Revisiting Black No More

A Swiftian satire of American racism still speaks to us nearly 90 years after it was first published
By Tomiwa Owolade
Illustration: Bar and Grill by Jacob Lawrence (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In 1931, a black American journalist named George Schuyler wrote a novel entitled Black No More. Racial anxiety was at fever pitch in America. Twenty-nine states had banned interracial marriage. Books that proclaimed the civilisational threat of race-mixing, like Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Colour against White World-Supremacy, were well-respected.

The Harlem Renaissance of interwar America constituted a formidable response to the oppression and cultural marginalisation of black Americans. In 1934, the British writer and heiress Nancy Cunard published Negro: An Anthology, a compendium of essays featuring many distinguished figures from the movement like W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. One consistent thread in the movement was the affirmation of black dignity in poetry, novels, music and painting. Schuyler’s novel, however, went further: it illustrated racism is motivated less by the reality of race than by a pre-existing desire to divide and segregate; less by the differences between black and white Americans and more by the misperception that such differences are metaphysical.

Is there such a thing as an essentially black culture? Do we risk reifying racial categories when we associate racial identities to particular cultural expressions?

Schuyler led a varied and enigmatic life. He was a socialist who later derided socialism as bunk. He was an advocate of interracial relationships and business manager of the NAACP before he later became associated with the John Birch Society and endorsed Barry Goldwater. He knew many of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance, like DuBois, and his debate with Langston Hughes over whether there is such a thing as “black art” was an important episode during that period.

His novel provides an interesting lens to look through contemporary discussions about race and culture. Topics like cultural appropriation are a recurring feature of contemporary discourse. Is there such a thing as an essentially black culture? Do we risk reifying racial categories when we associate racial identities to particular cultural expressions?

Black No More is about a simple medical procedure which turns black people white. The novel is Swiftian in its combination of horror and comedy. Characters are deliciously named: Sisserata Blandish, Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, Santop Licorice, Rufus Kretin. But this excess is managed with the concision of a journalist – Schuyler was a protégé of HL Mencken and an editor at the Pittsburgh Courier.

The doctor behind the procedure in the novel is Junius Crookman. Educated in Germany, he is part of the black bourgeoisie. "Dr. Crookman prided himself above all on being a great lover of his race", the narrator states early on in the novel. Crookman is “So interested in the continued progress of the American Negroes that he wanted to remove all obstacles in their path by depriving them of their racial characteristics.” Evident here is the sharp irony which characterises much of the novel.

It raises, however, a deeper question: can black people become free of racial prejudice if they stop being black?

Max Disher, a young black man in Harlem, is the first person to undergo Crookman’s procedure. Once he becomes white, he changes his name to Matthew Fisher and moves to Atlanta to pursue a “Titian-haired” white woman called Helen, who had previously snubbed his advances. with the decorum typical of upper-class white Atlanta society: “I don’t dance with n_____rs”.

Being able to dance with racist white women is one of the reasons he has undergone the procedure. Another is to free himself from the vicious and petty racism he is regularly subjected to. Before they rekindle their romance, Fisher introduces himself as an anthropologist to a respected gentleman in Atlanta society and the father of Helen - Reverend Henry Givens, the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Knights of Nordica.

Matthew and Helen subsequently marry. The procedure that allows black people to turn white does not, however, guarantee, the existence of white children. When Helen gives birth, Matthew will be exposed. But there’s a twist. After Helen has given birth, Matthew receives a newspaper with a startling headline. A genealogical investigation established to expose the identities of the newly whitened blacks has uncovered that Henry Givens has black ancestry.

Helen sees the headline and is devastated. “I'm so sorry about all this”, she pleads to Matthew, “If I'd only known, I'd never have let you in for it. I would have spared you this disgrace and humiliation. Oh, Matthew, Honey, please forgive me. I love you, my husband”.

To which Matthew, emboldened by the sweet ironies on display, reveals the truth about his racial identity. Helen is chastened by this revelation. She now accepts the insignificance of race in the matter of love. “Helen”, Schuyler’s narrator says, “felt a wave of relief go over her. There was no feeling of revulsion at the thought her husband was a Negro. There once would have been but that was seemingly centuries ago when she was had been unaware of her remoter Negro ancestry”. Henry Givens, ever the most subtle wit, declares after Matthew’s revelation: “It looks like we’re all n_____s”.

A few years after Matthew and Helen reconcile, the novel describes a society where the vast majority of previously black people are now white. Is the race problem fixed? It turns out that the whitened blacks now possess a fairer complexion than the Ancien Blancs. A darker complexion is now seen as the index of social power and prestige: “Everybody that was anybody had a stained skin. A girl without one was avoided by the young men; a young man without one was at a decided disadvantage, economically and socially. A white face became startlingly rare. America was definitely, enthusiastically mulatto-minded”. New races have been conceived of to supplant the ones obliterated.

