Historical Context

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The Great Migration
The early twentieth century was a period of increasing urbanization in America. In 1920 the census showed that for the first time in U.S. history the majority of Americans lived in cities. However, while white Americans had been gradually moving into urban areas over the course of a century, black Americans became city-dwellers much more suddenly. Vast numbers of African Americans moved to northern cities between the 1910s and 1940s in a population shift known as the Great Migration (or the Great Black Migration).

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In 1910 about 90 percent of the African American population of the United States lived in the South, with 78 percent living in rural areas. Economic factors such as crop failures in the South, the labor vacuum created by World War I, and the stemming of European immigrants after 1914, plus political factors such as segregation, discrimination, and lynching in the South, led to a huge influx of blacks into northern cities. Between 1910 and 1930, the black population in New York City tripled.

The Harlem Renaissance
Hughes is one of the authors most closely associated with the literary and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Like many African Americans of his generation, Hughes was born in the South and found his way to Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. A group of white artistic and financial mentors interested in African-American culture whmo Hughes met in New York shaped his impression of' 'the ways of white folks'' as characterized in the story.

The Harlem Renaissance began around 1917, with the huge increase of blacks living in New York. About two-thirds of all black New Yorkers resided in Harlem. A thriving community and cultural center for blacks, Harlem was referred to as ‘‘the Negro capital of America.’’ Concurrent with this population shift arose a new interest among white artists and intellectuals in black culture. New York's Greenwich Village was the center for a group of bohemian whites much like the Carraways, who were critical of mainstream society and tended to see African Americans as a primitive force of innocence and regeneration. Harlem became a popular entertainment spot for whites as well as blacks, famous for its clubs and cabarets. Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson, whose records the Carraways collect, are black singers who performed in Harlem. Countee Cullen, whose manuscript the Carraways own, is a black Harlem Renaissance poet. W. E. B. DuBois is a black leader, and Carl Van Vechten is a white Renaissance writer and patron of the arts. White artists fascinated with blacks and interested in writing about them dominated the early phase of the Harlem Renaissance.

Within a few years, starting around 1923, a small group of talented and well-educated African Americans living in Harlem became visible as they began to publish literature about their own experiences. Hughes was part of a group of writers who drew on black folk culture to create great art. These black artists saw artistic achievement as an important way for African Americans to overcome racism and win civil rights in the United States. They were promoted and financially supported by a group of wealthy and sympathetic whites. For several years, Hughes and a few of his peers were supported by an elderly white woman, Mrs. Osgood Mason, to whom they referred as their "godmother."

The Harlem Renaissance ended around 1935. In the last part of the Renaissance, young black artists became more rebellious and more critical of their white mentors, whom they accused of reducing them to stereotypes. By the time Hughes wrote ‘‘Slave on the Block,’’ he had broken off his relationship with Mrs. Mason. Many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, including Hughes, had begun to question the earlier goal of assimilation and strove for a racially distinct style. Harlem Renaissance writing also became more explicitly political, sometimes influenced by Marxist theories of class division and economic exploitation. This position was shaped, in part, by the increasing economic divide between blacksf and whites as a result of the Great Depression. By 1935 several of the talented young writers of the Renaissance had died and many more had left Harlem.

