Walker seems very drunk and his head is still down. Easley is standing in the middle of the room and Grace is trying but failing to make conversation. She says sadly that the girls do not need to suffer.
Another explosion happens and Easley prepares to leap, but Walker raises his head. They stare at each other. Grace yells Walker’s name and Easley leaps to choke Walker. The two men struggle; Walker gets the gun and shoots Easley.
Easley slumps over, dying. He tries to utter a few words; Walker furiously tells him to shut up and mocks how he dies stupidly and quietly. Grace rushes to her husband and screams that Walker is insane.
Easley manages to utter “ritual drama” and dies. Walker shrugs that he didn’t want Easley to die with any dignity. When Grace says he is out of his right mind, Walker says that’s the only way to live.
Grace cries for Walker to leave, unless he wants to kill her too. He does want to, he yells, and she replies wryly that it’s for his cause.
Grace gets up and looks at Easley, telling him sadly that he is dead because the cause demands it. She sits again and her head droops. She wonders if the point is that she is alone again, just like Walker was alone when she left him. She screams suddenly that he is murderous scum.
After a moment, she asks while weeping what will happen when he leaves her with the kids. He asks her what she thought when she left him alone. She mutters that he had his cause and thousands of people following him.
Walker explains that he realized she did pity him, which is all she could manage to do because she thought that she was right. That pissed him off, especially when Easley acted that way too. He wishes he could have killed them both every night.
Grace asks if he’ll kill her if she says she pities him, and then she says she does; he says he will not kill her.
Walker states wearily that he will go soon. Grace asks if he is taking the children, and he shakes his head no. She does not see this, so she begins to become frantic.
Another explosion shakes the house and beams fall down. Grace falls and Walker is toppled. Grace is hurt very badly and calls out for her girls. She begs him to bring them to her, as she is dying to see to them. He tells her they are dead. She looks around frantically, but she is fading fast. She begs him to tell her how he knows they are dead; she asks him over and over again.
She dies with one last spasm. Explosions occur again and he says aloud that the girls are dead.
Walker stumbles out the door, now the old man from the beginning of the play. A child’s cry sounds out. Another explosion resounds.
Act I’s tense conclusion featuring Easley about to spring on Walker comes to its nearly inevitable conclusion when Easley does attack Walker, tries to choke him, and then dies when Walker shoots him out of self-defense. Less predictable is Grace’s death, but that is also what some critics see as part of the ritual aspect of the play. She too, critic Owen E. Brady writes, is “victimized by the social context” in which black and white understanding—and, especially, love—is almost completely precluded. If Walker is to achieve anything, both Easley and Grace have to go.
Brady’s analysis of the play is one of the most compelling and cogent. He begins by discussing how the play is essentially about Walker trying to working through his growing consciousness about his identity and how he is trying to come to terms with “the pain of self-deception and self-discovery” in his psyche; “through that confrontation, he hopes to find a truer knowledge of himself and the world.” He articulates this in the guise of the old slave at the beginning, addressing subjects like the self vs. other, the quest for identity, and the propensity to deceive oneself and others.
Walker taking on the guise of a field slave in the prologue foreshadows what he will realize about himself and his role in the world: that he is “broken by brutal experience” and “made wholly human by encountering his true self image.” He knows he is one of the “old blues people” and is fine singing that song even though it is painful.
The action of the play, wherein Walker comes to see himself fully, takes place inside the “house of the white liberal,” a place where Easley believes in the “myth of assimilation and the cultural values of the Western world.” Walker comes inside this place and sees it almost as an altar upon which he will have to sacrifice his individuality and autonomy. Grace and Easley defend their idols and Walker works through having to fully relinquish them. He has to rid of his emotional weight—Grace, especially—and “exorcise the ghosts of luxury which… haunt it.” He has to relinquish those masks that he wears, masks which “mask [his] pain, the true core of his self, from the oppressors.” When he tries to show others how he feels, he “acts others’ roles and destroys the possibility of achieving an integrated individual sense of self.”
In order to do what he needs to do, Brady explains, Walker has to act out the role of “nigger murderer." It is an archetype that allows Easley and Grace to understand Walker’s actions. He knows he cannot make them understand him in any other way, so he puts himself in the shoes of people like his 19th-century namesakes, Denmark Vesey (a leader of a failed slave rebellion) and David Walker (a radical writer and revolutionary). Of course, Grace and Easley see him as crazy, calling him all manner of synonyms for that concept. For Walker, though, “insanity or craziness is a cultural, as well as personal, stance.” He has to throw off the non-crazy things of the Western world that once attracted him before his rebellion.
In the end, Walker’s “true image will be forever hidden.” Whites will never understand him and will only see him as that murderer. Personally, he also knows his revolt will be imperfect. He knows that holding his true self together is nearly impossible: “His psychic center is gone and his fragments of self are tenuously held together by his burlesque role playing.” He tries to redeem himself and his people by recovering his children, but the last scene of the play leaves that redemption in doubt. Things are ambiguous, for while the cries of children symbolize birth pains, Walker not going after them is suggestive of death-in-birth. Ultimately, Walker “becomes a social scapegoat. He accepts the guilt for all America and his self-sacrifice redeems life. His personal execution becomes a special ritual.”
Critic Jose Fernandez also looks at Walker through the lens of Vesey and David Walker, claiming, “In The Slave, Vessels is not the historical reincarnation of Walker or Vesey propelled into the future; instead, Vessels’s initial position in the play as an outspoken and discontent slave is a symbolic figure of resistance who projects the legacy of slave rebellions and violent suppressions into a hypothetical future.” It is important that Walker is a field slave also: it is the most marginalized of black people whom Baraka believed must lead the revolution. Walker’s “position as a field slave functions as a social critique of black civil rights leaders and their methods, thus presenting a clear ideological contrast between his radical militancy and their nonviolent social activism.” As for the ambiguous ending in regard to the children, Fernandez suggests, “Vessels’s actions and the fate of his children, however, achieve an important symbolic meaning in the context of Vessels’s former self as a slave when, during the antebellum period, some slaves took the extreme action of ending their children’s lives in order to spare their fate as slaves.” He concludes, “Aesthetically, The Slave uses innovative techniques that reflect postmodern anxieties in relation to the challenge and subversion of dominant historical narratives about the era of slavery; Vessels’s discomforting revolutionary message that stresses militancy, nationalist aspirations, and radical actions in the face of racial oppression stands as a form of historical memory that reflects the contentious history of race relations—not only during the sixties but also at different junctions in American history.”