Walker is dressed as an old field slave and walks on stage slowly and deliberately. He speaks of what we do to people: we stone lovers with our ideas, focus only on ourselves, stare dumbly into space, and embrace our ignorance.
He suggests he is maybe older or younger than he looks. You might be lying, he says, when you make conclusions about him. Where do our ideas even form, he wonders? As for him, he has come up lacking. There are ideas in the world, but even though they’re right, they stink.
He feels like an old man, “full of field rhythms," “great ideas,” and even “theories” (45). An old man is rarely right, but he doesn’t want to claim the title of old. Maybe he should deliver a poem before things go on much further. He should shuffle along and sing those blues.
He walks away and assumes the position Walker will play next.
Explosions light up the room from time to time, and Walker walks around, nervously examining things. He sits smoking in the dark, then goes behind a door and holds his gun.
Easley and Grace enter. Easley complains about how the black people are keeping all this bombing up when they should just go eat dinner. He asks if Grace wants a drink, grumbling that the children will wake with all the blasting.
Grace gasps when she sees Walker, who orders her to pull down the blinds. Easley curses. She asks what he’s doing and he says he is visiting; he was in the neighborhood.
Easley asks what the hell he is doing and why he left his “noble black brothers” (49) and their killing. Walker curses him in turn and bursts out that this shitty town might need flattening.
Grace becomes angry and says she’s heard enough of his twisted logic and heroism. Walker calms down and says there’s nothing he could say to make her understand him. Easley mores closer, annoyed, and tells Walker to leave off his “weeping ex-wife dramas” (49). A bad poet is always a bad poet, he spits out.
Walker sighs that, yes, even though he’s disguised as a racist murderer, he is still a bad poet. Easley asks if he’s still writing, criticizing him as a Renaissance man. Grace also asks if he’s still writing.
Walker quotes a few lines and says it’s all changed to Yeats, and he mocks Easley for not knowing it. Easley calmly says that he did, and he names the poem. Walker scoffs that Grace’s new husband knows everything.
Easley grows more frustrated and claims he will call the soldiers in; a cracker soldier will be bayoneting Walker before the night’s end. In response, Walker slaps Easley, pulls out his gun, and shoves it into his stomach. The cruelty in his eyes frightens Grace. Walker begins to spit out cruel things about Easley, calling him an “ignorant vomiting faggot” (53) professor and laughing that she married one and let him near their children.
He goes on and swears to Grace he, for one, came pointed in the right direction; he amassed so many words, but none of them are his own.
Grace becomes hysterical and screams for him to get away from Easley. She calls him a “nigger murderer” (54); Walker merely tilts the bottle of booze, slaps Easley, and stumbles a bit. He laughs at Grace for storing that insult up.
Grace moves to help Easley up and cries that he should not have come here. Walker remains laughing and asks whether she’s just repeating her husband or if those were her own words. Maybe when she taught their girls to pray, she’d have them pray for their “nigger murderer” father as well. He sighs he’s heard it all before.
Grace tries to revive Easley and again asks why he is here; he ought to leave before he kills someone—another white person. Walker sneers at this party line and says that she and Easley are the only white people in the house since the girls are half-black. Grace yells at him to shut up, and he pushes her. Easley raises his head, calls Walker filth, and mocks his “inept formless poetry” (55). He also mocks this type of “ritual drama.”
Walker remembers the phrase from one of Easley’s “queer academic friends” (56). He comments that he didn’t mean to push Easley so hard, but he didn’t know his own strength. He begins to whoop around.
Easley rolls his eyes that Walker really is filth. Grace calms herself and says Walker is merely trying to play a scene from Native Son; he is a second-rate Bigger Thomas.
Walker laughs that he was a second-rate Othello as well; Grace was Desdemona, and Easley was Iago.
Grace tells Walker to pour as many drinks as he needs but then to leave. She doesn’t know why he is here. Easley adds that he does not know how the black liberation movement can spare their illustrious leader.
Walker sprawls on the couch and tells Easley not to worry about that. In fact, he’ll wait here for them to liberate the whole place. He’ll stay and rape Easley’s wife, as he used to. Grace frowns and says his mind is gone.
