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Inauguration: an essay by Jerald Walker

Inauguration: an essay by Jerald Walker

M y wife and I watched the presidential inauguration in bad company. Our two Tonkinese cats sat before the window entwined in a beam of sun, wholly disinterested in the promise of a post-racial world, while Brenda and I sat nearby on the couch, wholly transfixed. Like most other black Americans, we had wanted to attend the event in person; now I regretted that we had not gone.

Since my mother lives near DC, the run on hotels would not have affected us, but we were convinced to stay by other considerations, the main one being our young sons. Attempting to endure hours of frigid weather with a six- and eight-year-old would have reduced a festive occasion to a marathon of whines and complaints, to which I would have contributed my share.

We toyed with the idea of keeping the boys home from school. For weeks I had envisioned them on our laps, eating popcorn and Skittles as I put the inauguration in a meaningful yet delicate context. But pulling that off would have been difficult; I simply had no idea how to express the full weight of the event without offering specific reference to the misdeeds of our nation’s past. I do not even know how to talk to them about race. Until very recently I responded to their innocent inquiries about the varieties of skin color in purely biological terms; it was not until the morning after Obama’s election, in fact, that I attempted to add a social dimension.

At the time, Brenda was in the shower. The boys were in the kitchen, half-asleep and staring incomprehensively at their bowls of Frosted Mini-Wheats. When I walked into the room and told them Obama had won, they shifted their confused gazes to me. “Remember who that is?” I asked.

“The one with the high levels of melanin?” inquired Adrian, my oldest.

“Exactly,” I said. “Like us.”

I slowly lapped the island, pausing before them with my hands on the back of a chair. “Do you know what the election of Barak Obama means?”

They stared intently at me for a long while. Finally, with great seriousness, Dorian said, “That we can play Mario Kart today after school?”

I realized I was holding my breath. “Sure,” I said, exhaling. “Why not?” They cheered. I cheered, too, for the conversation had come to a merciful end.

Now, two months later, it was time for me to venture onto that minefield again. But not that morning. Instead of keeping them home from school, I decided it was best for them to experience the inauguration with kids their own age, the generation that, in their adulthood, would mark this occasion the way my generation marked the violent death of American leaders; the way my parents’ generation marked the violent death of American wealth.

I should not have thought of death at that moment. After doing so constantly since Obama emerged from the heartland as a legitimate contender and the object of would-be assassins, I felt I had earned the right, on that historic day, to be filled with only positive thoughts. Change for the country, I reasoned, could also mean change for me. I squeezed Brenda’s hand, which had been in mine off and on for the last hour. She squeezed back. We shared a quick smile before I placed my feet on the coffee table, burrowed deeper in the sofa, and gave in to this unfolding social experiment.

During the next ninety minutes we were treated to the wisdom of pundits, several musical performances, and a number of interviews with ecstatic members of the swelling crowd. At regular intervals fleets of school buses arrived, out of which tumbled children carrying hand-made Obama signs, and each time I was reminded of my sons. In a short while they would become racially conscious, made aware that the seemingly blank page of skin pigmentation was actually filled with script. I assumed their teachers would offer context for the inauguration as I would have, taking care not to have the black students feel singled out or unduly uncomfortable, sensitive to the fact that so few of them attended their private Boston-area school. And yet no matter how carefully delivered, words are still words, and I feared their impact. Class, before you watch the inauguration, there’s something you should know. Black people were brought to this land in chains because it was widely believed by whites that they were inferior. But President Lincoln knew all humans were equal, and that’s why, after two hundred and fifty years of captivity, he declared the slaves free. Context provided, the teachers would march their classes into the all-purpose room to watch the unforeseeable fruits of Lincoln’s decree. Maybe my sons would move just a step slower than the others. And maybe no one would notice. Not even Adrian and Dorian. But the seed of self-doubt would have been planted, and over time it would manifest itself as sullenness, a lack of desire to compete that appears so often in African American males, even those of privilege. or it would have no impact on them at all, serving simply as another example of man’s inhumanity to man that can be found the world over, through all of time. Context is everything.

