Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861
One can see Langston Hughes' s choice to write a collection of stories focusing on the ‘‘ways of white folks'' as a curious one. For he was part of a vanguard of young black writers who set out to prove not only that African Americans had the talent to write literature, but that black people's experiences were as valid a subject for great art as those of whites. Earlier in his career, Hughes had transformed the black musical folk tradition of the blues into powerful poetry about the African American urban experience. Furthermore, for Hughes, representing African-American experiences had political implications as well as artistic ones. As an important voice in the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes believed that the artistic representation of blacks' complex humanity could be an instrument for gaining civil rights and a weapon against racism. Last but not least, Hughes was well educated and could see that the great majority of American literature was written by white people and preoccupied with their experiences. Why should a black writer spend his time representing the attitudes and habits of whites?
Hughes's unflinching portrayal of race relations in "Slave on the Block,'' one of the stories in the collection, offers an avenue for exploring this question. Hughes is explicit about the fact that Luther and Mattie, two African-American domestic servants, would prefer not to think about their white employers, the Carraways, or their fascination with all things black. He writes, ‘‘They didn't understand the vagaries of white people, neither Luther nor Mattie, and they didn't want to be bothered trying.’’ However, what Luther and Mattie want is not the only factor to consider. Hughes places the black characters in a position of economic dependence and close personal vicinity in which they have no choice but to deal with the Carraways' thoughts, feelings, and fantasies about their race. This is exacerbated in Luther's case, because the Carraways have hired him specifically to serve as a muse for their racially inspired artwork. By placing his characters in this context, Hughes suggests how continually African Americans must contend with white people's distorted images of them. Thus white attitudes become an intrinsic part of the black experience, an experience Hughes and his peers were committed to representing in all of its complexity. In Hughes's own personal experience, whites fascinated with the perceived vitality and simplicity of African-American art and artists were a formative part of his struggle to establish himself as an artist and a constant element of his social life in Harlem. In order to represent this reality, he needed to delve into the realm of white folks and their strange and contradictory ways. The title that Hughes chose for the collection, The Ways of White Folks, reflects on its subject matter in a manner more subtle than may first be apparent. The title is not only a description of the stories' content, it is also an allusion to an influential collection of essays on black culture and spirit called The Souls of Black Folk, written by W. E. B. DuBois in 1903. DuBois was an important black intellectual, and his writing inspired many artists and thinkers in the younger Harlem Renaissance generation of which Hughes was part. One of the most powerful concepts DuBois puts forth in The Souls of Black Folk is his description the psychological effect of racism on African Americans, an effect he calls ‘‘double consciousness.’’ DuBois argues that American blacks constantly have to think of themselves in relation to the racial stereotypes that they regularly confront in various aspects of daily life. He contends that African Americans see things from their own unique cultural perspective, but that they are, at once, perpetually aware of the negative ways in which their race is seen in the wider mainstream culture. The consciousness of blacks is "double'' because on the one hand, blacks internalize these derogatory images, incorporating them into their sense of identity, and on the other they struggle against them. In other words, the ways of white folks play a central if unwelcome role within the divided souls of black folk. Hughes's stories refer to DuBois's theory and reflect the condition he describes, dramatizing the pervasive influence of stereotype as it affects interracial perceptions and dynamics.
DuBois says that American blacks are "born with a veil.’’ He suggests that while blacks can— and, indeed, must—understand and participate in the perspectives of the white dominant culture, whites can only see things from their own racial point of view. Whites create their own images of blackness and are blind to how different these images are from the reality of black life, which remains figuratively invisible to them behind its veil. ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ embroiders on this visual metaphor. Hughes's ironic narration—the gap between what he says and what he means—is built in order to reveal to his readers just how blind the Carraways are in their perceptions of Luther. When Luther first enters their house, the Carraways almost miss him: "They could hardly see the boy, it being dark in the hall, and he being dark, too.'' This failure to see has symbolic meaning. Because he is "dark,’’ they focus on his racial appearance and the stereotypical associations it calls up for them. When they see Luther, all they see is that he looks ‘‘as black as all the Negroes they'd ever known put together.’’ Hughes has already established the fact that the Carraways don't have African-American friends. Their idea of Luther is determined by the generalized image of blacks they have absorbed through popular and literary representations, images for the most part created in the white imagination.