The Great Depression
The Great Depression, initiated by the stock market crash of 1929, was a period of great economic hardship across the nation, but the troubled economy hurt African Americans disproportionately. Despite the artistic achievements and visibility of blacks in this period, they remained economically powerless. Harlem families, for example, paid twice as much of their income in rent as did white families in 1931, and by the end of 1932 almost half of Harlemites were unemployed. The median family income in Harlem dropped approximately 44% between 1930 and 1932. The Harlem artists were dependent on the support of white patrons, publishers, audiences and readers. As the economy foundered, financial support dried up and white interest in African-American art and culture also subsided.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Irony
Hughes tells the story of Luther's interactions with the Carraways by using a third-person narrator, meaning that the events in ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ are described from the position of an outside observer. This third-person narrator is omniscient, having access to the characters' private thoughts. For example, the narrator is in a position to report, ‘‘They didn't understand the vagaries of white folks, neither Luther nor Mattie, and they didn't want to be bothered trying.’’ Most often however, third-person narration assumes an objective presentation of facts and events. For example, the narrator does not comment on the fact that the Carraways considered Luther ‘‘so charming and naive to ask right away for what he wanted'' when he comes to them looking for work, but instead presents the information in a straightforward and neutral manner. However, Hughes does not intend for this information to evoke a neutral response, for he has already established that the Carraways believe that all blacks are charming and naive, and thus this information is an indictment of their use of stereotype. When there is an imbalance between what is presented and what is felt, the effect created is one of irony. Throughout the story, Hughes's narration is highly ironic. He criticizes the Carraways' attitudes and beliefs about race through describing their narrow ideas about black people in a distant and objective manner, offering a bitter and precise portrait of their particular brand of racism. The story's ironic narration is perhaps its most striking stylistic feature. Hughes's use of irony suggests the influence of both modernist writing and traditional African and African-American storytelling.

Setting
When Hughes sets out to define "the ways of white folks'' he carefully delineates the social milieu he is addressing and the attitudes specific to a particular time and place. The story opens with a description of the type of white folks the Carraways are. They are part of a New York intellectual and artistic clique that embraces black culture, lives in an exclusive and expensive area of Greenwich Village, and frequents the upscale clubs and bars of Harlem that cater specifically to white sensation-seekers.

Although the larger context of a modern, segregated New York City is carefully defined, all of the action in the story takes place within the Carraways' household. Their home is the only scene of contact between the Carraways and their domestic servants. Although both enjoy Harlem nightlife, it is noted that the Carraways favor ‘‘the ritzy joints where Negroes couldn't go themselves’’ other than to work and perform.The action of the story is initiated when Luther arrives at their door and the story ends when he leaves. The plot builds from the tense series of actions and reactions between the Carraways and Luther within the domestic setting.

Symbolism
Hughes carefully weaves symbolism into the texture of a realistically represented social setting. For example, Anne's portrait of Luther as a slave on the block fits in with Anne's role as an artist in the social context of Greenwich Village. However, the symbolic significance of the painting is profound. Through the symbol of the painting, Hughes suggests that the Luther's relationship to the Carraways echoes slavery, despite the fact that the Carraways think of themselves as liberals and free-thinkers who ‘‘love Negroes.’’ Anne poses Luther on a box in the same way that a slave trader would place a slave on the block, displaying him for sale. Anne's social status gives her the power to represent him as a slave, and thus contributes to the production of the kind of stereotypes that oppress Luther in her household.

The roses that Luther carries into the library on the day he has the confrontation with Mrs. Carraway also have symbolic meaning. The roses add to the visual impact of the scene. Shirtless, Luther is a decorative object in the household, not unlike the roses. Luther's sensual appearance is part of what disturbs Mrs. Carraway and part of what pleases Anne. When Luther is fired, he tells Anne to arrange the flowers in the vases. To Luther, the roses represent work. He hands the roses to Anne in what can be seen as the inversion of a romantic gesture. Thus the roses symbolizes Anne's misguided, romanticized vision of Luther.

Satire
In literature, satire is the art of using ridicule, humor, and wit to criticize human nature and institutions. The white liberal couple the Carraways are clearly satirized in ‘‘Slave on the Block’’. They represent a type of patronizing, unconsciously offensive white patron of black arts in the 1920s and 30s. Although such individuals certainly did exist, the Carraways are portrayed nearly as caricatures, with their unpleasant characteristics exaggerated to underscore the themes of the story. The black characters similarly convey little depth: the reader learns little of their inner lives or private thoughts, although they are not as harshly presented as are the Carraways.

