The general theme and historical context of the text
30 November 2015
The General Theme and Historical Context of Jerald Walker’s “How to Make a Slave”
Jerald Walker’s essay talks broadly about racism and parenthood. The essay brings to our attention the flashbacks of a male character about his childhood. The character seems to have had a very bad experience with his white counterparts as he was growing up. These bad childhood experiences stick to his mind and he refuses to believe that it is possible for the whites to treat a black person with respect. The mentality he has affects aspects of his social life including his choice of wife and the way he brings up his children. This paper discusses the general theme itself and the historical context within which the essay is based.
The Historical Context of Jerald Walker’s “How to Make a Slave”
The essay starts out with an elder sister helping a male character to come up with important points for his presentation about slavery and its abolition (Foster 186). This part brings a hint about the historical setting of the essay. The essay is clearly set around a time in the American history when slavery had already been abolished. From the essay as well as from general knowledge, it is obvious that the level of improvement of life for African Americans was very minimal (“Black History” n.pag.). It even got worse before remote traces of quality life for the blacks started showing. After its abolition, there were frequent public lynching and beating of the blacks through organizations that upheld the white supremacy (“Black History” n.pag.). The segregation between the whites and blacks exacerbated after the abolition. But from the book it is said that the main male character did not belong to the times of Frederick Douglas (Foster 187). This means that slave trade was abolished way before this character was born. Later on in the essay, it is made clear that the author was born during the era of Martin Luther King (Foster 187).
This era was somewhere between the1950s and the 1960s. There were a lot of civil rights movements led by blacks during this period (“Black History” n.pag.). An example of these movements was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (“Black History” n.pag.). This organization was fighting for the equality of Americans by striving to educate the people about social injustices and lobbying law makers. They also fought for equality by litigating during the first half of the 20th century but achieved little success (“Black History” n.pag.). Martin Luther King was one of the leaders who advocated for peaceful but direct action in response to discrimination and segregation. Martin Luther King helped to educate community leaders as well as the church from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (“Black History” n.pag.). He educated them on issues about non-violent means, effective ways of mobilizing community boycotts, freedom rides and other actions. The period from which the essay derives its historical context, spans from a period characterized by a lot of civil rights movements to a period of relatively more freedom and equality for everyone. This period is evidenced in the essay when the author identifies with Martin Luther King as a hero from his time and not Frederick Douglas (“Black History” n.pag.). The relative equality and freedom can be seen from the seventh paragraph of the essay where it is written that the main male character and his wife moved to a neighborhood that was 96% white and the two were professors at a nearby University (Foster 188).
The General Theme of How to Make a Slave by Jerald Walker
As mentioned before, the essay mainly talks about racism and fatherhood. Racism is evident in almost every paragraph of the essay. The main male character keeps on bringing up the subject of racism throughout the piece. The first instance that hints at racism comes up in the text towards the end of the first paragraph when a sister says, “Then you’ll end your presentation with passion saying that Douglas is your hero, “to his brother (Foster 186). Frederick Douglas is a previous slave and a well-known human rights leader in the movement to abolish slave trade (“Frederick Douglas” n.pag.). He was the first African-American to hold a high-ranking position in the government of the United States (“Frederick Douglas” n.pag.). Douglas is known for his unrelenting efforts in abolishing slave trade and ensuring equity for all (“Frederick Douglas” n.pag.). In one instance recounted in the essay, Frederick beat up his white master who was fond of beating him up at every chance he got (“Frederick Douglas” n.pag.). However, he owed his reading and writing to the wife of one such slave owner. Douglas, therefore, held both the blacks and whites in high esteem (“Frederick Douglas” n.pag.). He had even been quoted severally saying he would work together with anyone to do right but work together with no one to do wrong (“Frederick Douglas” n.pag.). Although Frederick was not a racist, choosing him as the boy’s hero in the abolition of slave trade could be racially biased since there were many other abolitionists who were nit black.
Just a few lines down, in the second paragraph of the essay, another instance of racial bias comes up. In the line “forget his name in a few years but remember that his skin was so dark that you and your friends had no choice but to call him Congo,” one can clearly pick up the racist comments (Foster 187). Martin Luther King once said that he dreamt of an America where one would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The fact that all the other traits that the boy possessed other than his skin color clearly shows that the classmates were somewhat racist be it on a light or a serious note. This paragraph brings out an interesting aspect about racism; it develops as one gets older. Congo, still a young boy already exhibits strong emotional reaction to a white man mistreating a black man. He emotionally explains how he would have reacted in Douglas’s place; he says he would have gouged out the master’s eyes and have the other boys amputate his legs and arms (Foster 186).
His reaction is interesting since he is still a child and has not had many racial segregation encounters. One then wonders how young someone needs to be to understand how ugly it is to discriminate one on racial grounds. This aspect brings about another theme to support the central theme; childhood. All through the essay, it is seen that people are affected most by racist tendencies when they are still young. The character who ends up being a professor with a Mulatto wife and two male children lends some credence to this assumption. This specific character has a strong negative attitude towards the whites because of the racial segregation he used to go through as a young boy. This mentality affects how he views things in life and how he cares for his kids. In the final paragraphs of the essay, when his eldest son goes to report a racist comment made against him in school, he takes the issue very seriously (Foster 189). This is most probably because of what he went through as a young man growing up in a society where the white people called the shots. The wife, on the other hand, was raised in a mixed race family and did not have to go through the extent of racial discrimination that her husband went through as a child. She is, therefore, not very sensitive about racial segregation and takes the matter very lightly (Foster 190).
In conclusion, the essay has several other themes to complement or develop the general theme. One such theme is family ties and companionship. Throughout the essay, the author keeps on talking about families, their racial perspectives and their encounters with racist people. Childhood is yet another subject that helps in developing the central theme. Walker poetically brings the reader’s attention to a character’s first interaction with racist tendencies as a child and how it affects the character’s life from then onwards.
“Black History.” History Net Where History Comes Alive World US History Online. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
“Frederick Douglas – Google Search.” Frederick Douglas – Google Search. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Foster, Patricia. Cultural Memoir: A Special Issue of Southern Humanities Review. 186-190. Print.