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Life is a Con
on June 7, 2003
George Schuyler's (1895-1977) novel, Black No More, is a deliciously wicked satire on 1920s American racial mores. First published in 1931, it was initially reissued during the late 1980s as part of The Northeastern Library of Black Literature.
Like many satires, Black No More takes a common, controversial idea, gives it form in flesh and blood, and plays it out to its logical conclusion: "What if white America didn't have any more negroes to kick around?"
This idea is realized by "Dr. Junius Crookman" (most of the characters have similarly "subtle" names), who invents an operation for turning black folks white. In lightning speed, the nation becomes monochromatic, as its entire black population "disappears."
No lack of comic -- and dramatic -- complications ensue, when it becomes clear that the operation doesn't change the genetic program for the pigmentation of one's offspring.
George Schuyler worked from a few basic premises: Most of humanity is a damned sight closer to the Devil than to the angels; most men are con artists; and the few who truly believe in anything are even worse!
For Schuyler, W.E.B. DuBois' (1868-1963) "talented tenth" of bourgeois negro society was of no more help to the average black than were the leaders of the racist, white order. Indeed, Schuyler saw those who made a living railing against Jim Crow as having the strongest interest in its preservation: every lynching brought in more money from rich, white reformers.
Thinly veiled caricatures portray DuBois ("Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard") as a hypocrite, and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940; "Santop Licorice"), the founder of the "Back-to-Africa" movement, as a common swindler (for which Garvey was, in fact, convicted in 1920, and deported in 1924).
For Schuyler, black nationalist rhetoric was merely a smokescreen to obscure its practitioners' class contempt for their erstwhile constituents, whose pockets they were busy picking. (Has anything changed in the meantime?!)
Down deep, Schuyler says, we're all the same -- and God save us! Ultimately, he surmises, if there weren't a color line, men would have had to invent one! His metaphor for American race relations was that of an "insane asylum." (Already during the 1920s -- 60 years before Dinesh D'Souza -- Schuyler had written a pamphlet arguing that total miscegenation, eliminating all distinct races, was the sole cure for America's racial madness.)
Though many of Schuyler's characters are -- as per his genre -- stereotypes, the central pair of "Max Discher/Matthew Fisher" and "Bunny Brown" are as engaging a couple of rogues as any you're likely to be fleeced by, this side of Rudyard Kipling or Chester Himes, their banter generously peppered with the black vernacular of the day.
George Schuyler was a great lover of science fiction, especially the then stupendously popular novels of H.G. Wells. He is the only notable black American novelist to smoothly incorporate science fiction motifs into his work. (To Samuel R. Delany fans: I said "notable" and "smoothly.")
In addition to Schuyler's great story, there are two other reasons for reading Black No More.
First, as by far the most influential black newspaperman this nation has ever seen, George Schuyler bestrode the negro press, and thus, negro America, like a colossus.
From 1924-1966, Schuyler worked at black America's most influential newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. But George Schuyler didn't "write" for the Courier; he WAS the Courier. He wrote the weekly, unsigned house editorial; a weekly column, News and Views; wired in scoops and exposes from around America and the world so amazing as to catch the attention of the day's most respected, white newspapers, who also published his work; penned the pseudonymous, serialized pulp novels and short stories that were the Courier's most popular features; and engaged other prominent contemporaries to write for the Courier. It was Schuyler, for instance, who engaged pop historian J.A. Rogers to write the Courier's immensely popular feature on black history. The various strategies of silence and misrepresentation, which are today used (for instance, by alleged journalist Jill Nelson and by Henry Louis Gates Jr.) to erase or diminish Schuyler's legacy, belong to contemporary black studies and black journalism's many scandals.
The second reason for reading Black No More (together with the serialized novels published in book form as Black Empire) is for Schuyler's role as unwitting intellectual godfather of the Nation of Islam. The Nation stole its theory of the "myth of Yacub," which claims that the white man was created 6,000 years ago by an evil black scientist, from Schuyler's Black No More, except that the Nation, as was its wont, turned Schuyler's story on its head. (Schuyler, for his part, was reworking H.G. Wells' story, The Island of Dr. Moreau.)
So read Black No More, enjoy some belly laughs, and learn some history in the bargain.
Black No More has an overly informative foreword by James A. Miller, which is best read as an afterword (so as not to ruin your enjoyment of the book), to clarify historical questions.
Originally published in 1992 in A Different Drummer magazine.