George Schuyler, “Black No More: Being An Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940” (1931) – I’ve probably harped on this before in this space, but I never agreed with the nice-internet-people nostrum that satire is only satire if it “punches up,” that is, only targets people above the socioeconomic scale, vis-a-vis the author (and I guess the reader, too?). I’m not a strict prescriptivist, I don’t think we need to stick with the classical definitions of things… but I think it is a bad redefinition, the kind that trades in thousands of years of thought on something for a momentary comfort, or an edge in online arguments. This attempted redefinition only has any currency because we’ve decided that being funny is somehow sacred, in the same way that courage was once considered and still is by some, that it’s the sort of virtue you can’t apply to an enemy and see them as a real “bad guy.”Anyone is perfectly saying that they –don’t like– satire that “punches down,” against the downtrodden. I usually don’t, especially not with satire of contemporary societies! But I think it really doesn’t cut ice to say that somehow satire isn’t satire because it does something you don’t like. That’s part of the conceit of the genre, from Juvenal’s day on down – it is a mirror, it takes in society as a whole. Don’t like it? Blame light, blame glass, blame yourself for looking and being the way you are.
Well… “Black No More” is a satire in the old mold, all right. The satirical conceit is like any other conceit: it’s not literally true, like any artist the satirist makes their choices of what to depict and how. But if the satirist is smart, they can make it seem as natural as the reflection you see (and, generally, loathe, one way or another) in glass or water. George Schuyler was a Harlem Renaissance guy who grew to hate the Harlem Renaissance. Child of a black military family who knew poverty and prison before becoming a writer, Schuyler gadded about the literary scene for some time, doing journalism, travel writing, criticism, and occasional fiction. This is technically scifi- it’s about a scientist (a black scientist, if anyone’s keeping track) who invents a process for rendering black people into white people, flawlessly and cheaply. Schuyler handwaves a lot of the science (which goes along with his ideas on race more generally- more anon) away, and soon enough, new white people are taking the US by storm.
On the one hand, Schuyler was a “race isn’t real” guy. He insists that, for instance, that differences in facial structure and accent wouldn’t give the game away for black people turned white (though I also think he has the process involve some kind of facial/bodily reconstruction? He’s vague). On the other, he has the US come close to collapse once it becomes clear that its black population is going to shrink almost to nothing. Without race, the whole culture starts to lose its grip, and massive upheavals occur in politics and society.
We see this mostly through the person of Max Disher, a charismatic and morally flexible young black insurance agent in Harlem at the beginning of the story. When he hears of the black-no-more process, he immediately takes it, because he wants nicer things and also is obsessed with a white lady who rejected him a gin joint. Max immediately becomes a success in the white world by joining a KKK-like organization and leading it against the threat of crypto-black people. Among other things, the process is not genetic, and the offspring of ex-black people come out as black as they would otherwise (the doctor who invented the process promises that he will have special infant clinics that can “fix” that). As luck would have it, the racist group’s leader’s daughter is the mean white lady of his dreams, and he gets married to her as he grows the organization.
As you can probably tell, the plot isn’t the point here, really. The point is Schuyler’s look, as acidic as it is panoramic, of American society and its hypocrisy around race. Schuyler depicts white racists, like Max’s new father-in-law, as stupid. But Schuyler depicts black “race leaders,” including very obvious parodies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Schuyler’s employer at the time, NAACP head Walter White, as utter frauds, pompous boobs living off the credulous. He shows them as willing to sell every notional value out immediately for white approval or for simple living expenses, mostly via trying to insist that black people stay black rather than de-racinating themselves. Of course, this is also what Disher’s new racist friends want. As tensions rise and white society falls on itself, trying to find a new scapegoat and mostly landing on “ex-blacks,” the movement Disher helped start finds itself in a position to take national power… only to find that racial purity, backed by anything like a “rigorous” understanding of race, doesn’t really work, either. In the end, everyone gets what’s coming to them, mostly violently.
So Schuyler doesn’t think race matters… but it’s also at the center of the society he depicts, the identity and needs of every character, and the whole story he tells. This doesn’t make him a hypocrite, necessarily. It sort of does make him a satirist of the old school- where would Juvenal be if he lived in the supposedly clean Rome of the early Republic, what would Thackeray have to do with himself in a society less grotesquely unfair than early Victorian Britain? This does get into one of the weaknesses of satire as a genre: that its most common topic is hypocrisy, the distance between professed value and observed deeds. The more inflated the sense of virtue and the more obviously dirty the deeds beneath them, the more entertaining pricking hypocrisy with pins can be.
Pretty much any period, given how people are, can be a good target for hypocrisy-baiting… but I’m not sure that applies to all times and places equally. Sometimes, the pretense of virtue wears thin, and it’s pretty obvious that the emperor has no clothes. Pointing it out isn’t that funny. By the time Schuyler was writing, the pretenses of white American society were pretty thin indeed. Scientific racism no longer held the stranglehold on anthropological thought it once did (though it was still a major intellectual force), the general skepticism of the Roaring 20s and the reaction to the Depression that came after was in the air… so Schuyler really has three main targets. There’s the ignorant “booboisie” (H.L. Mencken was a great publisher and booster of Schuyler, and they shared a lot of misanthropic attitudes- some called Schuyler “The Black Mencken”), mostly of the South, insisting that segregation was necessary for civilization. That’s pretty easy to lampoon. Then there’s black “race leaders.” I wouldn’t say Schuyler was “punching down” here, even if I thought such was the instant DQ some of the internet thinks it is. People like Du Bois probably had more power than a scribbler like Schuyler. I would say that, whatever their flaws, the black leadership of this class at the time was actually pretty smart, and the idea they were useless, feckless boobs really doesn’t wash- Schuyler couldn’t see the future, but he was awfully sure about the present, and the future has a tendency to knock people like that down a peg.
Above all, though, Schuyler’s target was people in general. People are stupid, greedy, concuspient, and inevitably bring about their own doom in what can only be called parodies of tragedy. We’re back at the familiar territory, why this book belongs in “Readings on the Right,” even though Schuyler had yet to break with the NAACP and go all the way to the arms of the as-yet-unfounded National Review, as he would later do, by this point. Even though race is bullshit, it’s definitional and will collapse society if it’s taken away because people are bullshit. Race is about what we deserve- it just sucks that George Schuyler, who sucks less, has to be inconvenienced by it, and listen to other people talk about it (some of his more well-known critical essays were about how it’s wrong to classify writers by race). We know where this goes. Trying to improve things is pointless, usually perverse, almost always involves improving things for (and worse, forcing interactions with) lame, stupid people, so, most misanthropes wind up opposed, to one degree of violence or another, to attempts at liberation or amelioration. You’d figure more people would think that, if people are as lousy as all that, that you should make power arrangements as equitable as possible so no one can lord it over you (roughly my position, on bad days), but it seldom seems to work out like that, with your freestanding public cynics.
This is one of the reasons why satire can be real iffy as a genre. As Clint Eastwood once put it, “we all got it coming, kid” – we are all, in some sense, hypocrites worthy of ridicule, or in some way or another shown up by the world around us. This applies to most of our ideas and social institutions as well. But that doesn’t mean just any “snarking” (to use a hideous newish word) does the job, or justifies a book. Among other things, it helps to either have interesting imagery (Juvenal, Ishmael Reed- the latter a big fan of Schuyler’s) or a plot (Confederacy of Dunces, Arrested Development) if you’re going to do longform satire, and Schuyler hasn’t really got either going for him. It’s funny in places and he clearly has some writing chops, but it also feels more like a phoned-in rant turned into a novel than anything else. ***