By Lydia Shaw
George Schuyler’s Black No More is a satirical take on race relations in the Harlem Renaissance. Written in 1931, the novel showcases the absurdity and contradictory attitudes of racism by imagining the invention of a machine that turns Black people’s skin white. As the country becomes whiter, the need for segregation is still seen as important in upholding white societal, economic and political control. Schuyler attacks racist discourse, particularly that of the Ku Klux Klan, with humour and satire. Black No More is particularly relevant in today’s climate with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across the globe. Schuyler’s novel aims to demonstrate the falsity of the white supremacist narrative and demands the recognition of the fact that Black people are equally valuable and intelligent, dovetailing with today’s Black Lives Matter movement’s aim to shed light upon the discrimination black people face and to proclaim that Black lives and voices do, in fact, matter.
Throughout Black No More, Schuyler uses laughter as a method of rejecting racism, usually through his main character, Matthew. As one of the black men who altered their skin colour, Matthew gains unfiltered access to white people’s opinions on race. Matthew’s anger towards what Schuyler rightly terms “illogical color prejudice” is expressed when many of his white associates are openly racist in front of him, causing him to “laugh cynically”, demonstrating his bitter disagreement with their ideas. Schuyler’s description of the white men that surround Matthew as ‘“coarse and ignorant” also subverts racist discourse, switching the characteristics of “inferior mentality and morality” often ascribed to Black people to white men.
Another poignant scene in the novel is the lynching. Schuyler makes a point of demonising the audience, rather than the victims, of the lynching:
There were in the assemblage two or three whitened Negroes, who, remembering what their race had suffered in the past, would fain have gone to the assistance of the two men but fear for their own lives restrained them. Even so they were looked at rather sharply by some of the Christ Lovers because they did not appear to be enjoying the spectacle as thoroughly as the rest. Noticing these questioning glances, the whitened Negroes began to yell and prod the burning bodies with sticks and cast stones at them. This exhibition restored them to favour and banished any suspicions that they might not be one-hundred-percent Americans.
This disturbing image should be anything but humorous; however, it is the people watching and enjoying the lynching who are mocked, as is the idea of “being American.” The inhumane treatment of the bodies is celebrated by the spectators: the display assures them that the “whitened Negroes” among them must be fully American. Schuyler scorns this debased image of Americanism, questioning why this perverse enjoyment of death is seen as something to aspire to, as well as how the American identity is tied to whiteness and white supremacy. In a letter written by Schuyler about Black No More, he states: “What I have tried to do in this novel is to laugh the color question out of school by showing up its ridiculousness and absurdity.”
Black No More is vital reading as it highlights the impact that racism has on Black people, and society as a whole. One of Schuyler’s most important messages is how racist discourse is often a red herring to distract the public from issues such as poverty, inequality, and other government failings. I, as many of my peers, have observed, disheartened, how such discourse is often used today by those in power to redirect anger towards minorities and people of colour. The novel encourages us to literally “laugh in the face” of racism, not to diminish its importance, but to reveal its idiocy and injustice. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues, this novel offers courage and a powerful defiance to racism in all of its multifaceted, and sometimes covert, forms.
Image: Chris Henry via Unsplash