By Anya Shukla
I’ve been absolutely consumed with CC logistics (outreach for future mentorships, organizing a panel discussion for this mentorship, shipping books, making brochures, answering the emails that keep cropping up in my inbox, etc. etc.). And also my college has started sending me emails like “thanks for taking a gap year! Here are all the forms you need to fill out so you can join us on campus in the fall.” :( :( :(
All I’m trying to say is… I’m feeling a wee bit stressed, and I didn’t really want to add another thing to my plate by reviewing this book for you all. But I did it anyways!
Review: Set in the 1920s, George Schuyler’s satirical “Black No More” details a world where a scientific procedure can turn Black people’s skin to white. After being jilted by a racist Southern girl, the novel’s protagonist, Max Disher, decides to undergo the operation, become white, head South, and woo the awful lady who stomped on his heart. To earn money, he joins a white supremacist group, the Knights of Nordica, hiding his skin color from the rest of the organization. As he rises through the ranks, he gains more power and money, eventually using his influence to stir up anger against the formerly-Black population.
Although published in the 1950s, this satire still speaks to modern-day issues like race-based politics. However, its generalizations and occasionally unrealistic characters prevent its lessons from finding a broader audience. My Rating: 4/5.
What I Loved: How (unfortunately) RELEVANT this book is. I read a fair number of reviews on Goodreads that characterized "Black No More" as out-of-touch or unrealistic. I actually saw a lot of parallels between this novel and race-based/partisan politics. Nixon’s Southern Strategy, for example, successfully capitalized on white Southerners’ aggravation towards people of color post-Jim Crow. Similarly, Max draws on racist attitudes held by his constituents during his political campaigning and organizing, preaching that “God had intended for the United States to be a white man’s country and that with His help they could keep it so” (pg. 91). His fearmongering galvanizes much of the white population and nearly sweeps his party into the White House. (Only a timely genealogical test stops the political flood in its tracks.) As a satire, this book obviously exaggerates, but the core of its message still remains applicable today.
Plus, I think the premise of “Black No More” is brilliant. Especially during the era of segregation, I can see why people might want to change the color of their skin and the consequences that would have on the attitudes of the white population. I wonder whether today, we’d see the same level of excitement over a permanent skin-whitening treatment. After all, the desire to look, act, and appear white hasn’t faded globally (Fair and Lovely, anyone?), and as the pay gap and police brutality can attest, there are still many benefits to being white.
What I Didn’t Love (contains spoilers): I know this book is satire, and satire often requires sweeping generalizations of groups. BUT… Schuyler characterizes all working-class white people in “Black No More” as backwards, ignorant, and virulently racist, which I’m sure isn’t accurate. It makes sense for the genre, so I feel like this depiction gets a pass, but definitely something to keep in mind.
Also… Max gets so into his role as a racist white person that he causes people to die, which seems very unrealistic: “Emboldened and inflamed by fiery editorials”—editorials devised by Max—“a mob seeking to protect white womanhood in Cincinnati attacked a Crookman hospital, drove several women into the streets and set fire to the building. A dozen babies were burned to death (pg. 207). Max—completely forgetting where he came from—shows no remorse after this incident, which I find strange. Then again, he joins a racist organization and fights against Black people to earn more money (which is awful in and of itself), so I guess this is in character? But still? No remorse whatsoever?
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “Now he could go anywhere, associate with anybody, be anything he wanted to be… Yes, indeed there were advantages to being white” (pg. 50).
Up next: “Exhalation" by Ted Chiang.