Literary Techniques

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Hughes tells the story of Luther's interactions with the Carraways by using a third person narrator, meaning that the events in "Slave on the Block" are described from the position of an outside observer. This third person narrator is omniscient, having access to the characters' private thoughts. For example, the narrator is in a position to report, "They didn't understand the vagaries of white folks, neither Luther nor Mattie, and they didn't want to be bothered trying." Most often however, third-person narration assumes an objective presentation of facts and events. For example, the narrator does not comment on the fact that the Carraways considered Luther "so charming and naive to ask right away for what he wanted" when he comes to them looking for work, but instead presents the information in a straightforward and neutral manner. However, Hughes does not intend for this information to evoke a neutral response, for he has already established that the Carraways believe that all blacks are charming and naive, and thus this information is an indictment of their use of stereotype. When there is an imbalance between what is presented and what is felt, the effect created is one of irony.

Throughout the story, Hughes's narration is highly ironic. He criticizes the Carraways' attitudes and beliefs about race through describing their narrow ideas about black people in a distant and objective manner, offering a bitter and precise portrait of their particular brand of racism. The story's ironic narration is perhaps its most striking stylistic feature. Hughes's use of irony suggests the influence of both modernist writing and traditional African and African-American storytelling.

When Hughes sets out to define "the ways of white folks" he carefully delineates the social milieu he is addressing and the attitudes specific to a particular time and place. The story opens with a description of the type of white folks the Carraways are. They are part of a New York intellectual and artistic clique that embraces black culture, lives in an exclusive and expensive area of Greenwich Village, and frequents the upscale clubs and bars of Harlem that cater specifically to white sensation-seekers.

Although the larger context of a modern, segregated New York City is carefully defined, all of the action in the story takes place within the Carraways' household. Their home is the only scene of contact between the Carraways and their domestic servants. Although both enjoy Harlem nightlife, it is noted that the Carraways "favor the ritzy joints where Negroes couldn't go themselves" other than to work and perform. The action of the story is initiated when Luther arrives at their door and the story ends when he leaves. The plot builds from the tense series of actions and reactions between the Carraways and Luther within the domestic setting.

Hughes carefully weaves symbolism into the texture of a realistically represented social setting. For example, Anne's portrait of Luther as a slave on the block fits in with Anne's role as an artist in the social context of Greenwich Village. However, the symbolic significance of the painting is profound. Through the symbol of the painting, Hughes suggests that Luther's relationship to the Carraways echoes slavery, despite the fact that the Carraways think of themselves as liberals and free-thinkers who "love Negroes." Anne poses Luther on a box in the same way that a slave trader would place a slave on the block, displaying him for sale. Anne's social status gives her the power to represent him as a slave, and thus contributes to the production of the kind of stereotypes that oppress Luther in her household.

The roses that Luther carries into the library on the day he has the confrontation with Mrs. Carraway also have symbolic meaning. The roses add to the visual impact of the scene. Shirtless, Luther is a decorative object in the household, not unlike the roses. Luther's sensual appearance is part of what disturbs Mrs. Carraway and part of what pleases Anne. When Luther is fired, he tells Anne to arrange the flowers in the vases. To Luther, the roses represent work. He hands the roses to Anne in what can be seen as the inversion of a romantic gesture. Thus the roses symbolize Anne's misguided, romanticized vision of Luther.

In literature, satire is the art of using ridicule, humor, and wit to criticize human nature and institutions. The white liberal couple the Carraways are clearly satirized in "Slave on the Block." They represent a type of patron—the unconsciously offensive white patron of black arts in the 1920s and 1930s. Although such individuals certainly did exist, the Carraways are portrayed nearly as caricatures, with their unpleasant characteristics exaggerated to underscore the themes of the story. The black characters similarly convey little depth: the reader learns little of their inner lives or private thoughts, although the Carraways are more harshly presented.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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A successful blues poet early in his career, Langston Hughes turned to writing short stories after reading a collection of short stories by D. H. Lawrence. Like the British author, Hughes employed psychologically powerful accounts of his countrymen along with irony and satire to illustrate the racial attitudes between blacks and whites.

