Reading with My Father: Slim’s Table (Part I)

It is appropriate that Mitch Duneier begins Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity with a race story and that Ovie Carter’s photograph of Bart accompanies the opening chapter. For a generation who came of age when race was literally written on the landscape and was the blueprint for organizing civic relations, examining how a black man and a white man lived beyond those plans in late twentieth century Chicago becomes worthwhile.

Ovie Carter photograph of Bart.

The photograph of Bart highlights Duneier’s keen sensitivity to the nuances of racial meaning as he asks the reader to consider the importance of scrutinizing the photographic image of white masculinity while challenging us to imagine the faces of black working class men through a seldom voiced public narrative of respectability. Though Slim exists as an autobiographical subject, I definitely conjured Charles Hite Sr., Thomas Greer, James Wilson, and the many black working class men who were their friends as I imagined Slim’s magnetism. For those without such names to call upon, Duneier destabilizes representations of those working class black men presented in mainstream culture and often drawn from sociological portraits whose photographs become shorthand for depravity, emotional immaturity, and sexual bravado.

How did the opening photograph of Bart impact your reading? Was he familiar to you? Did it change your view of the look of a southern white racist? What about the absence of Slim’s photograph? How did you read this absence? 

The strongest portrait of Slim that emerges from Duneier’s account is the one that he offers in response to Slim withholding information about Bart’s hospitalization when others inquired about him. I’ll quote from it at length for the benefit of those without their books:

I marveled at the willpower and self-control that Slim exhibited on a night when nobody seemed to have anything to say. After all, the whole circle could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that news. Despite his complicated feelings for the old man, he demonstrated a tremendous respect for Bart’s privacy. Slim’s perception of his own moral worth could not be separated from a disposition to act in accordance with standards appropriate to his associates, whose worthiness was taken for granted in that setting. A person of the weak moral constitution portrayed in major accounts of the black male would have preferred to let his friends know that he was on the inside. At Valois, Slim and his sitting buddies demonstrate an inner strength characterized by self-control and willpower that is seldom, if ever, attributed to the black male in social scientific and journalistic reports. Though black men are usually portrayed as so consumed with maintaining a cool pose that they are unable to ‘let their guard down and show affection,’ these black men had created a caring community in which one of the men, Leroy, had even expressed his feelings for Bart by telling him the men were interested in his illness because they loved him.

These men were familiar to me. Were they to you? 

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