Looking more closely at one particular stereotype, the figure of the ‘‘Uncle Tom,’’ provides an additional context for understanding the significance of racial representation in ‘‘Slave on the Block.’’ An ‘‘Uncle Tom’’ is a black man who is more loyal to whites than he is to his own people. He is happy to serve whites and to fulfill their wishes because he sees the role of the slave as befitting his simple, humble race. The term derives from Uncle Tom's Cabin, an anti-slavery novel Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote on the eve of the Civil War. Stowe, like the Carraways, certainly meant well when she created the character of Uncle Tom. Her book was meant to convince people that slavery was un-Christian. However, she accomplished this through relying on narrow ideas about racial differences. This story of a humble and simple slave, ever loyal to his white owners, formed one of the most enduring stereotypes for black men.
In ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ Hughes creates in Luther a black male character who does not conform to the image of a simple and contented servant who knows his place in the tradition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. One can glean from Luther's impudent smile a repudiation of one of the most powerful stereotypes of black men. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the story illustrates how stereotypes distort the racial attitudes of well-meaning whites like the Carraways. The Carraways don't recognize that their admiration of Luther as "childlike" and ‘‘simple" can be traced back to the negative stereotype for the ‘‘Uncle Tom,’’ and neither do they recognize how inaccurate these terms are for describing Luther, whom Hughes portrays as sardonic and rebellious.
The "Uncle Tom'' is only one of the stereotypes in play in the story. Not only do the Carraways wish to see Luther as a childlike and naive "boy," they also wish to see him as "fervent'' and sexual, a creature of the jungle—a stereotype with a different derivation. However, thinking about ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ as a response to Uncle Tom's Cabin is particularly helpful in understanding Hughes's choice to write a collection of stories portraying the ways of whites. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the first novel published in the United States that had an African American as a main character. It was also the first best-seller in American history. The novel as well as its many stage adaptations were wildly popular for over fifty years, rendering the story familiar to the great majority of Americans. The success of Uncle Tom's Cabin illustrates how thoroughly white representations of black people permeated American culture.
Like Stowe, the Carraways are artists interested in portraying blacks. ‘‘Slave on the Block’’can be interpreted as a commentary on the power that white artists have to create and circulate images of black people—images that reflect a view of the race more closely related to other images created by whites than to black ways or souls. The story can at once be interpreted as an intervention, in which Hughes seizes some of this representational power in order to create an opposing set of images. Because Anne is a painter, she is in a position to create an image of Luther that places him in the position of a slave. By writing stories like ‘‘Slave on the Block,’’ Hughes assumes control of how blacks and whites are represented, and creates and alternate image of freedom and slavery. In Hughes's story, Luther rebels against the Carraways, rejects their influence, and walks away free. The Carraways perpetuate their view of blacks as naive and simple through their artistic representations. In his story, Hughes shows how simple and limited the Carraways' views are. In many places in the story, the Carraways come across as naive, especially in regard to how they interact with Luther and Mattie. For example, near the conclusion of the story, when Mattie quits in solidarity with Luther, she tells the Carraways that they'd ‘‘stood enough foolery from you white folks!’’ Because the Carraways cannot see how their stereotypes are harmful, they fail to understand what Mattie means. ‘‘What could she mean, 'stood enough'? What had they done to them, Anne and Michael wondered. They had tried to be kind.'' It is not enough for Hughes to refute negative stereotypes of blacks. With fierce, unblinking portrayals of white ways, he also shows the havoc that stereotypes wreak on interracial interactions, compromising even whites with the best of intentions.