Barbara and Karen Fields, in their 2012 book Racecraft, compare racism to belief in witchcraft. The reality of witches is not the critical matter. What is crucial is the underlying impulse to find a group of people to fit a fantasy. Black No More doesn't mean racism no more. The problem isn’t with the “Blackness” but the pre-existing impulse to divide and segregate.

James Baldwin, for instance, eloquently argued that the race problem in America was about white Americans failing to come to terms with the fact that black Americans were their family; that the national bond between them signified more than trans-national racial differences; and that such differences were themselves artificial rather than metaphysical. In an essay entitled The Negro at Home and Abroad published in The Reporter in 1951, Baldwin contrasts America’s relationship with black people to Europe. He states: “The American image of the Negro has been created out of our terrible experience, and is sustained by an anguished inability to come to terms with that experience”. He adds, crucially, that the black man “is one of us - and from this reality there is no escape”. Baldwin never felt more American than when he was in Paris.

George Schuyler, too, was convinced that black Americans were Americans first and foremost. Their racial identity mattered less than their national identity. In an article for The Nation in 1926 entitled The Negro-Art Hokum, to which Langston Hughes, the Bard of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a famous response, Schuyler claimed: “Aside from his colour, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American”. Hughes was having none of this. In his response, also published in The Nation and entitled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, he describes people like Schuyler as those who had an “urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible”. Hughes, by contrast, wants to celebrate a distinctively black sensibility:

“They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations.”

But what about black Americans whose joys do not run to “bang” and “ecstasy”? Are they any less black? And what about white people who love jazz and “ecstasy” – are they more black than black people who prefer classical music and gardening? Is Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” – the hipster who slummed it in post-war Greenwich Village, worshipping Charlie Parker and smoking Marijuana – more black than a genteel black doctor from Boston?

Despite the expansive idealism of Hughes’s words, his vision in that essay is ultimately limiting. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, in an essay entitled The (Black) Critic, touches on Negritude, the Francophone movement that likewise proclaimed a distinctively black sensibility. Gates writes: “When we attempt to appropriate, by inversion, race as a term for an essence, as did the negritude movement, for example (‘We feel, therefore we are,’ as Léopold Senghor argued of the African), we yield too much, such as the basis of a shared humanity.”

Nevertheless, something is still missing in Schuyler’s characterisation of the black American in The Nation article. It is insufficient to describe the black American as “merely a lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxon”. To define black Americans exclusively in such terms is to obscure the contrasting fact Schuyler powerfully illustrates in Black No More: white Americans are also whitened Africans.

Moreover, although Hughes’s artistic vision seems narrow, his work belies this. In his famous poem I, Too, Hughes states “I am the darker brother” that “they send” to “eat in the kitchen”. The poem illustrates the familial relation between black and white Americans. It ends with the patriotic paean: “I, too, America”. There seems an inconsistency, then, between Hughes's manifesto for a distinctively black art and his avowal of an American identity. How can you claim “I, too, am America” while also condemning black people who pour their “racial individuality into American standardisation”?

This is another instance of art providing a more nuanced look at human relationships than theory or polemic. What seems a significant ideological difference in the realm of polemic belies a similarity in how both writers conceive of race and nationhood in their artistic work. Hughes, in his poem, affirms a more expansive version of American nationhood – one that recognises the particular contribution of black people, but places it firmly in an American context. Black Americans are, too, Americans.

This conception of race and national identity is shared by later black writers. In his book, The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray states: “Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other”.

In an essay entitled What America Would Be Like Without Blacks, Murray's friend Ralph Ellison makes a similar point. Writing about the intimate relationship between black and mainstream American culture, Ellison contends: “If we can resist for a moment the temptation to view everything having to do with Negro Americans in terms of their racially imposed status, we become aware of the fact that for all the harsh reality of the social and economic injustices visited upon them, these injustices have failed to keep Negroes clear of the cultural main-stream; Negro Americans are, in fact, one of its major tributaries”. Ellison adds:

“Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system, but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black. Materially, psychologically and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence.”

Black American identity is entwined with white American identity: like the “tongues of flame” which are “in-folded into the crowned knot of fire” in TS Eliot’s Little Gidding.

Baldwin, Ellison, Murray, and Hughes to some extent, possessed not simply a fine intelligence and moral conviction; they presented a vision of American identity that was simultaneously cosmopolitan and communal. Schuyler was a different writer. Unlike the others mentioned, he was a satirist who wrote speculative fiction. Even his polemical writing is spiked with humour. He doesn't lend himself easily to a culture that places great emphasis on moral seriousness. His serious later years were unfortunate: his dalliance with crankish right-wing politics was firmly at odds with his earlier sceptical outlook. Nevertheless, we ought to look back at Black No More as a vindication of the fuzzy boundaries between race and culture. And as an engaging, provocative, and funny novel in its own right.