No Angel with the Pen

Harvard Review talks with Jerald Walker

Christina Thompson, editor of Harvard Review, talks to Jerald Walker, author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.

Christina: One of the things I greatly admire about your work—including your essay “Designated Driver” in HR 50—is the way you inhabit multiple perspectives. You take complicated, touchy subjects and explore them first from one point of view and then from another.

So, for example, in this essay, you look at the sensitivities of undergraduates around issues of race both more and less sympathetically, playing your own reactions off one another. To me, this is one of your great virtues as a thinker (and writer)—the way you circle around a problem, looking at it not as something about we which are already dogmatically decided but as something that still needs looking at, something that still has the capacity to surprise. And, of course, the way you bring your own experience to bear on a subject while remaining an essentially cerebral writer.

Am I making this all up? Or is this three-dimensionality—thinking in the round—something you actually aspire to?

Jerald: No, you’re not making it up at all—it’s definitely something I aspire to, so much so that I’d say it’s central to my essay writing philosophy. I think the phrase “on the other hand” is one of the most important tools in the essayist’s arsenal, because it requires him or her to consider whatever’s at stake from at least one other perspective. And the more perspectives, it seems to me, the better. When I’m writing an essay, I know I’m onto something when I find myself really thinking on the page, struggling to maintain a long-held view, for example, in the face of compelling evidence to abandon it. That compelling evidence is often something that, in lesser moments, I would push aside, but I’ve learned that lesser moments are of little interest to readers, and they offer little opportunity for growth to the writer. Growth often sneaks up on you; I think that’s the element of surprise that you reference.

Christina: Given this idea of thinking in the round—this “on the one hand, on the other hand” way of thinking—what are some of the harder topics you’ve tried to tackle? And do you ever feel pressure from potential readers who might misunderstand you or might feel you were not aligning yourself with the right camp?

Jerald: I don’t feel pressure to align myself with the right camp, but I know that pressure exists. I’ve seen it at work, particularly against conservative black writers, such as Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, and Debra Dickerson. But even black writers on the opposite end of the political spectrum who stray from the party line can find themselves in the crosshairs. My mentor and literary idol, for instance, James Alan McPherson (author of the short story collections Hue & Cry and Elbow Room, and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), was roundly criticized for saying that, with regard to fiction, specific racial experiences should be subservient to universal themes. I tend to agree with that view, which I suppose makes me vulnerable to the same fate. Then again, maybe not—at least not to the same degree—because times have changed. McPherson came of age as a writer in the seventies, on the heels of the Black Power Movement, when there were racial identity politics at play in the black community that are much less intense now. So my essays that happen to have less than mainstream views tend to stir up healthy debate rather than vitriol. One of these was a piece I published in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Visible Man” in which I challenge the view that black academics should feel compelled to attend campus-sponsored diversity events.

Christina: What kind of pushback did you get on that and what did you think about it? I’m also interested in the question of how you feel about pushback generally. You say that you tend to stir up “healthy debate” rather than “vitriol.” But it feels as though there is a huge amount of vitriol out there; to the point, I think, where some writers are starting to shy away from making controversial statements of any kind.

Jerald: My suspicion was borne out that some readers of “Visible Man” would accuse me of race betrayal, but I don’t let the likelihood of pushback discourage me from expressing controversial views, especially when I feel I’m standing on principled ground. And more often than not, what I assume might be controversial turns out to be just the opposite. That was the case with “Visible Man”; the vast majority of responses to it were positive. It was the case, too, with “The Designated Driver.” I received zero pushback for “The Designated Driver,” in fact, even though, according to my college’s very reliable grapevine, that essay was well-circulated around campus and the source of much discussion. This isn’t to say I think there was uniform agreement with the views I expressed in that piece, but I do think there was broad appreciation for my honesty and vulnerability; after all, the sins, such as they were, on which I shined the brightest light were my own. Which brings to mind something I recently read in Richard Russo’s wonderful essay collection The Destiny Thief where he speaks of a writer’s “artistic personality,” which is the way he or she views potential story material. People familiar with my work will know that it is my practice to find humor where I can and to self-castigate when I should, and so perhaps it is my artistic personality that discourages a lot of pushback, particularly of the vitriolic kind. It is also true that I shy away from being vitriolic. I’m more inclined to try to understand enemies and opposing views than to attack them. But lest I’ve given the wrong impression, I should make clear that I am no angel with the pen. I am, given the right incentive, an assassin.

Published on April 11, 2019