Describing the state of mind of blacks living in a culture in which representations like the "Uncle Tom’’ circulate freely, DuBois writes, ‘‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’’ In writing ‘‘Slave on the Block,’’ Hughes turns the tables, representing the Carraways with considerable contempt and pity. This ought not be understood as merely vengeful—a second wrong that can't make a right. DuBois shows how the peculiar sensation of seeing yourself as other sees you is a constitutive part of the black American experience, but not of the white one. In The Ways of White Folks Hughes offers white readers a rare opportunity to see themselves and to measure their souls from a point of view on the other side of the color line.
Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, ‘‘White Ways and Black Souls,’’ for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1640
Overt racism—insults, threats, violence and discrimination—is not the only problem faced by African Americans. There is a more insidious kind that is more difficult to confront: unintended racism. In the short story ‘‘Slave on the Block,’’ Langston Hughes addressed this type of bigotry. The characters in the tale are well-meaning people who are unaware of the effect their behavior has on people around them.
The Carraways are introduced as "people who went in for Negroes.'' But their attitude toward the blacks they meet is patronizing and condescending. In trying to express appreciation, they actually depreciate blacks with their insensitive remarks. When they first meet Luther, Anne says, "He is the jungle.’’ Michael continues with ‘‘He's so utterly Negro.’’ In both statements they fail to acknowledge Luther as a human being. When Michael accidentally finds Luther and Mattie in bed together, Anne's remark is again condescending. ‘‘It's so simple and natural for Negroes to make love.’’ After Mattie and Luther begin spending time together, the Carraways worry that ‘‘she [is] spoiling a nice simple young boy.’’ Their selfish concern is based on the belief that Mattie is "old enough to know better’’ than to interfere in the ‘‘delightful simplicity’’ of Luther.
These comments reduce Luther and Mattie to the level of children. Anne calls them "dear, natural childlike people.’’ They treat Luther more as a house pet than as a servant with chores to do. He is asked to sing and dance for assembled guests. He is made to pose for Anne's paintings. He teaches Anne some of the dances he learns at clubs in Harlem. But he is never treated like a young adult.
The Carraways like to have parties to which ‘‘occasionally, a furtive Negro’’ or ‘‘sometimes a lesser Harlem celebrity’’ might come. Those who do attend seldom come back because the Carraways ‘‘tried too hard to make friends’’ and the blacks become suspicious of their motives. Symbolically, the Carraways are as far from a meaningful interaction with blacks as their secluded house is from Harlem.
Another aspect of the Carraways' naive indulgence of blacks can be found in their penchant for collecting art works by and about blacks. They are artists themselves, but ‘‘they never tried to influence that art, they only bought it and raved over it, and copied it.'' In their zeal to add to their collection of African-American art, they included the work of the Mexican artist Covarrubias, because "he caught the darky spirit!’’ Covarrubias is known primarily as an illustrator. Many of his works included caricatures of blacks that would be insulting and unacceptable in the 1990s. The couple reduces black artists and their work to a non-black representative, whose fame rested on unflattering caricatures of blacks. By fawning over these works, they expose their complete lack of sensitivity to what it means to be African American or an African-American artist.
They collect the recordings of Paul Robeson, a prominent black entertainer and singer whose creative life was spent in Europe because he was not accepted by American audiences, an indignity which does not concern the Carraways. They want to leave them ‘‘unspoiled and just enjoy them,’’ as if such artists existed merely for their entertainment. "They knew Harlem like their own backyard,'' which was only ‘‘about as big as Michael's grand piano.’’ They attended black clubs, for which they had to top the head man heavily, and ‘‘ritzy joints,’’ where blacks could not get in. This is yet another example of how they reduce all things black to small collectible items.
The underlying theme here is a racism which seems to be benign on the surface. There is no confrontation or deliberate belittling of Negroes, no name calling, no threats of violence. Their effusive adulation of blacks is similar to the way the Kittridges treat Paul in the opening scenes of the movie Six Degrees of Separation.
