Still relevant

Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940
by George S Schuyler.
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2021 (1931).

[Dr Crookman] was naively surprised that there should be opposition to his work. Like most men with a vision, a plan, a program or a remedy, he fondly imagined people to be intelligent enough to accept a good thing when it was offered to them, which was conclusive evidence that he knew little about the human race.

Chapter Three

Imagine if an innovative process involving “glandular control and electrical nutrition” became available, allowing those with a dark skin pigment to become as pale as a majority white population; how many would take advantage of that process and what effect, if any, would that have?

A black US journalist, George Schuyler, did imagine just that in 1930, demonstrating in this, his sharp dystopian satire, a humorous and cynical approach that was underpinned by a realistic grasp of human weaknesses. Interestingly, it appeared just before a major shift in American politics when under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms the Democratic Party became more socially liberal while the Republicans established themselves firmly as the party of the right.

But what hasn’t changed is human nature, along with the doublethink that still holds sway, especially in the US, all of which makes Schuyler’s narrative so relevant to our contemporary world and its societies ninety years on.

We find ourselves in Harlem on New Year’s Eve, 1930, in company with insurance salesman and general hustler Max Disher plus his friend Bunny Brown, both awaiting midnight in the Honky Tonk Club. Rebuffed by a white woman from Atlanta, Georgia, to whom he’s attracted Max decides to take the initiative and be the first black man to pay to be turned white through Dr Crookman’s operation. By becoming permanently ‘Caucasian’ Max, now reinventing himself as Matt Fisher, hopes to make his way up the social ladder usually denied to blacks, achieve the power and money held out as a promise to all in the Land of the Free, and get the girl of his dreams — if he can find her back in Georgia.

As we follow his progress we become aware that giving a sizeable proportion of the population the chance to change skin colour and apparent status in one fell swoop may not be the panacea to American society’s failings. Such an innovation upsets not a few applecarts, whether social, political, economic or personal. And when the transfigured Max finds himself in a position not only to promote a tub-thumping white supremacist as a presidential candidate but also to siphon off even more financial assets into his coffers, matters get really interesting.

The attraction of any classic satire partly lies in its relevance to current affairs, and as far as Black No More is concerned that’s definitely the case. Despite the intervening decades the morals and attitudes of American society described here are still applicable: racial prejudice, conspiracy theories, political manipulation, media control, corruption, scandal, individual greed, mob rule, misinformation and disinformation are all as familiar now as they were then. Schuyler describes it all with caustic observations and cynical statements barely veiled under a mantle of seemingly impartial reportage but — to switch metaphors — you know that there’s an iron fist in the velvet glove.

As events lead towards the fictional presidential election of 1940 in which the notion of racial purity plays such a key part I’m reminded of a famous anecdote concerning King Ferdinand of Spain and his jester. The monarch had decided to enforce a rule that all with the slightest trace of Jewish ancestry had to wear distinctive clothing, particularly the item now known as the dunce’s cap. His jester went out quietly and then returned with two such headpieces. When Ferdinand asked who they were for the jester declared one was for himself, and the other was for — the king.

George S Schuyler

What gives this dystopian satire its superficial flavour of science fiction is the proposal that glandular control and electrical nutrition (whatever these might mean) were capable of rendering people of colour permanently white and also of subtly altering facial features and hair texture; Schuyler was of course poking fun at contemporary treatments which temporarily whitened skin and straightened curly hair. But if the chief strength of the best examples of the SF genre is to postulate “what if” scenarios and to follow that through then on this showing Black No More belongs to that category.

Schuyler himself is an interesting if controversial figure; active as a socialist in his early career he later supported McCarthyite policies and espoused strong conservative views. Before this novel was published he married a white heiress from Texas in 1928, a detail which adds additional interest to his narrative about a man of colour looking to marry a white woman. But credit where it’s due: peppered with contemporary racial slurs like octoroon and ofay, the dialogue is typically sharp and revealing; written at the height of his creativity Schuyler’s novel tempers its hard-hitting commentary with characters who, under humorous and often significant names — the black Dr Crookman is a mild example, Mr Snobbcraft, Dr Buggerie and the Japanese American Forcrise Sake rather more farcical — only slightly cross the line between individuality and stereotype.

