The surprising prescience of Black No More
Do you know that tingling of wonder you feel when you encounter by a book written decades ago that could just as well have been written today? That’s what I felt when my American University literature course introduced me to Black No More by George S. Schuyler. This bold social satire from 1931 introduces an incredible proposition for eliminating the scourge of racism in America: What if everyone could be white?
Schuyler sets his novel in a near future in which a Dr. Junius Crookman has invented a process for transforming black people into Caucasians in a matter of days. Crookman and his business associates arrive in Harlem in 1933 to set up the first of what will become a chain of Black No More clinics throughout the United States. For as little as $50, downtrodden African Americans across the land can shed the social and economic disadvantages of their black skins and join society as equal, fully integrated citizens of the United States.
Racism and inequality solved, right?
Of course not. Schuyler’s dedication sets the tone from the very start, both in terms of content and arch tone: “This book is dedicated to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no black leaves, twigs, limbs or branches on their family trees.”
In other words, my words: Let’s expose some completely hypocritical B.S. here, shall we?
In Schuyler’s America, black people stream into Black No More clinics, creating a mass exodus from blackness into whiteness. Rather than quelling racial strife, this brand of integration increases tensions as nervous white people agonize over how to tell the difference between the “new” white people and the “real” white people — after all, someone still has to be on bottom so they can stay on top.
Black businesses and media begin to fail: as hair straighteners and skin whiteners become obsolete, black salons and purveyors of black beauty products (the term in itself a cruel irony) no longer have advertising budgets to spend with black newspapers.
Into this chaos strides our hero, Matthew Fisher. Well, he’s actually Max Disher, an ambitious young black man who transforms himself into a white man, takes on a new identity, and works the vagaries of social hysteria to make his fortune and get the girl — the white girl who spurned him when he was black.
He uses his natural charm and golden tongue to rise within the Knights of Nordica, a thinly veiled KKK, raking in money and accolades as he becomes the face of the fight to eliminate the Black No More clinics that threaten to equalize society. He’s not in it for the principle, though, just the money and the girl, whose father happens to be the head of the Knights of Nordica. In the ultimate twist of fate, he is poised to make a fortune from racism and enter the forbidden temple of white feminine purity.
Schuyler is nothing if not fair, however, also skewering figures of African-American social movements whom he sees as hypocritical and corrupt. He lampoons the NAACP and Harlem Renaissance figures, as well: They undergo the treatment to improve their lives, but still want to retain their positions as race leaders and are wary of the loss of the downtrodden, who give them their status and generate their funding:
“While the large staff of officials was eager to end all oppression and persecution of the Negro, they were never so happy and excited as when a Negro was barred from a theater or fried to a crisp. Then they would leap for telephones, grab telegraph pads and yell for stenographers; smiling through their simulated indignation at the spectacle of another reason for their continued existence and appeals for funds.”
Schuyler is not only elegantly brutal but also breathtakingly prescient, anticipating the emergence of the Dixiecrat movement with his panicky Democrats funding an extensive research project to establish registers of racial purity — only, not surprisingly, to be hoisted by their own petard in the end.
Published over 80 years ago, Black No More reads ominously like a manifesto for today’s political situation. With an election coming up, Matthew predicts that the Republican Party will threaten to deport anyone connected with Black No More clinics. Matthew’s friend Bunny doesn’t buy it, telling him, “You can’t deport citizens, silly,” to which Matthew answers, “That don’t stop you from advocating it. This is politics, Big Boy.”
In another chilling parallel, the Knights of Nordica cozy up with the Republican Party, using race-based paranoia to convince union members to act against their own interests. Merely a rumor that a white union organizer is one of the “new” blacks or has hidden black ancestry is enough to derail his efforts to unionize, because “it was better to leave things as they were than to take a chance of being led by some n[word].”
This novel, though slender at 151 pages, packs a wild, Swiftian wallop. We gasp at — and grudgingly admire — Max/Matthew’s audacity in his role as trickster, gaming both sides of the racial divide. We shake our heads at the depth of fear that allows unreason to blossom, and groan at the cynicism of politicians and leaders on both sides who profit from it.
As Max/Matthew says to his friend: “Bunny, I’ve learned something on this job, and that is that hatred and prejudice always go over big.”
Black No More is darkly brilliant, a smart and scathingly funny look at the mess racism continues to be. It is a lesson from 1931 that it seems we will forever be learning.
Tara Campbell is a Washington, DC-based writer, assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and volunteer with children's literacy organization 826DC. She was the grateful recipient of two awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2016: the 33rd Annual Larry Neal Writers' Award in Adult Fiction, and the 31st Annual Mayor's Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, is out now!