This is quite different from the elder Mrs. Carraway's nasty attitude seen at the end of the story. She snaps at Luther, commenting on his race and saying, ‘‘Never, never, never have I suffered such impudence from servants ... in my own son's house.’’ In this one, intense, emotionally charged scene she shows the face of an overt racist. She reveals her contempt for black servants, especially if they talk back to her. This kind of behavior is easily identified and therefore more easily confronted than Anne's and Michael's behavior.
In the commencement address for Washington University's class of 1992, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, said that in order to combat racism, people should never accept racist remarks in their presence. In the context of a social conversation, one person can make others aware of the unacceptableness of racism. A reader of Hughes's story is immediately aware of Mrs. Carraway's attitude and, were it possible, might make a comment to her about it.
But in the case of Anne and Michael, their behavior seems polite and supportive. A comment about their behaviors might seem to be insensitive toward the Carraways themselves. They support minority artists by attending their theaters and clubs and by inviting them into their home. But these acts are selfishly motivated by their desire to collect ‘‘things black.’’ This phony support is the kind of unintentional racism that is difficult to confront.
Anne and Michael are selfish. When they first hire Luther "to look after the garden,’’ it seems that they are doing him a favor. But "they had to have some excuse to hire him,’’ and soon Luther is only posing for Anne's paintings. They both indulge Luther, letting him wander about the house without a shirt. He "had grown a bit familiar'' too, drinking their wine and smoking their cigarettes. Luther even came upstairs when they ‘‘had guests who didn't share their enthusiasm for Negroes.’’ The Carraways react as they would to an unruly pet that disturbs the company.
But since Anne's picture is not finished, ‘‘they kept him,’’ even though ‘‘Michael said he was getting a little bored with the same Negro always in the way.'' But after Mrs. Carraway insists that they fire him, and they do so without protest. Anne's only concern at this point is for ‘‘her Boy on the block,’’ her ‘‘black boy.’’ Luther says, ‘‘Don't worry bout me,’’ a sentiment that is not a concern for the Carraways. They only worry about themselves.
Hughes has addressed this theme in other short stories. In the opening paragraphs of the short story ‘‘Who's Passing for Who?’’ Hughes says that people like the Carraways are little more than "kind-hearted and well-meaning bores.’’ One can only guess what the parties at the Carraways' house were like, but since few of the invited guests ever returned, it might be assumed that these "rather slow parties’’ were populated by the ‘‘well-meaning bores’’ Hughes has identified. The whites in ‘‘Who's Passing,’’ are identified as ‘‘overearnest uplifters’’ who patronize clubs in Harlem and buy drinks for black artists. They are the guests of a black man, Caleb, who bore their newfound black audience with their stuffy attitudes and effusive comments about having ‘‘never met’’ black artists before. Despite the fact that they usually "gather around to help'' blacks, they have little to offer "except their company—which is often appallingly dull.’’
The Carraways, in the other tale, also seem to bore others whenever they are present. At parties that include blacks, ‘‘they gushed over them.’’ But the ‘‘Negroes didn't seem to love Michael and Anne’’ as much as they loved the black folks. Michael and Anne do not recognize the impact they have had on those they have met. Instead, they see what they want to see: idealized figures who represent ‘‘the jungle,’’ and who are ‘‘utterly Negro.’’
It was not widely accepted in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s for African Americans to speak out about racial and social injustice. Therefore, Hughes took a low-key approach to this touchy issue. When he attended Columbia University in 1924, he faced racism in very personal ways. In the poem, ‘‘Theme for English B’’ he addressed the situation. An instructor's assignment was an essay for English class, which Hughes wrote in the form of a poem. In it, Hughes said that the instructor (who was white) was as much a part of him (a black student) as he was a part of the instructor, because they interacted with each other regardless of their intentions.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you. / But we are, That's true! / As I learn from you, /I guess you learn from me— / although you're older—and white— / and somewhat more free.
These simple lines revealed Hughes' s desire to raise the issue of race with his professor without creating a potentially inflammatory situation. He did not call for confrontation nor did he make demands. His poem quietly asked to be recognized as an individual human being.
