‘‘Slave on the Block,’’ by Langston Hughes, is the story of a well-meaning but patronizing white couple's interactions with their young black employee. With cutting irony, Hughes dramatizes the tension that arises when the couple takes the young black man into their home in order to use him as a source of artistic inspiration. Hughes presents the psychological dynamics between black and white characters in order to criticize the limitations of a racially divided society and to illustrate the subtle as well as overt forms racism can take.
‘‘Slave on the Block,’’was first published in Scribner's magazine in September, 1933, when Hughes was 31. It also appeared in a collection of short stories entitled The Ways of White Folks, which came out the following year. Hughes had already established his reputation as a major voice of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, but The Ways of White Folks was his first collection of short stories. Best known as a blues poet, Hughes devoted the main part of his career to writing about the experiences and expressions of ordinary, urban black people. The Ways of White Folks marks a temporary departure from this topic, focusing instead on the strange and contradictory racial attitudes of white people as seen from a black point of view.
Though The Ways of White Folks received favorable reviews when it came out, praised for its assured ironic voice and incisive understanding of human psychology, some critics found Hughes's portrayal of white characters unfair. Since then, scholars have responded that Hughes's critical portrayal of whites is a mark of maturity and an important step in the development of African-American literature.
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...
(The entire section is 724 words.)