1. Think of some examples when you have heard irony used in informal contexts, such as conversation. What are some of the differences and similarities between the kinds of irony you find in literature and in casual speech? What is so powerful about irony? As a writing exercise, identify an issue you feel strongly about and try to make your point by using irony.

2. Much of Hughes's poetry is based on blues rhythms and themes. Additionally, he incorporates the lyrics of several songs into "Slave on the Block." Listen to some blues music and do some research about the history of this musical form. How do blues themes reflect on the conflicts and issues that Hughes raises in the story?

3. Identify some white artists, writers, or musicians who draw on African-American culture for their inspiration, either from Hughes's generation or from your own. With Hughes's criticism of the Carraways in mind, analyze the work of these artists in terms of the way they represent black people and culture. Can you see any of the same stereotypes described in the story at work, such as exoticism, simplicity, or sexuality? What are some of the other conclusions about race relations you can draw from the work of these artists?

4. Despite the fact that Hughes is extremely critical of the Carraways' racial attitude in the story, he portrays them as human and their prejudice as a form of weakness. Find some psychological studies of prejudice and racism. What are the existing theories, and which do you find most useful or convincing? Do any of these theories seem to pertain to the interpersonal dynamics described in the story or give you a new way of understanding the characters?

Social Concerns

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"Slave on the Block," by Langston Hughes, is the story of a well-meaning but patronizing white couple, Michael and Anne Carraway, and their interactions with their young black employee, Luther. 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 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 of racism.

"Slave on the Block" was first published in Scribner's magazine in September, 1933, when Hughes was thirty-one. 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 whites as seen from a black point of view.

Though The Ways of White Folks received favorable reviews when it came out, particularly 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.

Like many African Americans of his generation, Hughes was born in the South and found his way to Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. A group of white artistic and financial mentors interested in African- American culture whom Hughes met in New York shaped his impression of "the ways of white folks" as characterized in the story.

The Harlem Renaissance began around 1917, with the huge increase of blacks living in New York. About two-thirds of all black New Yorkers resided in Harlem. A thriving community and cultural center for blacks, Harlem was referred to as "the Negro capital of America." Concurrent with this population shift arose a new interest among white artists and intellectuals in black culture. New York's Greenwich Village was the center for a group of bohemian whites much like the Carraways who were critical of mainstream society and tended to see African Americans as a primitive force of innocence and regeneration. Harlem became a popular entertainment spot for whites as well as blacks, famous for its clubs and cabarets. Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson, whose records the Carraways collect, are black singers who performed in Harlem. Countee Cullen, whose manuscript the Carraways own, is a black Harlem Renaissance poet. W. E. B. DuBois is a black leader, and Carl Van Vechten is a white Renaissance writer and patron of the arts. White artists fascinated with blacks and interested in writing about them dominated the early phase of the Harlem Renaissance.

Within a few years, starting around 1923, a small group of talented and well-educated African Americans living in Harlem became visible as they began to publish literature about their own experiences. Hughes was part of a group of writers who drew on black folk culture to create great art. These black artists saw artistic achievement as an important way for African Americans to overcome racism and win civil rights in the United States. They were promoted and financially supported by a group of wealthy and sympathetic whites. For several years, Hughes and a few of his peers were supported by an elderly white woman, Mrs. Osgood Mason, to whom they referred as their "godmother."

The Harlem Renaissance ended in 1935. In the last part of the Renaissance, young black artists became more rebellious and more critical of their white mentors, whom they accused of reducing them to stereotypes. By the time Hughes wrote "Slave on the Block," he had broken off relations with Mrs. Mason. Many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, including Hughes, had begun to question the earlier goal of assimilation and strove for a racially distinct style. Harlem Renaissance writing also became more explicitly political, sometimes influenced by Marxist theories of class division and economic exploitation. This position was shaped, in part, by the increasing economic divide between blacks and whites as a result of the Great Depression. By 1935 several of the talented young writers of the Renaissance had died and many more had left Harlem.

