Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

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."

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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 marvelous ebony boy." Anne longs to paint him, so they hire him to maintain the "garden," a tiny space behind the house. Suspicious of the Carraways' fascination with blacks, Mattie keeps her distance from them. She sees it as her job to cook for them, not to pose for pictures or to inspire them. Mattie likes to get out of the Carraways' house in the evenings and to stay out late in the clubs of Harlem. 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. Her first picture of Luther is called "The Sleeping Negro." It reflects her vision of blacks as "dear, natural, childlike people." She decides to paint another picture of him, "nude, or at least half nude." Anne admires Luther's physical beauty, but her way of looking at him is possessive and objectifying. She is, like her husband, portrayed as a caricature of the condescending, unwittingly offensive white thrill seeker dabbling in what she considers a "primitive" culture. 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 work songs 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. She has a rigid sense of racial and class divisions, saying "I never play with servants," an implicit criticism of Anne and Michael's interactions with Luther. 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."

Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

Anne Carraway
Anne Carraway lives with her husband Michael in Greenwich Village. They are wealthy white patrons of black art and culture. The two of them consider themselves liberal, open-minded, artistic geniuses. Anne is a painter, and her enthusiasm for "things Negro'' extends to using her black servants as models for her paintings.

When Luther appears, he appeals to her on what she describes as a visual level: ‘‘He is the jungle,’’ she says. Her first picture of Luther is called "The Sleeping Negro.'' It reflects her vision of blacks as ‘‘dear, natural, childlike people.’’ She decides to paint another picture of him, "nude, or at least half nude.’’ Anne admires Luther's physical beauty, but her way of looking at him is possessive and objectifying. She is, like her husband, portrayed as a caricature of the condescending, unwittingly offensive white thrillseeker dabbling in what she considers a "primitive'' culture.

Michael Carraway
Michael Carraway lives with his wife Anne in Greenwich Village. They are wealthy white patrons of black art and culture. The two of them consider themselves liberal, open-minded, artistic geniuses. Michael is a composer for piano, and he draws from black musical traditions for inspiration. The single one of his compositions described in the story sounds unpleasant and cacaphonous. Like Anne, he is portrayed as a charicature of the condescending, unwittingly offensive white thrillseeker dabbling in black culture. There are also overtones of sexual jealousy in his reaction to his wife's enthusiastic appreciation of Luther's physicality. When his visiting mother has an angry confrontation with Luther, Michael takes his mother's side and fires Luther. He had grown "a little bored with the same Negro always in the way.''

Mrs. Carraway
Mrs. Carraway, Michael's mother, comes from Kansas City to visit the couple in New York. She has a rigid sense of racial and class divisions, saying ‘‘I never play with servants,’’ an implicit criticism of Anne and Michael's interactions with Luther. When she reprimands Luther for being too familiar, he calls her ‘‘poor white’’ and she calls him a ‘‘nigger servant.’’ She insists that Michael choose between Luther's presence in the house and her own, leading to Luther's dismissal.

Emma
Emma is Luther's aunt, who is deceased at the time the story takes place. Emma had been the Carraways' cook and Anne had painted a number of portraits of her. They meet Luther when he comes to pick up her belongings.

Luther
Luther is a young black man who, when the story begins, has recently moved from the South to live with relatives in New Jersey. The action of the story begins with his introduction to the Carraway household and ends with his departure. The story circles around various characters' response to Luther's presence. The liberal Carraways stereotype and objectify Luther as the essense of blackness and the jungle, and assign him nominal work in the household while Anne paints pictures of him and Michael is inspired to compose a ‘‘modern slave plaint.’’ They display him to guests and have him sing spirituals and work songs. Their cook and maid, Mattie, introduces him to Harlem nightlife, begins a sexual relationship with him, and spends money on clothing for him. Mattie and Luther agree that they are treated and paid well, but that the Carraways are "funny'' and make them uncomfortable. There is a suggestion in the text that Luther exploits the Carraways' narrow ideas about blacks as simple, childlike people by living up to all their preconceived notions: shirking his work and indulging himself sensually.

Mattie
Mattie is Anne and Michael Carraway's black maid. She is living at their house when Luther arrives. She is suspicious of the Carraways' fascination with blacks and, unlike Luther, keeps her distance from them. She sees it as her job to cook for them, not to pose for pictures or to inspire them. Mattie likes to get out of the Carraways' house in the evenings and to stay out late in the clubs of Harlem. She introduces Luther to Harlem nightlife and enters into a sexual relationship with him. The Carraways suspect that she is in love with Luther because she buys him gifts and gives him money. When Luther is fired, Mattie tells the Carraways that she and he have both both ‘‘stood enough foolery from you white folks’’ and leaves her job as well.

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