As she turns to go upstairs, a blast shakes the house. Walker rises to see how Grace is. Easley intercedes. Grace says she was just going to see the girls, and Walker says they were fine when he checked on them earlier. He was planning on taking them away but thought he’d wait and say hello to mommy and stepfather first.
At this, Grace blanches and says he must be lying. Walker claims he is not. Grace says he never wanted the children, or that he thinks he wants them today. He once thought he wanted to be hurt and misdirected by his martyrdom cause, which is what drove her away.
Walker says she could have stayed and that she knew what he was into. Easley butts in and says that everyone knows he pushed Grace away and she couldn’t retain her sanity. He tells Easley to shut up.
Grace looks at him and says he has too many lies: he is split too many ways that he doesn’t even know who he is—he never knew. He never knew until he sold every love and emotion down the river. It must be hard being Walker, she concludes, “keeping so many lying separate uglinesses together” (61).
Easley adds that he does not know what Walker is really trying to say. He thought that Walker meant himself to be an idealist: that the Western white man forfeited the best aspects of his culture, and that only the black man could restore those qualities to Western culture.
Grace thinks he just wants to be a savior, a sensitive Negro poet, and the commander-in-chief of the righteous forces. She says he can do whatever he wants, but she insists that he must not drag her children into it. Easley tries to comfort her that Walker only likes to hear himself talk and that he knows there’s no way he could have the children.
Walker responds that the girls’ last name is his: they are his daughters and he wants them. Grace thinks he is lying and Easley says he’s going to call the soldiers. He walks to the phone.
Walker says in a good-natured tone that he has the gun and will blow Easley’s head off if he does that. He orders him back. Grace is distressed and moves to go upstairs. Walker demands they both come sit on the couch and he will sit on the chair. He says he has about an hour.
Grace asks if he is really going to take the children; he can’t hate her so much he would do that. Walker does not hate her, he says, but he wants the children. He knows she cannot fathom that he’s not lying, that he does love the girls, and that he wants them. He laughs sullenly at their impression of him as being the sole reason why whites and blacks are killing each other. What he has killed are his own creative impulses; they are still being killed every day in his head. What saddens him is that he’d rather argue politics, literature, or boxing with Easley than speak to any of his own officers.
Grace jumps up in a tizzy, blurting out to Walker that the whole world cannot be his. Why, she asks, is his worldview the right one? She reminds him that she and Easley are real people, that they have a right to live, that he is crazy now, and that the killing he started will help no one. All of them will be wiped out and nothing will be better. Why should the girls be with him when he is killed? What will this serve?
Walker angrily replies that it’s better than being mulattos in a world where their father is an evil black thing. He admits that he was going to wait until the fighting was over to take them but that he preferred to see their parents in their natural habitat. Grace sighs that he thinks he is rescuing the girls, and he retorts that she thought the same thing when she took them from him.
Grace is weary. She sighs that he thinks of himself as quite heroic. At one point, she says it is a wonder he didn’t murder them with all his insane aspirations. Walker replies that he hasn’t forfeited his chance. Easley, surprised, asks why he’d kill them. Him, maybe, but Grace? Grace claims that Walker is lying and is voicing ritual drama metaphors. There’s no reason to take him seriously unless there’s some way to kill him.
Walker laughs that this is hardly Christian. Grace never knew what was really going on, he says. She thinks he betrayed her, but he didn’t. He thought that, of all white people, she’d understand him, but she never did. She replies that he aligned himself with second-rate political thinkers and racists. He says he never stopped telling her he loved her, and she cries that it wasn’t enough.
Grace tries to explain that he talked of murdering white people and since she is white, she wonders what she was supposed to do with that. He asks if she is that stupid. He loved her: he was only crying out against three hundred years of oppression, not individuals. She says that individuals are dying. He replies that individuals are doing the oppressing and were oppressed.
Easley interjects that he is wrong about everything and that he can’t change anything. Negroes aren’t better than white people; they can’t govern society better. Will there be more love or beauty in the world if they become dominant?
Walker responds that that doesn’t matter at all, but they’ve had their chance and now it’s time to let other folks have theirs. Easley scoffs that it’s an ugly idea.
