During my preparation for my exam on modernism, I also read a few things about the Harlem Renaissance, and it was in one of those that I came across a mention of Black No More by George S. Schuyler. The two-sentence summary made me want to read it, so I was excited to see it had been republished recently. This is the edition I got:
The cover looks very modern (rather than modernist), and it’s really quite unlike anything I would have expected. The central idea is simple enough: In the early 1930s, an African American physician (Dr. Crookman) studies the phenomenon of vitiligo in view of ‘solving the race problem.’ He finally finds a method to turn black people white, as in, completely Caucasian, facial features and all. He patents his method “Black-No-More” and offers his services in New York at $ 50 a person. Countless African Americans, fed up with the prejudice and ill treatment they’ve received all their lives, flood his clinic. He opens more and more clinics across the country, and they can hardly keep up with the numbers of people who want to be transformed. Suddenly, it’s impossible to tell African Americans from ‘whites.’ Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled by this development.
The main character is a young African American man, Max Disher, who was just left by his (as he calls her) ‘yellow woman’ — a very light-skinned African American girl. It seems he has a history of falling for her type, spending his money on gifts and dates. He’s spent a good penny on tickets for a fancy New Year’s party and his friend Bunny Brown (another young man) convinces him they should both go and have a good time. When a stunning, statuesque blonde appears at the party, Max knows he’s in love. He asks her to dance, but she won’t have any of it: she tells him very bluntly she would never dance with a black man. He is crushed and angry, but can’t stop thinking about her. When he reads about Dr. Crookman’s new treatment, he’s first in line to try it. Sure enough, when he emerges from the clinic, even his good friend Bunny barely recognizes him. He gives himself a new name (Matthew Fisher) and leaves Harlem for Atlanta, where the woman of his dreams lives.
He can’t find her, but needs money, so takes on the most unlikely job: He gets the local Imperial Grand Wizard of the Klan-like Knights of Nordica to take him on his payroll as a speaker and second-in-command. As fate would have it, the belle is his new employer’s daughter Helen, and since Matthew is an important man and asset to her father’s business, they are married. The one ‘problem’ with Black-No-More is that the transformation only affects the individual, not the children they may conceive, and so when Helen becomes “in the family way,” Matthew realizes his dark child would blow his cover. Hence, he is relieved when Helen has a miscarriage.
A central theme in the novel is greed. Virtually all leading characters, anyone who has any power at all, is guided by desire for profit and / or political power. Like Max / Matthew, virtually all of them give up any principles they might have had in order to maximize profit: Max turns against his own people once nobody can tell he was once black, and then works on all sides of the conflict — supporters and persecutors of African Americans, Republicans and Democrats, exploited workers and their exploitative employers, all in order to keep a balance of power. Like his profit-minded boss, he knows that once the conflict is decided one way or the other, there is no more profit to be made from membership fees, bonds, donations, etc, so it is essential to maintain a stalemate situation.
When the Knights of Nordica decide their leader should run for presidency (!), their own allies pay to have statistics gathered to impress the public with, only to find that not only are there hardly any Americans who are truly “white;” they also discover that their own candidates have black blood in their family tree. Just as they realize this information must be destroyed, it falls into the opposition’s hands, which is where the situation gets truly out of control and those who can escape the lynch mobs run for Mexico.
The book is smart and irreverent and bitingly satirical. At the same time, it manages to keep one foot on the ground at all times: the observations of what effect Black-No-More has on the local and national economy, for example, and on the national (mainly white) psyche, are by no means unrealistic.
At the end of the novel, having turned all African Americans (save those in institutions) white, and having made all the money he could from this, Dr. Crookman publishes new research that explains that there is, in fact, a way to identify “new” white people: their skin is too white. “Actual” white people, he explains, are actually pink or light tan. Suddenly, nobody wants to be really light-skinned anymore. Before long, another enterprising African American, after having herself transformed, picks up on this general sentiment and invents a hugely successful line of skin-stains that allow light-skinned folk to become darker. The shade “Zulu Tan” in particular becomes all the rage and makes her rich. The final image Schuyler leaves us with is that of Dr. Crookman — who never opted to undergo the treatment himself — wealthy and well-respected, the Surgeon General, looking at a picture in the paper, where many of the other central characters are frolicking on a French beach, white no more.
There is really only one character in this novel who believes what he says he does, and that’s the deranged preacher we meet at the end of the book, fervently praying for God to send his congregation some black folks to lynch. One could argue, though, that Helen, after the birth of her dark son, is the only character who has changed and grown. It’s hard to tell, however, since we don’t get to see her again after this, except in the final photograph. Is her decision to darken her skin a calculated move to gain approval and respect or has she actually overcome her prejudice and aversion, now that she knows her heritage and the truth about her husband? In either case, she appears to be following the latest fashion, where being dark is desirable and her teutonic look would cause her to experience discrimination.
George S. Schuyler lived 1895 to 1977 and went on to publish other stories (mostly under pseudonym) and biographical pieces. You can read more about him here.
I was surprised and impressed with this book. I’m sure I’ll read it more than once, because it’s just such an interesting piece, as a historical document, as a political statement, and as a literary work. It would be interesting to read it in conversation with Nella Larsen’s novel Passing.