Jerald Walker on Street Shadows
Privacy in the Public Square
I am a private person. One might even describe me as borderline reclusive, as I find that my best days are often the ones in which my contact with the world’s seven billion humans is restricted to the three with whom I live. It might seem odd, then, that I have written a memoir; as odd, perhaps, as if I had disrobed in the public square. Odder still is that my disrobing--for, in a manner of speaking, that is what I do in Street Shadows--reveals moral imperfections that cause me not only embarrassment but also shame. Delinquency, as it turns out, is not good for the soul.
Nor, at least in my particular case, is the confessional. Chronicling my wrongs and misdeeds did not unburden me of anything. In fact, it burdened me more. This was especially true when I called my 73-year-old mother to read her each completed chapter. Often she responded with pride and admiration at how I turned my life around, but sometimes, when I gave detailed accounts of the darker aspects of my journey, she responded with a mournful, "Oh, Jerry..." or "I can’t believe you did that," or, worst of all, with silence. I was devastated. Because you see, while my mother was aware that my formative years were troubled, she did not know to what extent. Three decades later, I was disappointing her all over again. And yet I continued to call her to read chapters, wholly aware that each person--family and friends, as well as strangers--who read my story might very well echo her dismay.
But I was also aware that my story, in its most basic form, is everyone’s. Once you move past the specifics of my experience--the drug and alcohol abuse, the petty crimes, the racial conflicts, the religious angst, etc.--what you are left with is a person who is on a universal quest to discover who he is and what his place is in the world. I understood that in revealing myself to readers, I might also be revealing readers to themselves. My mother included. As I offered her more and more of my tale, I suspected, and hoped, that her sighs were as much for herself as they were for me. Her joy in my triumphs was also her joy in her own. And so I am inclined to believe that, on some level, I wrote my memoir not to single myself out for attention, not to boast of any uniqueness, but as a way of proclaiming my sameness, and, in so doing, blending into the crowd of humanity. Disrobing in the public square, then, odd though it may seem, could very well be the ultimate expression of privacy. --Jerald Walker
(Photo © Corry De Neef)
“I am a racist,” Walker declares halfway through this thoughtful memoir, and much of the book is spent building up to and unpacking that statement. Born poor on the South Side of Chicago, Walker became an honor student, which made him vulnerable; and in defense, he succumbed to the “urban undertow.” A violent opening puts it all into play: drugs, sex, guns, gangs, and chance. But this is a feint; Walker pulls back from the salacious parts of his past to focus on his university education in Iowa City, his growth as a writer, his beginnings as a teacher, and the fairly banal struggles of being the rare black English professor at an East Coast college. The chapters alternate between his crime-filled youth and his increasingly egalitarian life of sushi dinners and awkward Kwanzaa faculty events, with the latter taking prominence. This will frustrate those looking for a gritty urban drama, but that’s the point—as Walker realizes, his “tale of black teenage delinquency seemed too clichéd.” This unique literary biography, however, is nothing of the sort. --Daniel Kraus