That is also the point of his short story. He created whites in "Slave" who were patronizing and condescending in their attempts to keep blacks in a subservient position. In ‘‘Who's Passing’’ he cast the whites as overbearing and well-meaning, without real substance to their desires to "help.'' In both cases he called for understanding and acceptance of the individual as a human, not part of a collective, and not because of skin color. He did not preach in the stories or the poem; rather he held up a mirror for the white society to see what it was doing. Although Hughes never said that individual acceptance is the key to the solution of this troublesome issue, that message is there. It is up to the reader to find it.
Source: Carl Mowery, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Pastoral, whose source is disillusionment with courtly life, contains within itself the seeds of satire. The higher the degree of alienation from the life-style of courtiers and kings, the greater the tendency toward satire. Langston Hughes is essentially a satirist, at least in the short-story form. His first book of stories, The Ways of White Folks, might well have been subtitled ‘‘In Dispraise of Courtly Life.’’ The pride and pretentiousness, arrogance and hypocrisy, boorishness and inhumanity of white folks are the targets of his caustic prose. The genius of Langston Hughes, which is a gift for comedy and satire, is thus displayed within the broad outlines of the pastoral tradition.
Within the context of its times, however, The Ways of White Folks functioned as antipastoral. The early, or ascending phase of the Harlem Renaissance was dominated by the myth of primitivism. Hughes himself, during what may be described as the undergraduate phase of his career, conformed substantially to the requirements of the myth. The late, or declining phase of the Renaissance, however, was increasingly antagonistic to the stereotype of the Negro as primitive. Finely tuned as always to the climate of the times, Hughes joined forces with such authors as Wallace Thurman and Sterling Brown to discredit the myth and challenge its pastoral assumptions....
It is against this background that we must seek to comprehend Hughes' career as a short-story writer. After a brief experimental period in 1927-1928, he turned to serious professional work in 1933. During that year he wrote fourteen stories, all of which were published in The Ways of White Folks. Retaining this momentum, in 1934 he wrote eleven more, most of which were collected some years later in Laughing to Keep from Crying. From 1935 to 1939 there was a tapering off (only five stories), as he turned from fiction to drama. A year at Hollow Hills Farm in 1941 produced a cluster of four stories. In 1943 the first Simple sketch appeared, and from that date until his death in 1967 Hughes wrote only seven tales....
An end to white paternalism was one of the things that the Renaissance was all about. Hughes' literary manifesto, [‘‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain''], in the Nation was nothing if not a declaration of independence. Yet paradoxically, it was promulgated by a writer who depended on a series of white patrons for his daily bread. The stark reality of the New Negro movement was that Hughes and his contemporaries were dependent in many ways on white patrons, impresarios, editors, agents, critics, and ordinary members of the reading public. It was an agonizing dilemma, which neither Hughes nor the generation of which he was a leading spokesman was able to resolve.
The Ways of White Folks was at bottom an attempt to come to grips with this dilemma. Hughes' solution was to strike a satirical stance toward his former patron and the world that she represents. In this way, he was able to preserve an essential dignity and self-respect, even while living rent-free in Noel Sullivan's cottage at Carmel. His experience with Mrs. Mason had left him in a satirical frame of mind. He was more than ready for a caustic treatment of white folks, rich folks, or pompous and pretentious folks of any hue. This turn to satire, moreover, involved a momentary shift from poetry to prose. For a brief period, the short-story form became the growing edge of his career.
The unmasking of hypocrisy became his central theme. The emotional source of this impulse was of course his father, who made a show of fatherly concern which in fact he didn't feel. By a process of transference, Hughes attributed the sins of his delinquent father to the patrons of the Harlem Renaissance. They too, he had come to feel, were lacking in a genuine commitment to the cause that they espoused. This is the burden of several stories in The Ways of White Folks.
