In 1934, an African-American doctor invented a surgical procedure that allowed black people to become white (specially, Nordic) in all respects. Black No More, Incorporated, became a highly profitable business, and the people of world were forever changed.
Such is the premise of George S. Schuyler’s Black No More. It caught my eye because of the science fiction/dystopian aspect. I don’t normally read science fiction, but to come across a Harlem Renaissance science fiction novel seemed so far out of the norm for that decade of African-American literature that it intrigued me.
I know I missed a lot of the humor of the era because of my unfamiliarity with most of the characters of the Renaissance. The novel’s pacing, characterization, and development also had plenty of flaws. But overall I loved the issues it raised about self image and society. It reminded me of issues today, especially the world’s obsession with body image. Today we have plastic surgery and liposuction to attempt to make everyone alike the world.
The important thing about reading Schuyler’s novel is understanding the purpose and context. It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Schuyler is not serious in expecting things to happen like this, even if such a surgery was suddenly invented. The introduction to my volume claims it is a burlesque, which Merriam-Webster defines as follows (third definition omitted):
1 : a literary or dramatic work that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation
2 : mockery usually by caricature
Schuyler certainly mocks the leading figures of the Renaissance. Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard is a caricature of W.E.B. Du Bois; Santop Licorice is Marcus Garvey; Mme Blandish is C.J. Walker, self-made millionaire during the Harlem Renaissance for her hair care products. Schuyler gives these characters their own agenda, and it is amusing to see their reaction to the basic elimination of the race issue.
Throughout, Schuyler is mocking the entire race issue. Would “becoming white” have solved the problems of the African-Americans in Harlem in the 1930s? In this novel, he ridicules the idea by showing how superior all the blacks became, once they were white. (For example, almost as soon as the main character, the unsuccessful Max Disher, becomes white, he is able to infiltrate the orders of the racist Knights of Nordica and siphon off the money for his own future use.) What if white was suddenly the shunned race? What if everyone were exactly the same race? Why is race an issue at all?
I certainly hope that we have come somewhere on the race issue. If we were given the option of changing our skin color, would we? Why? Would it make a difference in how successful we are?
Even beyond the race issue, the novel still seemed familiar. After all, the world I live in does seem to force an image on me. When people get on the cover of People for having surgeries to better fit the “model,” I feel Schuyler’s novel is not that far-fetched. Of course, in his novel, he was able to provide surgeries for $50, a price that, during the Great Depression in Harlem, was well within budget for many people. If liposuction was that cheap, how many of us would flock to it?
Black No More reminded me of the Uglies series to some extent, but it illustrated the beginning of a movement to make everyone being the same. Being a classic African-American novel, Black No More dealt mainly with race issues and the effects of discrimination. But it still speaks to us today, and it is well worth reading simply for the reminder of the superficial world we live in and the dangers of forcing or expecting conformity. The satire and humor also make it an entertaining historical read, albeit one with some flaws.
Read for the February 2010 Classics Circuit.