Expressly dedicated “to all Caucasians in the great republic” Black No More in particular cocks a snook at those who happily sunbathe to get an even tan while regarding as inferior those who have no need to do so. Such attitudes, now as then, show little sign of ever demonstrating self-awareness.


@VintageSciFi_
https://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/2022/01/back-to-classics-2022-challenge-signup.html

A classic by BIPOC author. Any book published by a non-white author

21 thoughts on “Still relevant

    1. Schuyler makes a similar comment about white people sunbathing but it’s a practice I’ve long thought as somehow being contradictory, especially when I see those from the UK who’ve eschewed a “healthy tan” for looking like an wrinkly old leather bag following a fortnight on a package holiday in Spain.

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        1. What a wise mother! I had one very bad experience falling asleep in a beach and having to spend most of the next day in a bath with the cold water constantly replenished…

          I love playing in the sea, however, much more enjoyable than sunbathing which, with constant application of sunscreen and regular shifting on a sunbed,always feels like hard work!

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  1. I was thinking the same on many angles with Nighmare Alley, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Miss Marple…you got me all over the place today, Chris! Human Nature–the sinful side of it, to be momentarily Christian–is pretty consistent. We constantly want what we see every day but can never claim as our own. (Actually, I think Hannibal Lecter said that at one point, but anyway.) There is the desire for fairness, for equality, but then the baser parts of us decide that whatever means are necessary for that fairness to reach US is justified, and as Schuyler’s story shows (and Ellison…I feel like this kind of theme was in his work as well), when we use whatever means necessary, the results are rarely, truly fair for anyone, including ourselves.

    I hope that makes sense in this pre-dawn time! x

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    1. It does make sense, Jean, even composed before sunrise. 🙂 It’s really tough being human, especially when one’s trying to live and behave ethically! Everything we do, or don’t do, has an impact we can rarely estimate and sometimes far-reaching consequences. Nearly four decades of teaching really brought this home to me whenever ex-students volunteered what they remembered me saying and what affected the way they subsequently acted and believed.

      Anyway, particularly in these #BLM times I found the messages in this US-based classic just as applicable to 21st-century Britain.

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  2. JJ Lothin

    What a fascinating sounding novel, especially given when it was written! And I love that opening quote.

    Fascinating also to hear that George Schuyler (of whom I must admit I’d never heard) managed to marry a white heiress way back in the 20s and later supported McCarthyism.

    Kindle sample downloading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Schuyler was a novelist I’d never heard of until I picked this up on a whim from my local bookshop. Kudos to Penguin for republishing this in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and of course coincidentally we’ve just heard that the four prosecuted for toppling the Colston statue in Bristol have been found not guilty by the jury, a small victory compared to the crimes against humanity which slave trader Colston enabled in the 1700s.

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      1. JJ Lothin

        I’ve just skimmed through Schuyler’s Wikipedia entry – WHAT an interesting man! And he obviously didn’t believe in packing his punches – for example, on Martin Luther King:

        “Dr. King’s principal contribution to world peace has been to roam the country like some sable Typhoid Mary, infecting the mentally disturbed with perversions of Christian doctrine, and grabbing fat lecture fees from the shallow-pated.” !

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    1. It’s either dispiriting when we hear of the darker aspects of human character or uplifting when we consider the compassion and empathy that daily manifests if we know where to look! I can only echo Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable…” We can only try to live up this ideal;

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    1. The ‘science’ aspect is less important than all the other what-if scenarios I mention, Karen, where society, politics, racism and opportunism all take centre stage. Worth a read if you ever come across it!

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  3. Thought-provoking! I’d imagine the uptake might have been quite high back then when passing was prevalent for those who could, but hopefully not so many people would feel the need or the willingness to do it now… unless it became fashionable, promoted by TikTok influencers… 😉

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  4. If you mean ‘passing’ as in ‘passing for white’ then yes, I think there’s a different attitude, born of pride in an African heritage, that would mean that not that many would want to undergo Crookman’s procedure. But ‘yes’ too, because we know that sales of hair straighteners and skin whiteners still happen, so there is a desire to emulate those who appear to have more status. And then there is the concept of people as ‘sheeple’ who are fodder for social media influencers and their ilk who, if they said, say, ‘inject bleach’ — to, I don’t know, become whiter or get rid of coronavirus — there’ll be those who’ll get to it straightaway, no?

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