shootings and the protests?

WALKER: Um, well, I get as angry about these things as anybody else. But it also reaches a point where it's so overwhelming - you see these stories on the news, and it just - it eats at you. And it makes you miserable. And I - one of the things that I try to do in my pieces is to bring some attention to these instances and show how they kind of just erode at the psyche of Black people. And if you are the parents of Black children, you are especially agonized every time you see one of these stories.

And when George Floyd was killed, it reached a point where we simply had to tell our sons, you know, there's no escaping this. And I don't want to scare you, but you have to be aware that if the police stop you, you've got to try to save your life and not do anything that will give them reason to kill you. And I didn't want to have that conversation with them because I don't want them fearful of police. But I do want them to be aware of all of the possibilities of what an encounter with a police officer might mean.

GROSS: Your wife is biracial. And when you started having a relationship with her, you were hoping - among other things, of course - that you would learn about race and perceptions of race by the perceptions that she had, you know, growing up biracial and growing up in a predominantly white suburb. Did it work out that way? Do you feel like having a wife who is biracial has led you to understand things about race that you wouldn't have otherwise perceived?

WALKER: Absolutely - but in a way, completely opposite than what I anticipated. I anticipated that, being biracial, that my wife would be extra sensitive to racial matters, that she would be on the lookout for racial slights and injustices even more so than I was when we met. But it was not the case with her - that she was raised in a community where race was not that big of a deal. And so she didn't have the kind of paranoia that someone like me develops over a lifetime of being exposed to racial injustices.

So in a way, this has been great for me because where I see race, often she sees nothing. And maybe the reality is somewhere in the middle. And that's good for both of us because she can calm me down and say, no, that is not a member of the Klan; it's just the mailman. And I can say to her, we got these bad seats in a restaurant because we're Black. And so we kind of balance each other out in a way. I'm too extreme in these views sometimes, and sometimes she is more forgiving of these things than I am.

GROSS: Jerald Walker, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WALKER: Thank you for the invitation. This was great. This was fun.

GROSS: Jerald Walker's new collection of personal essays is called "How To Make A Slave."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, after the polls have closed, we'll talk about how our electoral system has held up with Barton Gellman. His Atlantic article, "The Election That Could Break America," is about how the pandemic, a deluge of mail-in ballots, slowed down postal delivery, voter suppression, lawsuits and the president himself could make for an uncertain outcome. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.