Here is the context for me: I am forty-six, a college professor, the son of a teacher, the grandson of sharecroppers, the great grandson of slaves. The higher branches of my ancestral tree bear the weight of the lynched; the lower branches bear the weight of the embittered. Such was the landscape of the poor black communities in which I had been raised, where most of the adults I knew hated whites, believed racism was insurmountable, and felt obliged to offer their children this bleak worldview. The mere mention of the phrase “post-racial” was inconceivable. But then, the election of a black president was, too.

The inauguration had ended, and Brenda was back on campus, fulfilling her administrative duties. I did not teach on Tuesdays, so I remained at home, fulfilling my duties as dad. I had helped Dorian and Adrian with their homework, overseen piano practice, denied several requests to watch television, and joined them in a few games of Mario Kart. That was the easy part. In a few minutes I would walk upstairs to where they were playing in their room to discuss Obama’s presidency. This decision was motivated less by a desire to dispense knowledge than to receive it. I was anxious to know what their teachers had said to them and how, or if, they had responded.

Their faces had yielded nothing. Nor had their moods. Their school has a “drive-through” pick-up system, whereby parents and caretakers pull up near the entrance and children are escorted out to the idling cars. As Adrian and Dorian had approached mine two hours ago, I had studied their faces, looking for what?—I didn’t know—and yet hoping I would not find it. I did not. They were their typical public selves, quiet and reserved, until we had pulled away from the building, at which point they burst into animated conversation, as if duct tape had been suddenly ripped from their mouths. But the topics they covered did not include the inauguration, and I had not psyched myself up enough to mention it then.

As I climbed the stairs, I was reminded of my twin brother and I being thirteen and having our first serious talk with our father. We had been summoned to the living room, where we found him sitting on the edge of the couch, looking grave. “Boys,” he said, rising, “you’re old enough to start being with girls, but if you’re going to be out there tomcat’n, you’ll need these.” He held up a hand, in which were several sex education brochures. “When you’re ready for them,” he continued, “they’ll be on top of the refrigerator.” And then he left. This was not the model I intended to follow when it came time to broach the subject of sex with Dorian and Adrian. But at that moment, as I entered their room to broach the subject of race, I wished there was something that, right before leaving, I could hold up and say, Boys, you’re old enough to start being black, but if you’re going to be out there Negro’n, you’ll need these.

“Hi, Daddy,” they said in sync.

They were sitting on the floor, amidst a herd of stuffed animals. I joined them.

“Hi, boys. What are you doing?”

“Playing with our friends,” Dorian said. “You can play, too.” He handed me a giraffe as he explained the rules, which required the person holding the giraffe to be mugged. A full-scale wrestling match ensued, our favorite activity since they had learned to walk. They had tripled in size since then, but I had tripled my determination to remain fit for battle. I ran on the treadmill each day; I lifted weights five times a week; I counted my caloric intact the way a miser counts his money. And yet a mere ten minutes into the match I was winded.

Ignoring their protests, I called a time-out. Now the three of us lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling, as if at interesting cloud formations. It was interesting, I supposed, that the surface had dipped a full six inches in the center and that the middle seam was starting to peel—telltale signs that the plaster had loosened from the support beams. This had happened in the dinning room a year earlier, resulting in a $2,000 repair and a reiteration of my vow to never again buy a house described as “antique.”

“Are you ready?” asked Adrian.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“How much longer?” This from Dorian.

“Not much,” I said. “Soon.” I’d caught my breath, but I was stalling.

“Now?” Dorian asked a moment later.

“Almost,” I said. “First I want to talk to you about the inauguration. Did you see it at school today?”

“Yes,” they responded.

“What did you think?”

“It was good,” offered Adrian.

“It was long,” Dorian noted.

Best American Essays 2014 Selection - SOUTHERN HUMANITIES REVIEW

MAY 14, 2014

E ARE THRILLED to share the good news that Jerald Walker's essay "How to Make a Slave" will appear in The Best American Essays 2014. edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Walker's essay originally appeared in SHR 's special Cultural Memoir issue, guest edited by Patricia Foster.

