Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

Freedom and Slavery
The very title ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ calls immediate attention to the theme of freedom and slavery. Just as slaves were displayed to prospective buyers, the Carraways put Luther on display in their household. Anne's great inspiration is to paint Luther as a slave, and Michael is moved to compose’’ a modern slave plaint'' when he sees the young man posing. One day, when called to pose, he reluctantly appears, singing ‘‘Before I'd be a slave / I'd be buried in ma grave / And go home to my Jesus / And be free.’’ That same afternoon he almost lets the furnace go out. Slaves often sang spirituals about freedom as a masked form of rebellion. This song can be seen as Luther's criticism of his status in the Carraway household.

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Race and Racism
For all their enthusiasm for ‘‘things Negro,’’ the Carraways do not acknowledge Luther, or indeed any black person, as an individual. In fact, they hold firmly to grotesquely racist opinions about blacks as a simple, childlike race, "charming and naive and lovely,’’ who should be left"unspoiled'' and simply enjoyed. Unfortunately for the Carraways, the individual blacks whom they meet persist in being individual people with their own ideas of how they would prefer to live. It is clear throughout the story—and particularly at its end—that the Carraways will never overcome their own lack of comprehension. Luther shuns the nominal "work'' he has been hired to perform, begins a sexual affair with Mattie, takes things from the household, and avoids posing for Anne for days at a time, perhaps exploiting the Carraways stereotypes to his own advantage. The story implies that it is not despite but because of their fascination with certain stereotyped concepts of blackness that the Carraways are racist.

Class Conflict
Issues of economic class form an underlying theme of the story. Despite the fact that the Carraways think of their interest in black culture as part of a radical artistic project, their only actual relationships with black people are the essentially economic ones they have with their servants.The third-person narrator of the story reports that the occasional ‘‘furtive Negro’’ or ‘‘lesser Harlem celebrity or two'' who attends one of their "rather slow parties ... seldom came back for more,’’ perhaps because the Carraways live in an exclusive, well-to-do and hard-to-find little enclave in the city.

Sex and Sexuality
The narrative avoids any overt discussion of the Carraways' sexuality. However, Anne Carraway's response to Luther carries erotic overtones. She admires his physical appearance, stares at him while he is sleeping, and decides she wants to paint him nude—quickly emended to ‘‘or at least half nude.’’ When she finds out that Luther and Mattie are having sex, she contends that it is ‘‘simple and natural for Negroes to make love.’’ The narrative makes plain, however, that the Carraways give a great deal of thought to Luther's sexuality: Anne in particular blaming the older Mattie for "spoiling a nice simple young boy.’’ She notes that Luther is wearing increasingly nice clothing bought by Mattie and going out with her nightly. At no point does the narrator comment on these intrusions into Luther and Mattie's privacy; they are simply noted.

While Michael Carraway initially shares his wife's enthusiasm for Luther's inspiring presence, when Luther becomes more "familiar," Michael's enthusiasm wanes. Anne wants to keep Luther on so she finish her painting, and because he is teaching her the dances he has learned at the Harlem nightclubs that he frequents with Mattie. When Luther antagonizes Michael's visiting mother, he is again shirtless because he expects to pose for Anne; Anne is described as moaning "Oh!" repeatedly—no less than four times—and gazing at his shirtless body as Luther leaves for good.

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