Friday, December 09, 2005

Black No More

George Schuyler

Trying to reason why Schuyler’s Black No More is hard to find in the average library can take one down a number of paths. My first assumption was that librarians might be afraid to add the book to a library’s collection since Schuyler was known to be conservative (and by conservative, I mean a member of the John Birch Society), so adding Black No More to any collection might make some sort of political statement. And librarians get so nervous about making political statements with their collections. But then I thought, well that’s silly. Libraries have all kinds of books representing all points of view on purpose. Another reason not to have Black No More in, say, an average medium-sized collection would be that Black No More is (mayhap as a result of its controversial satire) not such a popular work of Schuyler, who is himself, well, sort of a lesser-known African-American writer. When we consider that even the better-known African-American writers have had to elbow (after a fashion) their way in to the canon, then…it’s easy to explain Black No More’s absence with the marginalized-by-the-white-majority excuse. However, to do so might be oversimplifying; to leave out the most insidious explanation would, I’m afraid, cause Schuyler himself to spin on a mini-rotisserie in his grave. I speak here without any research to support my argument—which is the most fun to do (it’s my blog, dammit!)—but it would seem to me that African-American scholars have done a great deal of work to encourage the inclusion of African-American writers in the canon. Were it not for their solid work, perhaps white scholars might have ignored the important work of many black writers. Could it be, then, that many black writers overlooked or ignored Schuyler not just because of the message of Black No More, but also because of some of the activism Schuyler himself undertook? For example, according to Ishmael Reed’s foreword to the novel, “Schuyler denounced the platform of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” though it was because “he believed it fostered violence” (vii). I imagine, however, that Schuyler’s conservatism, matched with the cruel satire he writes in this book (like, for example, of the cultural icons such as W.E.B. DuBois) might have made him unpopular within African American culture. It certainly would make for some interesting debate.

More interesting still, though is to look at the novel. If you haven’t read it, just go buy it. Likely as not, unless you live near a large library or have privileges at a university library, you’ll just have to order it from Amazon. It’s worth the price, though (less than $15). The novel’s premise is that a cleverly named Dr. Crookman develops a way for Black people (called “Negros” in the book—which was written in the 1930s) within seconds to be turned into blonde, straight-haired, blue-eyed white people. There’s only one catch: the change lasts through only one generation. In other words, the formerly black person will be immediately identified upon the birth of progeny with potentially humiliating results.

Max Disher, the protagonist, whose “negroid features had a slightly satanic cast” when he lived in Harlem and dated “his high ‘yallah’ flapper” (5) saved his $50 to have “the world [as] his oyster [...] and the open sesame of a pork-colored skin!” (19). Yet after first changing his name to Matthew Fisher, he finds life a little less interesting. He notes that, in all, white people are “less courteous and less interesting.” He misses the “happy-go-lucky, jovial good-fellowship” of the “Negroes,” but when he goes to the old neighborhood, his former friends no longer know him as a “Negro” (43).

So “Matthew Fisher” nee Disher moves to Atlanta to find a white woman who once turned him down for a date. Now that he’s white, he can pursue her.

In his travels, he by accident happens upon the headquarters of the Nights of Nordica, an analogue of the KKK. The Grand Wizard is just the kind of idiot one would expect in that kind of job. Matthew lies and somehow manages to have himself appointed to an officer post, the Grand Giraw—a brilliant plan, especially when he finds out that the Grand Wizard’s daughter, Helen, just happens to be the woman he loves.

Meanwhile, we meet the National Social Equality League (which, I gather is supposed to be the NAACP), which includes a number of “Negro leaders of the country” (65). Here is where the cruelest satire takes place. We meet Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, “graduate of Harvard, Yale and Copenhagen (whose haughty bearing never failed to impress both Caucasians and Negroes)” (65). He’s pretty obviously meant to satirize W.E.B. DuBois. We read of him:

For a mere six thousand dollars a year, the learned doctor wrote scholarly and biting editorials in The Dilemma denouncing the Caucasians whom he secretly admired and lauding the greatness of the Negroes whom he alternately pitied and despised. [...] Like most Negro leaders, he deified the black woman but abstained from employing aught save octoroons. He talked at white banquets about “we of the black race” and admitted in books that he was part-French, part-Russian, part-Indian and part-Negro. (65)
OUCH! (I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that DuBois thought it was funny…but who knows!?).

Another character, who satirizes I-don’t-know-who (but does it really matter—it’s so cruel!) is Dr. Jackson, of whom the narrator says, “There was no fear of Dr. Jackson ever winning a beauty contest.” We hear that he has “long, ape-like arms, a diminutive egg-shaped head that sat on his collar like a hen’s egg in a demitasse cup and eyes that protruded so far from his head that they seemed about to fall out” (67). The horrific physical description goes on, but the worst part is that his “chief business in the organization was to write long and indignant letters to public officials and legislators whenever a Negro was mistreated, demanding justice, fair play and other legal guarantees vouchsafed no whites except bloated plutocrats fallen miraculously afoul of the law, and to speak to audiences of sex-starved matrons who yearned to help the Negro stand erect” (67).

Another interesting character is Dr. Gronne, who appears to be college president (but who at one time or another had been “a college professor, a social worker, and minister”) who was very popular because “he very cleverly knew how to make statements that sounded radical to Negroes but sufficiently conservative to satisfy the white trustees of his school” (69). It doesn’t matter who this guy satirizes from the 1930s, he—all of them for that matter have analogues today!

I think what Schuyler does with these characters is to show them for the buffoons that they are. At the risk of pissing off anyone who reads this, I would nominate a present-day example of the kind of person Schuyler means: Jesse Jackson. How different is he from “the Right Reverend Bishop Ezekiel Whooper of the Ethiopian True Faith Wash Foot Methodist Church”? Schuyler’s definition of Whooper was that “he had a very loud voice and the white people praised him. He was sixty, corpulent, and an expert at the art of making cuckolds” (71). Take out the corpulent and you’ve got Jesse Jackson: He’s a blowhard who claims to be making a difference, but who in actuality is shucking and jiving to placate the white man. What does he really do? No one really knows where all that money goes that he “fundraises.” But I digress. I only mean to say that every generation, every era has liberal fundamentalists as well as the conservatives. They just dance a different dance, I guess. I just love the way Schuyler shows them up.

Ultimately in the novel things get ridiculous. The plot begins to remind me of the Dr. Seuss book, The Star-bellied Sneeches, which is such a wonderful allegory. We read of star-bellied sneeches and sneeches with no stars on their bellies. But, guess what? All the sneeches want to have stars on their bellies, and so they devise a machine to add the stars. But when the original star-bellied sneeches realize it, they devise a star-remover, so that they can be exclusive once more (though I doubt that old Ted Geisel really came up with a rhyme on exclusive). Ultimately (ditto on ultimately), an endless cycle begins through the two machines until neither group can tell who had which (star or not) on the belly to begin with….so it ceases to matter. Same goes in Black No More with the white—when the rumor begins that the people with the whitest skin were once black and (prescient Schulyer predicts) white people start going to tanning salons.

So much to discuss in this book, but the idea it ends on is powerful, that race is no more than a color that one can spray on. It’s an artificial construct that we assign far more cultural meaning than it deserves. So even when Max Disher misses the relaxed lifestyle of his Harlem friends, he’s missing an artificial construct. And similarly, when the uptight white, mayonnaise Atlanta lifestyle gets him down, maybe we are to gather that it’s more of a culture, class, or regional construct than of race.

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