Jerald Walker’s critical autobiography, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption (Bantam, 2010), is a sheer pleasure to read. A book-length series of vignettes, reflections that alternate between his present life (he’s currently an English professor at Emerson College) and his life as a wannabe thug and habitual drug user on the streets of Chicago, Walker ponders thorny questions of racial identity in such chapters as “Orientation,” where he decides it’s better to identify with other writers (who happen to be white) than with fellow blacks. However, Walker isn’t always this decisive. Indeed the book is filled with stony ambivalence. But the beauty of Walker’s writing is that he uses sharp, seering prose not to probe but to crack ambivalence in the face and ape its gory middle.
Although he ends up at times sounding just like the black neo-conservative Shelby Steele, Walker is much more complicated—since he also sounds sometimes like the black radical, Al Sharpton! Ultimately treating such subjects as interracial dating, adolescent rebellion, disability, dooms-day religious cults, homophobia, college education, myths about black sexual prowess, and, yes, love (if nothing else, you know he unequivocally loves his wife, Brenda), Walker’s Street Shadows is a very good book.