If Jerald Walker hadn’t strayed from the path on which he embarked as a young teen, his life would be very different today. In fact, he might not have survived to tell the tale.


Walker visited the Marine Biological Laboratory on Tuesday, Feb. 16 in celebration of Woods Hole Black History Month to discuss and read from his book, “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption,” published in January by Random House (Bantam).


 

 


If Jerald Walker hadn’t strayed from the path on which he embarked as a young teen, his life would be very different today. In fact, he might not have survived to tell the tale.


Walker visited the Marine Biological Laboratory on Tuesday, Feb. 16 in celebration of Woods Hole Black History Month to discuss and read from his book, “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption,” published in January by Random House (Bantam).


Ambrose Jearld, a fisheries biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, and charter member and chair of the Woods Hole Black History Month committee, introduced the author by listing Walker’s many accomplishments and accolades.


Walker received his MFA in Creative Writing from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching/Writing Fellow and James A. Michener Fellow. He went on to receive his PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Iowa.


His works have appeared in numerous national and international publications, including The Missouri Review; The North American Review; The Barcelona Review; The New Delta Review; The Chronicle of Higher Education; Mother Jones; The Literary Review; The Oxford American; Outsmart; and The Iowa Review. His work has been widely anthologized in publications such as America Now; The Writer’s Presence; and Brothers: 26 Stories on Love and Rivalry. Chapter excerpts from “Street Shadows” have appeared in Best African American Essays (2009& 2010), Best American Essays (2007&2009), and other publications.


“I’ve read ‘Street Shadows’ and this is a writer who can really make paper talk,” Jearld said.


Walker then took the podium and told the audience his memoir would be in stark contrast to Jearld’s introduction.


 “Prepare yourselves,” he said.


Walker was one of seven children born to blind parents, and grew up in a housing project on Chicago’s South Side. He was a straight-A student with a passion for reading but at age 14, his older brother introduced him to street life, which proved to be Walker’s way of fitting in with his peers.


Three years later, he was a high school dropout, a drug addict and a gangbanger. Today, he is a college professor. Walker’s book is a candid exploration of that unlikely journey, told in alternating time periods from the ages of 14 to 21.


He describes a morning he called in sick to work and waited outside the liquor store with the “winos” before the store opened. It was his “day off from responsibility.”


 “I wasn’t sure I’d return. I wasn’t sure of much of anything, except that I was out of coke and it was important to be drunk until I got some more,” he read.


By the age of 21, Walker said his life was a mess and couldn’t get any worse.


“But things can always get worse.”


He details an unflinching account of an event that occurred later that night and would ultimately change his destiny. On his way to get cocaine from his friend Greg, who worked at a dope house, Walker was robbed at gunpoint outside the house. The gunman let him go, and Walker went up to Greg’s apartment and got a gram of cocaine.


Less than an hour later, Greg was shot to death. Walker was devastated when he learned of his friend’s death, which finally reinforced the reality of his own dire situation.


“I knew the life I grieved was my own. Where was the elementary school bookworm? Where was the high school honor student? What had happened to my love of reading? I was a drug addict. High at that very moment on the coke of a dead friend.”


Walker literally threw the drug out the window, the first step to reclaiming his life.


“Twenty-five years later, tossing the drug to the wind is still the second most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The most difficult thing is still that I didn’t follow it.”


Walker gave up drinking and earned his GED. He worked nights at a medical center cleaning test tubes filled with human waste, and by day he wandered around the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus, which he viewed as a real-life Emerald City. He finally got the courage to enter the school library, and even bought a backpack with the school logo, wanting desperately to change the course of his life, still feeling “caught in the urban undertow.”


After an admissions counselor at the University of Illinois at Chicago told him he would never be admitted, he enrolled at Loop Community College (now known as Harold Washington College). There, he took a creative writing class with Professor Edward Homewood, who immediately recognized Walker’s talent. Homewood became a mentor, tutoring him for two years, and suggesting he transfer to the University of Iowa to pursue his bachelor’s degree. Walker immediately ruled it out, assuming he couldn’t afford it, but Homewood helped pay the tuition.


At the Writers’ Workshop, Walker received advice from one of his professors which would change the course of his writing career.


“He taught me to see my experience as a black man as positive rather than negative and to focus on how I defeated obstacles,” he said.


Walker credits his wife, Brenda Molife (Executive Assistant to the President at Bridgewater State College) with encouraging him to write autobiographically.


“She said to me, ‘Why don’t you just write what really happened?’”


Walker is an associate professor of English at Bridgewater State College, where some of his teaching interests include American literature; African American literature; African American history; novel writing; short story writing; and creative nonfiction writing, to name a few. He is the recipient of two of BSC’s major awards: the Class of 1950 Most Distinguished Research Award, and the Martha D. Jones Award for Most Outstanding Dedication to Students.


He is also a mentor to aspiring writers, having founded the school’s literary/arts journal “The Bridge,” for which he serves as co-advisor. Since its inception in 2003, “The Bridge” has won more than 60 national honors.


Walker hopes his book will help others by reminding them they have choices, and, like the writer Russell Baker, he also wanted to pay tribute to the important people in his life – such as Homewood.


Walker and his wife live in Bridgewater with their two boys, ages 7 and 9, and when asked how he would address his past with his sons, he said he would just be honest.


“I’ll sit them down someday and tell them, ‘Daddy had a life before you. I made mistakes but I was able to learn from them and move forward."


Falmouth Bulletin