Eleven of [this book's] ... fourteen tales are satires, and the rest contain satiric elements. The book was born in a sense of personal affront. Wounded by his former patron, Hughes lashes back at white paternalism in all its forms. His objects of attack include delinquent parents, domineering patrons, unscrupulous employers, and self-appointed missionaries in whatever guise. In the caustic language of H. L. Mencken (it is no accident that two of these stories first appeared in the American Mercury), Hughes excoriates the guile and mendacity, self-deception and equivocation, insincerity and sanctimoniousness, sham, humbug, and sheer fakery of white America in all its dealings with the black minority.
The author's personal pique is obvious enough, and to lift the curse of his vindictiveness toward Mrs. Mason, Hughes assumes a mask of genial humor. His comic muse is most apparent in such light satires as ‘‘Slave on the Block,'" 'A Good Job Gone,’’ and ‘‘Rejuvenation Through Joy.’’ Hughes is a gifted humorist, but it would be an error to construe this gift in narrow literary terms. Rather it constitutes a lusty adaptation to his life circumstances. Nourished by the boundless absurdities of American racism, this humor is, by the author's own account, a matter of "laughing to keep from crying.’’ But ‘‘laughing to keep from hating’’ may be closer to the mark. In any case, a humor of diverse tonalities is an essential feature of Hughes' satiric mask.
Irony... is the satirist's linguistic mode. Hughes is a resourceful ironist whose verbal indirections often saturate his tales. Among his favorite rhetorical devices are ironic understatement (to intensify, while seeming to diminish, the satirical attack); ironic inversion (to apportion praise or blame by indirection); ironic reversal (to add an element of shock or surprise to the attack); and ironic repetition or refrain (to create a cumulative tension that is finally discharged against the satiric victim). These are but a few of the devices by which Hughes is able to control his anger and simulate the coolness and detachment of effective satire.
Two standards of morality are juxtaposed in Hughes' satiric fiction: a white and Negro code. This division is the basis of the bipartite structure of his tales. He begins with the arraignment of a white society which constantly betrays its own professed ideals. But at some point a Negro character is introduced who embodies a different and more authentic moral code. This character—whether maid-of-all-work, kitchen boy, janitor, or jazz musician—provides the low norm by which the conduct of the whites is judged and found wanting. For the whites, despite their wealth and power, are failures as human beings, while the blacks, despite their poverty and vulnerability, are tough and resourceful and certain to survive....
Source: Robert Bone, ‘‘Langston Hughes,’’ in his Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 239-71.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), according to many critics ‘‘poet laureate of Harlem’’ and ‘‘Dean of American Negro Writers,’’ began his literary career by winning a poetry contest sponsored by the black magazine Opportunity in 1925. ‘‘The Weary Blues’’ was noted by Carl Van Vechten, through whose sponsorship Hughes was able to get his first contract with the noted publisher Alfred Knopf. Van Vechten, who acted as a main ambassadorial advisor and patron of black literature to white publishing firms during the 1920's, not only paved the way for Hughes' literary career but also became the "chief architect of his early success.’’ Just as with [Paul Laurence] Dunbar and [Charles Waddell] Chesnutt, white patronage played a decisive role in the literary emergence of Langston Hughes. The omnipresence of the white patron with his significant socio-liter-ary influence on the black author was a discovery that the young Hughes was still to make; his gradual and painstaking emancipation from the grip of such white patrons was to become the major concern of his early phase and to play a dominant theme in his short fiction....
Although his first stories, all reflecting the author's experiences as a seaman on a voyage along the West coast of Africa, were already published in Harlem's literary magazine The Messenger in 1927, it took another six years before Hughes really devoted himself to writing short fiction. From the spring of 1932 to the fall of 1933 he visited the Soviet Union and the Far East. It was during his stay in Moscow that he had a decisive reading experience [having readD. H. Lawrence's collection The Lovely Lady] which prompted him to devote himself to the short story.... The years to come were to see amazing results from this literary initiation. Between 1933 and 1934 he devoted himself exclusively to this genre.
