In chapter 8 of Slim’s Table, Mitchell Duneier engages the class myth that accords the black middle class moral superiority and authority and devalues the moral authority of the black working class. Interestingly he points out that even though the men at Slim’s table disrupt this hasty, inaccurate assumption, they also use these terms to describe their world.
My father would have appreciated Duneier’s efforts to see these men outside of limited paradigms–even the one’s that the men themselves used. My father wanted to be appreciated for being in the process of becoming a better man. He told me once that he might have been down but to check him in the fourth quarter “’cause like Denis Rodman, I rebound.” My Dad was a pretty good rebounder in most respects. By the time he died, his masculinity didn’t seem as fragile as it had once been. He no longer needed to physically fight every person who gave him offense. He could walk away and still call himself a man. So in that respect, he stepped outside of his previous interpretation of how the broader culture defined masculinity.
Chapter 8 raised questions for me about the process of coming to define one’s self against the culture. I admire people who learn to name their experiences for themselves. It’s an ability that shouldn’t be taken for granted. It requires taking a risk that you won’t be understood. My father seemed aware of the risks and was always aware of being observed. He thought a lot about how he was being perceived and tried to construct a persona that people would like or, interestingly, dislike. I wrote about my father’s efforts to incur the disdain of his neighbors in a previous post. What I liked very much about my father though was that he wasn’t afraid to be disliked. We don’t talk about this a lot in American culture but there are people who don’t care whether or not they are liked and I think that it’s important to know that this option exists. There are times when this was an admirable trait of my father’s and other times when it wasn’t…but I find that it wasn’t when it mirrored cultural axioms–not when it was an authentic statement. For example, my father once told me about a man he knew who was in love with a classic car. He took my father to see it. Later that same day, my father went back and bought the car for himself. When he told me the story, he recalled how angry the man was with my father for buying “his” car. The notion that it was “his” was the part of the story that my father wanted to contest. The car wasn’t “his.” It belonged to the person who bought it. My father used a ruthless, business model to justify betraying an acquaintance who trusted him with the object of his longing. I thought it interesting that my father not only told me that story but he also told another acquaintance that same day who seemed as appalled by it as I was. My father didn’t care that he hurt his acquaintance’s feelings or that he betrayed his trust but it did seem that he wanted confirmation regarding his logic; he didn’t get it.