Walker is the author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption. recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction. His essays have appeared in numerous publications, including three times in The Best American Essays. He is Chair of the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College.

Sullivan is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the southern editor of TheParis Review. He writes for GQ , Harper’s Magazine. and Oxford American and is the author of Blood Horses and Pulphead. a 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee.

The Best American Essays series has been published since 1986 under the editorship of Robert Atwan.

SHR 's editors congratulate Walker on his fourth (and surely not his last) appearance in the anthology, and we happily add Walker's name to the list of SHR contributors whose essays have been recognized in The Best American Essays over the years.

Below is an excerpt from Walker's essay:

3) Collaborative Teaching and New Levels of Textual Analysis - Dr

Then you'll develop a very short presentation that models the use and significance of your chosen Rhetorical Device in Keillor's essay. You must create a new page on your personal Google website, titled, "Take in the State Fair," and you must use two or more modalities to represent your thinking. If you'd like to attempt to incorporate a modality but don't know how use that feature of the Google Sites, just ask Dr. Carolyn. Go!

Homework. Finish your "Take in the State Fair" web page. Be ready to share in a Roundtable at the beginning of our next class.


Objective: By the end of class, you will be able to. infuse a new level of textual analysis into your reading comprehension repertoire.

Let's Get Started! Please open up your p ersonal Google website page, titled, "Take in the State Fair," in which you used multiple modalities to represent your thinking. You'll be sharing among your classmates in a Roundtable. Post-Roundtable discussion. Use this Google Doc: "Take in the State Fair" Template: Rhetorical Devices Roundtable.

Next. Mini-Lesson--- The Language of Interpretation:An Introduction to Sociocultural Analysis

Go to the Quizlet page Dr. Carolyn created for the "Language of Interpretation" terms and definitions. Play, explore, learn.

Homework. Please read "Scattered Inconveniences," by Jerald Walker. [Note: There's a PDF at the bottom of this page, if you can download it. Otherwise, you'll need to read it in The Writer's Presence. pg. 251.] .Be ready to apply The Language of Interpretation to this essay during our next class.


Objective: By the end of class, you will be able to. apply a language of interpretation to an essay as a new level of textual analysis in order to expand your initial response and your worldview.

Let's Get Started!

Please open up a copy of "Scattered Inconveniences," by Jerald Walker. Next, we'll engage in a BrainWriting Activator.

And we'll r eview our previous deconstruction strategies:

Narrative structure: One group of students writes in core elements of the Freytag Pyramid.

  • Rhetorical Devices: Another group of students applies at least five rhetorical strategies to the story.
  • After revisiting your BrainWriting Activator, the narrative structure elements, and the rhetorical devices, now it's time to rethink your original assumptions about the essay. Go to the Quizlet page Dr. Carolyn created for the "Language of Interpretation" terms and definitions to help with your language choices. W rite one synthesis sentence that captures the essential ideas that Walker is trying to impart in the story. Afterward, we'll have a full class sharing session.

    Homework. Read "Mother Tongue," by Amy Tan


    Objective: By the end of class, you will be able to. deconstruct an essay about the intersection of language and culture through a prescribed Language of Interpretation.

    Let's Get Started! Summarizer. Based on the various brainstorming, writing, and discussion learning events we’ve shared about "Scattered Inconveniences," create an Word Schema Map that captures what you determine to be the most important concepts in “Scattered Inconveniences,” by Jerald Walker. Create a new page on your personal Google website, and create a digital Word Schema Map. Categorize your ideas from the large, organizing ideas to lower levels of support.

    Word Schemas/ Concept Maps

    Word Schemas/ Concept Maps

    Next. let's take a reading check of "Mother Tongue," by Amy Tan.

    Afterward. use the Language of Interpretation to create as many sentences as time allows that capture Tan's more important social and cultural messages in "Mother Tongue." Use small white boards to challenge each other to define and share ideas and constructs.

    Preview. Tomorrow's modeling of five co-teaching lessons from Dr. Carolyn

    Homework. Read "Under Water," by Anne Fadiman.