Walker hangs his head in awareness that it is indeed an ugly idea; but, he asks, what else is there? It’s up to individuals, and individuals failed—Easley failed.
Easley is bemused. Walker explains that he never did anything to avoid this, that his “sick liberal lip service” and “high aesthetic disapproval of the political” (74) were useless. When Easley mocks this, Walker says he cannot be neutral when faced with ugliness.
Talk turns to an old friend who was killed by one of Walker’s “terrorists” (76). Walker states that they’d called for a strike to show the government that the white intellectuals backed them, and none of them came. Easley sighs that no one could have backed his program completely. Walker replies that Negroes did. Easley says that they weren’t in their right minds and he’d twisted them. Walker then says the country twisted them.
As Walker unhappily talks, Easley moves closer to him. He indicates to Grace that she must talk. She says he is full of murderous self-pity.
An explosion rocks the house, then another. Easley is about halfway to Walker, who is still slumped on the couch with his head down. There are more explosions.
The Slave is considered a companion piece to Dutchman (critic Owen E. Brady says Walker’s bloody race war fulfills Clay’s prophecy of racial violence), and indeed, there are similar themes permeating the plays. We will consider The Slave on its own terms for the bulk of this analysis, however.
The play takes place against a backdrop of racial violence in an unspecified urban area. We learn that Grace and Walker were once married, that they had two daughters, and that she left him and later married Easley, a professor. Grace and Easley are white intellectual liberals and decry racism, but they are uncomfortable with what they see to be the excess and violence of the black liberation movement’s current tactics. They embody what Clay in Dutchman called “Luxury,” especially apparent in Easley’s own name: “ease.” Walker is a leader, or the leader, of the movement, but he has decided to take time out to pay his ex-wife and former friend a visit, also claiming that he wants to take his daughters away with him.
It becomes clear that Walker is a man torn between numerous identities. While he is emotionally attached to Grace, she does not understand him. He appreciates Easley’s intellectualism, even preferring it to the ignorance of his own officers, but Easley is selfish and blinded by his own ideology to what black people want and need. Grace says of Walker, “You’re split so many ways…your feelings are cut up into skinny horrible strips…I don’t even think you know who you are any more. No, I don’t think you ever knew” (61). Critic Linda Zatlin calls him “a black intellectual wedged between his Western education and his people’s call to arms,” a man who “alternately identifies with and desperately tries to extricate himself from everything white.”
Zatlin discusses Walker’s position in light of ritual, explaining that Easley is the old king/father, the white man, whereas Walker is the new king/son, the black man. The father does not have the regenerative power to make the world better, but Walker “is not a viable king and…his people do not control the land.” His people are not winning and they are dying for him, not the other way around. His vision is sterile because he desires revenge, not a healthy community. At the end “Walker remains tormented and sterile rather than becoming, at Easley’s death, the inheritor of power which he, too, can pass on.” His sterility is seen in his denial of his children at the end after Easley and Grace are dead and the house destroyed; as Zatlin notes, if children are immortality, Walker denies himself that. Easley had nothing to give him in the first place, but Walker isn’t fit to accept anything at all.
W.D.E. Andrews also comments on Walker’s torn nature. He writes, “Vessels's revolutionary commitment conflicts with his response to the implications of the propaganda. Though he has opted for bloody revolution, he admits he ‘would rather argue politics, or literature or boxing or anything’ (p. 67) with his white college professor…He is aware that his revolutionary commitment is destroying the best of himself… At the end Vessels shoots Easley, but not out of revenge nor as a result of Vessels's individually conceived revolutionary necessity. Easley is shot because he attacks Vessels, thus placing the black man in immediate danger of his life.” Andrews concludes that the poem is not particularly experimental or poetic excepting the prologue; it is conventional drama in many respects. He explains, “Vessels emerges as both hero and victim, black revolutionary leader and white fraterniser. Beyond these mere categories he is also a man lonely for his children and former white wife. He is torn by doubts about the revolution, about himself as a poet. The Slave is about the revolution, but also about three human beings in conflict and, ultimately, that makes it conventional drama.”