Thank you to Penguin Classics for gifting this book to feature and review.
“What, indeed, was fifty, sixty or seventy dollars when one was leaving behind insult, ostracism, segregation and discrimination?”
There is much to discuss in the pages of this satire and I’m not sure if I’m ready. But I want to give it a try.
Imagine living in 1930s America, in New York City as a black man. Imagine undergoing a procedure that allows you to bleach your skin and become a white man. What if the institution of race was completely turned on its axis and black people could turn white? In the 1930s, being a fair skinned black person who could (and can) cross the color line, choosing to pass or a mixed race person, mulatto, are considered the ‘desirables’ of the black race, accepted by others because they are closer to the pure white pigmentation. Even within the black race, colorism (race prejudice) shows up in the early pages of the book.
But, if you could be transformed into a white person, would you? Would you feel like Max and later millions of other black people and “save” yourself from the hardships that society has attached and contributed to the “race” problem?
Would you save your $50 to cash in on the solution Dr. Crookman has (cooked up) come up with at “Black No More” sanitarium? At Black No More, a person can walk into a mysterious chamber, “with a formidable apparatus of sparkling nickel,” that resembles “a cross between a dentist’s chair and electric chair,” to undergo a procedure that will change the color of the skin you were born with?
Max Disher does just that, leaving his pigmentation behind in the sanitarium chair at Black No More. I thought it was interesting that shortly after Max’s skin bleaching procedure, he misses the fellowship he found among his people, black people. When he ventures into once familiar places and spaces, he soon discovers he is no longer welcomed. He is looked at with suspicion and distrust now because he’s white.
“There was nothing left for him except the hard materialistic, grasping, inbred society of the whites. Sometimes a slight feeling of regret that he had left his people forever would cross his mind, but it fled before the painful memories of past experiences in this, his home town.”
Max rebrands/renames himself Matt Fisher and must now come up with a way to make a living. He further invents himself as an anthropologist, one who gets into the business of white supremacy. The very thing Max was once a victim of, becomes the thing he uses to make his fortune.
Matt is on his way to gaining the material and social advantages that at one time, were elusive because of the color of his skin. He even gets the pretty but not so intelligent,white girl who earlier rebuffed him when he was black man.
This satirical novel, although short, packs a punch and gives much food for thought. The book lays bare some aspects of black life that become unnecessary as droves of people take their money out of the bank, dry up the once profitable but unfair real estate market in black communities. Even hair salons in black communities begin to feel the effects of the black people who decide to leave their race behind. There was a section in the book thst gives a glimpse into one business woman’s once profitable, now deteriorating hair straightening shops.
One girl says, “but I guess I can hold out with this here bad hair until Saturday night. You know I’ve taken too much punishment being dark these twenty-two years to miss this opportunity.”
Of course this passage hit home for me in some ways. I remember being a child getting my naturally curly/kinky hair pressed or at straightened. Schuyler points mimics or pokes fun at many people and aspects of life but it’s spot on and draws attention to themes of racism and identity. Schuyler takes everything we think we believe about race relations, the movements (social and economic) and sort of turns it all upside down.
What I thought by the end, was how this book lays bare a very simple and plain truth. We are all the same race, the human race. We are all related and no one is better or greater than the next person. But we live in a society that’s used race and other prejudicial attitudes as a divisive tool.