The Great Depression, initiated by the stock market crash of 1929, was a period of great economic hardship across the nation, but the troubled economy hurt African Americans disproportionately. Despite the artistic achievements and visibility of blacks in this period, they remained economically powerless. Harlem families, for example, paid twice as much of their income in rent as did white families in 1931, and by the end of 1932, almost half of Harlemites were unemployed. The median family income in Harlem dropped approximately 44 percent between 1930 and 1932. Harlem artists were dependent on the support of white patrons, publishers, audiences, and readers. As the economy foundered, financial support dried up and white interest in African-American art and culture also subsided.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Anderson, Sherwood. A review of The Ways of White Folks in The Nation, July 11, 1934. Reprinted in Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, New York, Amistad Books, 1993, p. 18.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folks, New York, Bantam Books, 1989.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Preface to Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, New York, Amistad Books, 1993, pp. ix-xii.

Graham, Maryemma. ‘‘The Practice of a Social Art,’’ in Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, New York, Amistad Books, 1993, p. 213-36.

Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1, New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Further Reading
Anderson, Jervis. This Was Harlem. New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 1981.
A lively account of life in Harlem during the Renaissance era, focusing on the black entertainment scene.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1940.
Hughes's autobiographical account of his life as a young writer, up until shortly before the time he wrote The Ways of White Folks.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
A thorough and readable analysis of the historical and cultural factors behind the Harlem Renaissance.

Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Provides a clear and in-depth critical interpretation of Hughes's short stories and also reprints a series of contemporaneous reviews of this material.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: White mob violence and economic depression in the south, and higher-paying industrial jobs in the north, encourage African-Americans to move to northern cities in a vast relocation known as The Great Migration.

1990s: The trend of ‘‘white flight’’ from the cities to the suburbs, which began in the 1970s, remains evident, with blacks making up the majority in most urban centers. Since the 1970s, southern as well as northern cities have become a common destination for African-Americans.

1930s: In the 1930s, public schools, public transportation, and other public places are legally segregated by race throughout the South. A 1935 survey of southern schools finds that an average of $17.04 is spent on each black student as compared to $49.30 for each white student. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) begins a series of lawsuits in accordance with the Supreme Court's provision that facilities may separate but must be of equal quality, eventually culminating in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Only about 5 percent of eligible blacks in the South are registered to vote. Arthur W. Mitchell of Chicago is the first African American elected to the House of Representatives. Over the course of the decade, there are 111 recorded lynchings. Anti-lynching legislation is introduced.

1990s: A Harvard University study shows that racial segregation is rising to levels not seen since 1968. It finds that 66 percent of African-American students attend predominantly minority schools. A record number of 40 members of the U.S. Congress are black. The Supreme Court sets limits on the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

1939: Gone with the Wind, a heroic portrayal of a white southern family's struggle during and after the Civil War, is a hit movie. Hattie McDaniel, who plays a loyal slave and servant, becomes the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award. Boxer Joe Louis becomes world champion. Undefeated until his 1949 retirement, he remains a symbol of black power and achievement among African Americans.

1990s: Television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey is one of the top-ten wealthiest entertainers in the United States. She is the only African-American named as one of the ten most admired women in a national poll.

Literary Precedents

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Throughout Hughes's writing, readers can observe influences from black oral traditions as well as from African-American music. Receiving criticism early on for his use of African-American phrases, speech patterns, and dialects, Hughes was eventually seen as an original voice in black literature. The author also cited the influences of Paul Lawrence Dumbar, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg on his work.

Hughes also noted that he read the works of D. H. Lawrence, a British modernist whose work greatly affected the author. Hughes admired Lawrence's bold, direct style of psychological analysis and social critique. Appearing in Lawrence's The Collected Stories, "The Lovely Lady," a story about a controlling elderly woman who reminded Hughes of his mentor Mrs. Mason, directly inspired him to write The Ways of White Folks.

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