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Getting to the Answers : SLIM'S TABLE: Race, Respectability and Masculinity, By Mitchell Duneier (University of Chicago Press: $19.95; 171 pp.)

October 25, 1992|Walter Mosley | Mosley's most recent novel is "White Butterfly," third in his series about Easy Rawlins

Silence and ignorance are among the greatest enemies of America's minorities. They work like this: Isolate a people in a part of town that the majority never has business in; create a history in which these minorities have played no significant role; portray these people in the media as halfway believable stereotypes. And if somebody gets loud and goes to court or, better yet, brings his dissatisfaction to the streets, you get a camera out there and show the most negative side of people's reaction to being left out of things. You have pictures of radicals and rioters who seem to threaten the fabric of society. The real citizens are ignored. Nothing is known and nobody cares--it's a social model of Freud's repressed unconscious.

This is only part of the message of Mitchell Duneier's "Slim's Table." This wonderfully thoughtful book also is a documentary about a loose-knit group of older, working-class black bachelors who spend a significant amount of their time in each other's company at a restaurant called Valois near the University of Chicago. These men are given voice in Duneier's book in a setting that is alien to most middle-class Americans. The finest moments of this lucid book are when Duneier allows the men at Slim's table to speak for themselves. You hear opinions on the state of morality in their world. You get to know these men and understand them in a way that no newspaper article or television special could encompass. You might even be drawn to the society of Valois at Slim's table.

Slim is a mechanic who lives on the Southside and who takes his meals among the men at Valois. He's a man to be respected, not because he's rich or can intimidate people through violence but because of his reserve and his reliability. He's respected because he's a thoughtful man who cares about his world. Even Bart, the crusty white racist who also patronizes Valois, learns to respect and even feel friendship for Slim.

Black and white come together at Valois because of its geographic placement in Chicago, and because it serves up real food. You can see them preparing meals back in the kitchen. It's a haven for men who remember the days before Wendy's and Burger King.

Slim and his friends discuss their world. They complain about the racism of the university security force and about the lack of respect shown to them in their own ghetto community. The book tries to get you into the lives of these men so that you can see they are men. It's a funny thing that a book needs to be written to prove humanity to humans. But that's just what this book does--and it is sorely needed.

A man at Valois complains bitterly about how the university warns its students to steer clear of men like him, the black residents of the ghetto surrounding the school. He doesn't want to be seen as a criminal or a pervert. Who would? These men want to walk down the streets and say, "Hi, how are you today?" without being shunned and instilling fear.

More than anything else, "Slim's Table" is the story of these marginalized citizens and their struggle to feel included in the world. They go to the restaurant because they're hungry. Hungry for a meal that tastes like home cooking. Hungry for the company of others. Hungry to express their concerns about the state of the world they live in. These are thinking men and moral men. Without the feeling that they help to interpret, and therefore reshape, their world, they would teeter on the brink of despair.

Duneier makes the argument that men like these working-class ghetto dwellers have much to offer but are ignored for more upscale role models. What's so great about the middle class and sports heroes? Does monetary success make a more deeply moral and thoughtful person? A millionaire basketball player drives a Jaguar and boasts of his sexual exploits; is that who our children should pattern themselves after?

Duneier claims that the American middle class has deep flaws in its character. I'm not willing to argue with him.

"Slim's Table" is a very good book. It is sensitive and provocative. It tells the story of men whose lives are routinely ignored by the media. It doesn't give answers, and that's good. As the men at Slim's table might say, "You've got to get to the answers by coming out of your house and down to the table." "Slim's Table" would be a good place to start.

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