Saved by the power of words
The gritty side of black urban life has been portrayed so often in literature that it has become its own genre: street lit. Authors such as Iceberg Slim and Sister Souljah have captured the black experience in groundbreaking novels, and hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent have explored the dark side of urban life in words and music. So the challenge for Jerald Walker was to find something new to write about in Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption. Walker succeeds for two reasons: There are some unique experiences in his life, and he is a strong writer.
The plot line for Street Shadows is familiar—an African-American youth overcomes the poverty, drugs, gangs and violence of the big city to become a success. Walker grew up in a Chicago ghetto, dropped out of high school, joined a gang, abused drugs and was a thief. But he beat the odds to become a college professor, a reliable husband and a responsible father. His redemption is his writing, which is clear, crisp and rhythmic. From an early age, he writes with honesty and passion, and he earns the attention of his community college professor, who helps Walker enroll in the University of Iowa. This leads to his acceptance into the distinguished Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he attains notoriety for his poignant urban essays.
Street Shadows is a compilation of some of those previously published essays, interspersed with new material that helps weave together the defining moments in Walker’s life. He recounts growing up with parents who were both blind and members of a religious cult, and he relates his struggles to overcome drug abuse and his return to school as a young adult. He also describes his encounters with racism as a college student, and later as an English professor on the East Coast.
The material is compelling, although it does have a stitched-together quality, because Walker hops from past to present rather than telling his tale chronologically. But it was great writing that saved Jerald Walker’s life, and it is great writing that saves this book.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.