Slave on the Block

by Langston Hughes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

The story opens with a description of Michael and Anne Carraway, a well-to-do white couple living in Greenwich Village who ‘‘went in for Negroes.’’ "The Village'' is considered liberal and bohemian, and the Carraways think of themselves as liberal and bohemian as well as artistic: Michael composes piano music and Anne paints. They "adore'' and collect African-American art and music and attempt to cultivate friendships with blacks—whom they consider "a race too charming and naive and lovely for words.’’ The Carraways are unable to sustain ongoing interracial relationships, although they do have a live-in black cook and maid, "dear Emma.’’

After Emma "took sick and died in her room in their basement," the Carraways hire a new black maid, Mattie, and then meet Emma's nephew, Luther, ‘‘the most marvellous ebony boy.’’ Anne longs to paint him, so they hire him to maintain the "garden," a tiny space behind the house. Mattie introduces Luther to Harlem nightlife, keeping him out late so that he falls asleep as Anne paints him. Staring at the sleeping youth, she decides that she should paint him half nude, posed as a slave on an auction block. Michael uses Luther's slave pose as an inspiration for a piece of music he calls ‘‘a modern slave plaint.’’

Luther becomes a familiar part of the household. The Carraways display him to friends and have him sing ‘‘southern worksongs and reels ... spirituals and ballads.’’ Eventually the Carraways find both Luther and Mattie ‘‘a bit difficult to handle.’’ Luther does less and less work, helps himself to their cigarettes and wine, and joins their guests uninvited. The Carraways find Luther and Mattie in bed together. They cannot allow themselves to disapprove because of their vaunted liberality and open-mindedness—which they are convinced stems from their artistic genius. However, when they hear Mattie and Luther argue, they feel that the angry atmosphere inhibits their creativity. Anne wants to finish her ‘‘Boy on the Block’’ slave painting, but Michael hints that he is "a little bored with the same Negro always in the way.’’

Michael's imperious mother, Mrs. Carraway, comes for a visit. Luther is deliberately over-familiar with her, and during an angry exchange between them she screams "a short loud, dignified scream'' of outrage at his "impudence." She demands that Michael fire Luther; although Anne protests that she has not finished her slave painting, Michael sides with his mother. Luther seems more amused than distressed about his abrupt dismissal. Mattie joins him, saying that she and Luther have "stood enough'' from the Carraways. Michael and Anne have no idea what she is talking about. As they leave, Anne moans in distress at the loss of her 'Boy on the Block'.’’

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