How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Smoke Summary and Analysis

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Arriving at a restaurant with his family, Walker finds that the hostess can’t locate his reservation. After she squints at the screen and asks him to spell his name, the hostess asks Walker whether he has accidentally arrived at the wrong location. Giving her a look that indicates he could be “the type of black guy who in moments like this suspects racism,” Walker is finally led to a table.

On the way to their table, which is located in a small room lacking any other people, Walker and his family pass many empty booths; he notes that white people fill the booths that are occupied. Walker refuses his table in the back room and asks for a booth in the main dining area. The waitress, looking equally offended and confused, is certain that all the booths are reserved. Walker pulls out his phone to retrieve his own reservation confirmation, which he has learned to always do online as a means of providing evidence in situations like these; he then asks for the manager. Instead, he is met by a smiling waitress who escorts Walker and his family to arguably the best seat in the house, a booth beside a large window which overlooks a koi pond. Walker smiles triumphantly at his sons.

Incidents such as this one don’t always work out the way Walker wants. Just the previous night, he and his wife had been seated in the back room of an upscale restaurant, another overflow room devoid of people. When their dining companions, a white couple, arrived, the husband commented that “segregation [had] been reinstated” and stood as he insisted on fetching the waitress. Walker had insisted that it was not a “big deal” even though he could “smell” the racism “like a . . . forest fire.” Although Walker didn’t address his true feelings on that evening, he continued to “stew” about the situation throughout the dinner and even though two other parties (whom he noted were white) were seated in the same space.

Walker recalls other times he has believed that he has been seated in restaurants based on his race. In one incident, he and his family were led out of a restaurant’s festive, crowded first floor to an “unpopulated” second floor. Walker told the waiter the table was unacceptable, pointing out that his family was seated utterly apart from every other dining party. The waiter stammered an apology and left to find them a different table. As Walker awaited the waiter’s return, more parties were seated in this upstairs space; Walker noted they were all white and mused that they had been “bused in.” They all seemed “oblivious” that there was a civil rights struggle playing out in their dining area. 

The waiter returned, happy to report that another table had opened up and that the Walker family could move. Walker conceded that they were choosing to remain at their original table. The waiter left in confusion, and Walker followed him. He insisted that he hadn’t meant to cause trouble and explained that he had been taken to “questionable tables” so often in restaurants that he had become “a little paranoid.” He compared the experience to “living near a forest and constantly smelling smoke.” The waiter was supportive, telling Walker that he had spoken to his manager and insisted that the restaurant needed to be more intentional in its considerations of race. 

Walker shook the waiter’s hand and returned to his table upstairs, considering that he could allow for a greater possibility of “randomness” and “clueless management” in these situations. He makes these allowances the next time his...

(This entire section contains 858 words.)

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reservation cannot be found and the next time he is given a seat in an undesirable location. He also knows that his sons have not seen the last of his courage in such situations. 

Analysis 

Titled “Smoke,” this essay speaks to the inherent difficulty in trying to discern whether particular treatment is the result of coincidence or is indicative of racism. Walker uses the metaphor of living near a forest and always smelling smoke to explain his ongoing struggle in differentiating real threats from perceived ones. In Walker’s metaphor, the smell of smoke, which potentially signals danger, is ever present; this doesn’t necessarily mean that the forest is really ablaze, but it would be foolish to dismiss the warning signs and therefore ignore that a very real fire could threaten his safety. Walker makes intentional efforts to spend some time not thinking about this ongoing threat, such as when his family vacations and he practices his “big smile,” agreeable to whatever seating accommodations they are given. Yet Walker also realizes that his young sons look to him as their leader in those moments when they do face racist discrimination, and Walker wants to influence them to be strong and resilient. Walker thus continually evaluates his figuratively smoke-filled world, trying to root out true racism where it exists and learning to make allowances for the inevitable situations that only indicate bad luck or random error and do not reflect ill intentions.

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