|In “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption,” Bridgewater State Assistant Professor Jerald Walker talks about his journey from the streets of Chicago to earning a Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Random House)
BRIDGEWATER — It’s a long way from the tough streets of Chicago’s South Side to the quiet campus of Bridgewater State College. Jerald Walker has made that unlikely journey, with a pivotal stopover at the University of Iowa and its prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Of the many redemption tales about African Americans who slipped into the street life but turned onto a productive path, Walker’s is one of the more unusual. He went from a drug-abusing dropout and petty criminal to a Ph.D. and tenured professor.
His faculty colleagues at Bridgewater State, where he has taught English since 2002, had no idea about his criminal past until the publication in January of his memoir, “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.”
“No one knew anything,” says Walker, 46. He came to Bridgewater State because the college had hired his wife, Brenda Molife, an art historian turned administrator.
Ironically, Walker’s mentor at a community college in Chicago had touted his protégé in a letter to a Bridgewater State administrator, a sociologist who studies community colleges. “Jerry Walker is someone we’re very, very proud of at Harold Washington Community College,” English professor Edward Homewood wrote to Howard London, then Bridgewater’s dean and now its provost.
Walker’s turnaround started at age 21 after five years of running the streets. Late one night he obtained cocaine from a friend, who, moments later, was killed during another drug transaction.
His grief caused Walker to pour the cocaine out his apartment’s window, but he says it was the values his blind parents taught that carried him through the transformation. He says those values—hard work, honesty, decency, respect for self and others — “never left me. They were just buried.”
Before dropping out, Walker had been a good student until peers pressured him to stop “acting white,” as they mislabeled his studiousness.
He passed on an opportunity to attend a college prep school on the West Side of Chicago; a black girl the same age who lived eight blocks away in the South Shore neighborhood decided to go. Her name was Michelle Robinson.
“Had I gone, Michelle Obama and I would have been classmates. I could have been married to Michelle Obama right now,” Walker muses. “We both married people whose fathers were African and whose moms were white.”
The father of Walker’s wife, Brenda Molife, came from Zimbabwe. She is now executive assistant to Bridgewater State Pres. Dana Mohler-Faria, who is Cape Verdean.
At what was then Loop College, now Harold Washington, Walker was fortunate that a caring white professor recognized his writing talent and set out to see it fully developed.
Edward Homewood established attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a goal for Walker, and after he completed his associate’s degree, drove him to the University of Iowa to enroll as an undergraduate. Walker left the university with a bachelor degree, a masters degree in creative writing and a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies.
When his wife took the job at Bridgewater in 2001, a well-meaning friend warned the couple to be wary of racism in the town. They have found those fears to be unfounded.
“Socially, we’ve not had any problems in Bridgewater,” Walker says. “My problems have been on campus, in a community of well-educated academics.”
He integrated an English Department that had only one other African American on the faculty, who stayed for a semester about two decades ago.
“Technically, I’m the second. For all intents and purposes, I’m the first,” he says.
A few weeks after he was hired, an English Department colleague stopped by and told Walker, matter-of-factly, he was not qualified for the job. His street instincts told Walker he was being baited into overreacting; he did not.
On another occasion, a faculty colleague asked to expose her dog to Walker’s two young sons, so the pet would become accustomed to being around African Americans.
“Dana was furious,” Walker said, referring to Mohler-Faria. “It’s good to have Dana on this campus when there are few minorities, and these things are bound to happen. He’s always handled them well.”
Walker, who teaches creative writing and African American literature, has advanced up the academic ladder despite those racially-tinged incidents. In 2008, he won tenure. Last year he was promoted to associate professor, just one rung below a full professorship.
After some difficulty finding suitable housing, Walker, Molife and their sons Adrian and Dorian have settled into a comfortable house close to campus. Walker can walk to work in ten minutes.
The one-time petty criminal who managed to avoid going to prison was initially concerned when a halfway house for prison inmates opened in the house next door. Their fears abated as the couple observed an orderly institution where strict rules regulate the comings and goings of the temporary residents.
“This is redemption,” Walker says, as he points at the house. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”
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