    Objective: By the end of class, you will be able to. distinguish how elements of a rubric can be brought to life via collaborative teaching

    Let's Get Started! Reading check for "Under Water," by Anne Fadiman

    Dr. Carolyn provides a model of how to "co-teach" the lesson through the essay, "Under Water."

    Homework: Please review this list of essays. You will negotiate with your small group to choose one to teach. Also, prepare any questions for Dr. Carolyn about her decision-making process as she designed her five lessons.


    (A Two-Day Lesson Plan)

    Objective: By the end of class, you will be able to. negotiate with a group of students around decision-making.

    Let's Get Started! We'll begin by looking over Dr. Carolyn's five lesson plans for the "Under Water" essay. B e ready to ask any questions for Dr. Carolyn about her decision-mak ing process as she designed her five lessons.

    Then, discuss your homework---- to review this list of essays and negotiate with your small group to choose one to teach.

    Each student needs to create a new personal Google website page, titled, "Collaborative Teaching." Remember to disallow comments.

    Have fun planning for your co-teaching! Watch an inspirational video here to get started.

    Here is a PowerPoint as a review of the Freytag Pyramid about plot development. Here is a website with a review of the Elements of Plot Development.

    AP Rhetorical Strategies

    The Language of Interpretation

    Go to the Quizlet page Dr. Carolyn created for the "Language of Interpretation" terms and definitions.

    Glossary of Instructional Strategies and Graphic Organizers

    Go to this Glossary of Instructional Strategies document for many, many ideas about teaching a concept--- or go to this list of graphic organizers to get ideas about how to give others an opportunity to interact with your lesson!

    Homework. 1) Plan your own lesson within your group's collaborative teaching day. 2) Read the upcoming essays; be ready to take a reading check. Check the schedule for readings here.


    Objective: By the end of class, you will be able to. consider our Collaborative Teaching unit in its parts by reading, previewing, reviewing, and/ or reflecting.

    Let's Get Started! Please conduct a self-assessment as to where you are within our Collaborative Teaching unit.

    • Have you read the remaining essays? Check the schedule for readings here to be sure you're done.
    • If you have not presented yet, are you ready? Use this time to discuss plans with your group and to refine your own design. With this additional planning time, Dr. Carolyn expects that your group will have no overlap.
    • If you have presented, you should use this time to complete the Co-Teaching Self-Reflection. It will be due after all presentations are completed. Here is the rubric for you to review. If you do complete it ahead of time and would like Dr. Carolyn to grade it, please enter your name on the schedule posted on the bulletin board next to the technology stand.

    Decide the areas on which you need to focus. Please do not compete work for other classes during this time, however.

    Deez nutz Essay - 806 Words

    Brian Barran
    Mrs. Susan W. UrbaniaEnglish Composition
    September 26, 2012
    When you look at me what do you see? Each person views the world through a lens that is colored by his/her own expectations and past experiences. I agree with this statement because experiences always have an impact on people’s point of view in life no matter what whether it’s right or wrong. An example of how people let experiences and expectations influence the way that they perceive the world come from a short story by Jerald Walker “Scattered Inconveniences.” A story of how assumption can be dangerous. Another story that can relate is “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Ability to Alter Public Space” by Brent Staples. A story of how stereotypes can be a menace in someone’s life and how ridiculous it can be. In the story “Scattered Inconveniences” there was a black family from Iowa City on their way to a secure a better life financially in New England. One night during their long haul on the highway they encounter a man in a truck harassing them by cutting in front on them and slowing down in front of them. The black man started to assume that the man in the truck that seems to be a racist and is just harassing them on the road because they are black. This assumption was based off of what he had been through in his stay in Iowa and experiences growing up. For example, he says “But I had heard similar things about Iowa, only later to experience no problems.“No problems” is not to say “nothing,” though, for there were what a black intellectual referred to as “scattered inconveniences” – women crossing the street or removing their purses from grocery carts at my approach, security guards following me in department stores.” (Walker 1) In this situation the stereotype of the black man has affected him so much that he has created an equal stereotype for white people, which doesn’t solve anything because the reason why the man in the truck was harassing him on the road.

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