Slim’s Table (Mitchell Duneier)

I was interested in this book because I spent 8 years of my life in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago where Valois, the restaurant Duneier studied, is located. I went there more than a few times, mostly for breakfast, sometimes for the open-faced turkey sandwich for lunch. Good food, great prices, comfortable place.

Although he (somewhat remarkably) omits any discussion of his motive or method, Duneier clearly spent a great deal of time there. He befriended regulars, including Slim and those who sat at his table, observed how they interacted with each other, across race lines, with the Greek owners of the place. He observed how the regular customers responded when the place was closed for a week. From these qualitative observations, he (a white man – a fact he alludes to a few times, but never addresses fully) extrapolates conclusions about what he presents as the black working class.

I get the idea that when you begin almost all non-fiction books, you are entering in the middle of a conversation. In addition to not introducing himself, his method, his purpose or pretty much anything else, Duneier does little until the later chapters (strange choice, that) to orient the reader to the conversation he’s joining. In the process, he pretty much rejects all previous sociological studies of black men in order to celebrate his own.

In the end, despite his claims of originality, he seems to have arrived at nothing new. People who have isolated lives like to create a community. It can be centered around something like age, but being of a certain age is not a requirement to entry, though gender seems to be (another issue Duneier dismisses in a sentence). These men have what might be termed as rather conservative ideals, even if they would resist being called Conservatives. They lament the way things have changed in their neighborhoods and pride themselves on being forthright. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I lived in Hyde Park or because I’ve met many of these men throughout the course of my life (including my own father), there was nothing here that surprised me.

There seem to be a kind of respectability politics at play here among both the men – that’s fine, that’s theirs to inhabit – and Duneier himself. We should, he seems to suggest, admire these men who are, to some, an excuse not to address issues of gentrification, for example, in Hyde Park. After all, if these men made it. . .

To be fair, Duneier does acknowledge his privilege once, very late in the book, only after he points out an assumption made by a white colleague. But it is much too little, and it is much too late.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.

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