[The Ways of White Folks,] which received rather favorable reviews, presents, thematically, a close examination of black-white relationships. Mostly satirical in tone, the stories try to unmask several manifestations of the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, the theme of white patronage, as displayed in "Slave on the Block,'" 'Poor Little Black Fellow,’’ and ‘‘The Blues I'm Playing,’’ is used to demonstrate the dishonesty of whites and the absurd notion of their paternalistic philanthropy. In this context, it is of particular socio-literary interest to note that Hughes' fictional treatment of the incipient dissociation from white predominance caused him no setback in magazine publication. Instead, his new literary efforts soon found their way into leading periodicals. Whereas Hughes' poetry was usually printed in such black journals as Opportunity and The Crisis (he had complained in 1929 that"magazines used very few stories with Negro themes, since Negro themes were considered exotic, in a class with Chinese or East Indian features), four out of his five stories written in Moscow were now accepted and published by such noted periodicals as The American Mercury, Scribner's Magazine and Esquire. This major breakthrough provided him with a nation-wide, non-parochial platform, allowing him to escape from his predicament, and opened up the opportunity of gaining a primarily white reading audience....
Despite favorable reviews, the first issue of The Ways of White Folk sold only 2500 copies. This meagre success may be accounted for not only by the fact that Hughes had not yet gained, as he was to do later with his ‘‘Simple Tales,’’ a genuine black reading audience; the commercial failure also seems to demonstrate that with the end of the Harlem Renaissance the potential white audience no longer shared a larger enthusiasm in black literary products. From a historical and socio-literary perspective, however, the stories of The Ways of White Folk caused a major breakthrough in paving the way for a racially unrestricted audience. By re-examining the black-white relationships of the 1920's and by unmasking the falseness of the enthusiasm of whites for the 'New Negro,' [Donald C. Dickinson states that] Hughes "clarified for the Negro audience their own strength and dignity and... supplied the white audience with an explanation of how the Negro feels and what he wants.’’ Six years after the publication of this collection, Richard Wright, in a review of Hughes' autobiography The Big Sea, perhaps summed up the importance of the early works of Hughes best. In his eyes, Hughes, on account of his extensive publications, had served as a "cultural ambassador for the case of the blacks.'' Source: Peter Bruck, ‘‘Langston Hughes: 'The Blues I'm Playing' (1934),’’ in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck, B. R. Gruner Publishing Co., 1977, pp. 71-84.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
Langston Hughes's ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ is a penetrating, satirical portraiture of arty, "liberal" whites, represented by Michael and Anne Carraway in this short story. Ostensibly it is the story of a young Negro migrated to New Jersey from the deep South, who has come to retrieve the belongings of his Aunt Emma, lately deceased in the employ of the Carraways, residents of Greenwich Village. However, the story becomes a vehicle for the author to reveal certain absurdities in the behavior of white employers toward their Negro domestics, and at the same time pungently scathe the stereotypes of Negroes held by certain strata of white America, particularly phony liberals. The ironic twist of the narrative is that the Carraways lose their domestics by the very tactics and attitudes with which they had hoped to retain them.
The first ... paragraphs of ‘‘Slave on the Block'' set the tone and prepare the way for what is to happen:
They were people who went in for Negroes—Michael and Anne—the Carraways. But not in the social-service, philanthropic sort of way, no. They saw no use in helping a race that was already too charming and naive and lovely for words. Leave them unspoiled and just enjoy them, Michael and Anne felt. So they went in for the Art of Negroes— the dancing that had such jungle life about it, the songs that were so simple and fervent, the poetry that was so direct, so real. They never tried to influence that art, they only bought it and raved over it, and copied it. For they were artists, too. (pp. 64—5)
They were acquainted with lots of Negroes, too—but somehow the Negroes didn't seem to like them very much. Maybe the Carraways gushed over them too soon. Or maybe they looked a little like poor white folks, although they were really quite well off.... As much as they loved Negroes, Negroes didn't seem to love Michael and Anne. But they were blessed with a wonderful colored cook and maid—until she took sick and died in her room in their basement. . . .
