Jerald Walker teaches English lit and creative writing at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, but his memoir, Street Shadows, is a south-side Chicago tale through and through—real deal, as some say below Cermak, unspun in its tracking of the author’s circular path from hope to despair and then back to hope again. Street Shadows is Walker’s homage to second chances, recounting how he took a wayward turn in youth and still found his way as an adult, discovering opportunity in Chicago.
Walker and his wife, both academics, are raising their two elementary-school-aged children in circumstances quite distinct from Walker’s own as a child. His life’s trajectory and the potential for reimagining fate—the possibility of better lives to be lived even for the most compromised of souls—invigorate his voice as he tells his story.
The early portion of Street Shadows discusses your life as a young man in Chicago during the 1970s and ’80s—a changing place in changing times. Could you talk a bit about your background?
I was born on the west side in a housing project. My parents, both of whom were blind, struggled mightily to get us out of that environment, and they managed to do so in 1970, when I was six years old. We moved to South Shore, which was predominately white. We were one of the first black families, if not the first black family, to move into the neighborhood. It was a solid, middle-class, stable environment. That lasted for a few years, until the whites seemed to have some important place to be. We started noticing the for-sale signs sprouting up, until, maybe six, seven years after we had arrived, the neighborhood was all black. And by ten years after we’d arrived it had turned into a ghetto, not unlike the project area we’d moved from.
By age 14 I’d started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. I dropped out of high school at 16. Then, by 20, I had a strong interest in snorting all the cocaine I could find. And then a friend of mine was murdered when I was 21—he died soon after I’d bought some drugs from him. That kind of shook me up like other things had not shaken me up and made me decide it was time to redirect my life. So, at the age of 24, I enrolled in Loop College [now Harold Washington College], and there I met Professor Edward Homewood, who took an interest in me and in my writing ability. He helped me get to the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Professor Homewood’s course work was your first encounter with creative writing?
It’s funny, I gave a reading in Chicago and a lot of my teenage friends were there. Afterward they were saying, “You know, we remember when you used to write these stories and read them to us when we were getting high”—and I don’t remember doing any of that. They told me I would craft these stories that had awesome characters, and I would amuse them by reading. So maybe I did. I’m sure if they say I did it, then I did it, but . . .
I didn’t get interested in writing, nor think that I could write, until I randomly took a class with Professor Homewood. I’d taken a few classes previously—I’d thought I might be an architect, and that didn’t work out. And I’d wanted to be a politician, and then a sociologist, but none of these things really grabbed me. So I took that class with Professor Homewood, and he said, “You have the goods.”
How did your background experiences inform your approach to creative writing and the life you’ve led as a scholar and teacher?
A lot of what I do early in the book is focus on my teenage years through flashback. All of these flashbacks chronicle my experiences growing up around 80th and Phillips. You can see me becoming progressively more involved in the street life, getting caught up in that transformation of the neighborhood. In the later chapters, you see me progressively more involved in the academic life that I ultimately go to. So I use the flashbacks to try to capture that sense of movement.
These characterizations of you as street thug turned English professor—how have they affected the manner in which you have been received in academia?
One of the themes in the book is that your past is always with you. One incident that I write about in Street Shadows is when I was hired at Bridgewater. I’d been working for a month when a faculty member came to my office. I’m the only black person in my department, only the second black the department has hired in its 170-year history. He stopped by, ostensibly to welcome me to the department, and tells me that they shouldn’t have hired me. He said I was hired because my wife works here and because of another obvious reason.
The obvious reason was my race. He’d come to try to provoke me, and it almost worked—one of the things that I learned on the south side was you don’t let someone come along and challenge and insult you without a response. So I had to catch myself. But I almost reverted on him. People look at my past and say, “Wow, you have a really tough background.” I say, Well, that’s true, but that background has prepared me for so much. I’ve walked my way through academia and around these minefields knowing that I can handle all that comes my way, because I was trained for it. The south side took care of all of that.
Do you intend Street Shadows as a tale of struggle and woe, or of uplift and escape?
Uplifting. One of the things I wanted to do with the book is say that yes, there is struggle, and there are obstacles, and there are challenges in life. A lot more attention needs to be placed on the overcoming rather than on the obstacles themselves. But to focus on the achievements and the overcoming was a challenge for me. I really try to get that across in Street Shadows. Every review that I’ve gotten that talks about the book mentions that it doesn’t blame anyone for anything. I state the facts the way they are, and then I say how they are dealt with. And I’m pretty proud of that.