‘Slave On The Block’ by Langston Hughes

Hughes, Langston 1933a

Slave On The Block by Langston Hughes, 1933

The magic trick:

Presenting a cynical satire but also developing as a full story too

This as brilliant a damning of Northern, liberal, do-good racism as you will see. And it’s an aspect of the American race divide that doesn’t always receive comment, so it’s an especially valuable theme.

The Carraways are not guilty of owning a plantation and buying and selling slaves, it is true. But their brand of co-opting black culture and mistaking ignorant ownership as appreciation is hateful and hurtful in its own right.

Hughes absolutely obliterates the Carraways. I mean, we’re talking all-out character assassination. It’s angry and funny and just completely and totally knowingly precise. The satire recalls Mark Twain at his best. But the real magic is in the way he develops the story, not content to simply present a character takedown. As the story goes on, Luther and Mattie grow closer. Luther goes from a boy to a man with his own interests. And even as these interests involve nothing more than wearing nice clothes and going out on the town with Mattie, they are enough to spoil his relationship with the Carraways.

This is not static satire. The plot as it develops only furthers the scope of the social criticism. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.

The selection:

“Hello,” they said. “Is this Emma’s nephew?”

“Yes’m,” said the maid. “Yes’m.”

“Well, come in,” said Anne, “and let us see you. We loved your aunt so much. She was the best cook we ever had.”

“You don’t know where I could get a job, do you?” said the boy. This took Michael and Anne back a bit, but they rallied at once. So charming and naïve to ask right away for what he wanted.

Anne burst out, “You know, I think I’d like to paint you.”

Michael said, “Oh, I say now, that would be lovely! He’s so utterly Negro.”

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