And the place of their maid's abode and death tells the reader something very pertinent about Michael and Anne. Into these circumstances comes young Luther, "as black as all the Negroes they'd ever known put together.’’ Anne describes Luther: ‘‘He is the jungle. ...’’ Michael describes him as ‘‘He's 'I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray....’’' Each adheres to the terms of the Carraway art interest—Anne's in painting, Michael's in music. And Hughes, no doubt at this point, was having a chuckling good time all by himself.
Luther becomes a combination houseboy, model for Anne, and purveyor of Negro music for Michael. They inform him that they ‘‘loved your aunt so much. She was the best cook we ever had.''
The redoubtable foil of the Carraways, however, is Mattie, their fortyish but still sexually active replacement for Luther's lately mourned aunt. She proceeds to enlighten the young man about the ways of his new environment, downtown and uptown, and especially her favorite Harlem haunts. Soon they are sleeping together, to the momentary shock of the Carraways but without their disapproval. ‘‘It's so simple and natural for Negroes to make love,’’ is Anne's blithe comment. And when Luther, as a result of his nocturnal forays to Harlem night-spots with Mattie, culminating in carnal calisthenics during the wee hours, poses somnolently for Anne, she decides to do a painting of him, entitled "The Sleeping Negro.'' Following this, she asks him to pose in the half-nude for her painting dubbed ‘‘The Boy on the Block,’’ with a New Orleans slave auction background. Michael, not to be outdone by his wife,
. .. went to the piano and began to play something that sounded like "Deep River'' in the jaws of a dog, but . .. said it was a modern slave plaint, 1850 in terms of 1933. Vieux Carre remembered on 135th Street. Slavery in the Cotton Club.
As a consequence of these contretemps, the servant-master-mistress relationships in the Carraway establishment becomes strained, if not dissipated, since the "boy" from the South no longer is the likeable, "child-like creature he first appeared to be by Carraway standards. He takes all sort of liberties, strolling about in the half-nude, availing himself of Carraway potables and cigaretts. The breaking point is reached upon the appearance of Michael's Kansas City mother—the apotheosis of Philip Wiley's "Mom,'' who, after an affront by Luther, gets her son to dismiss both servants summarily. Mattie's reaction to this is Hughes' final thrust at the phony white type he is satirizing:
‘Yes, we'll go,’’ boomed Mattie from the doorway, who had come up from below, fat and belligerent. ‘‘We've stood enough foolery from you white folks! Yes, we'll go. Come on, Luther.’’ What could she mean, ‘‘stood enough?’’ What had they done to them, Anne and Michael wondered. They had tried to be kind. "Oh!" "Sneaking around knocking on our door at night,’’ Mattie went on. ‘‘Yes, we'll go. Pay us! Pay us!’’ So she remembered the time they had come for Luther at night. That was it.
And to complete the Carraway's bouleversement, Luther hands the roses he has gathered from the small garden he had nurtured to Anne, saying:
‘‘Good-bye. . .. You fix the vases.’’ He handed her his armful of roses, glanced impudently at old Mrs. Carraway and grinned—grinned that wide, beautiful white-toothed grin that made Anne say when she first saw him, ‘‘He looks like the jungle.’’ Grinned and disappeared in the dark hall, with no shirt on his back. "Oh," moaned Anne distressfully, ‘‘my 'Boy on the Block'!" "Huh!" snorted Mrs. Carraway.
In his ‘‘Slave on the Block,’’ it is obvious that Hughes is having a gleeful time stilettoing his satirical prey. Yet, the ring of truth chimes from the piece. He has caught with eye and ear the totality of his subject. At the same time we can see here the piercing of the stereotype image which still haunts the white mind in many quarters.
Source: Waters E. Turpin, ‘‘Four Short Fiction Writers of the Harlem Renaissance—Their Legacy of Achievement,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. XI, No. 1, September, 1967, pp. 59-72.
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