Anyone looking for an intriguing book to finish off Black History Month need look no further than Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940 by George S. Schuyler, published in 1931. While the novel takes place 80 years in our past, in its time it was a near-future science-fiction satire of American race relations during the Harlem Renaissance.
A Black scientist has invented a treatment called “Black No More” that makes Black people indistinguishable from whites, both physically and in terms of culturally-acquired traits. Max Disher, the protagonist, signs up for the treatment as soon as it is available and then heads down to Atlanta to seduce a white woman who had rejected him as a Black man. As part of his plan, he talks his way into a job as a strategist for the “Knights of Nordica,” a fictionalized version of the KKK run by his love interest’s father, Reverend Givens.
Schuyler explores how Black capitalism — directing efforts to attain equality through Black-owned businesses — can only ever benefit some Black people, never all, and is incapable of remediating the harms of centuries of racialized oppression. The doctor who invented Black No More becomes an instant millionaire as Black people from around the U.S. flock to Harlem to get the treatment, but Black businesses suffer — hair salons in particular — since there is now a fear among no-longer-Black people that being seen living, working, or shopping in a Black neighborhood will expose them.
As Disher infiltrates the Knights of Nordica, Schuyler explores how the ruling class uses racism to suppress working class white people by redirecting their frustration with their lives toward racial minorities instead of towards the bourgeoisie, the real source of all worker oppression. With fewer and fewer Black people around, the Southern segregationists (led by Reverend Givens) find themselves without a political scapegoat, and therefore with dwindling power and rhetorical leverage. The white working class, realizing that their lives have not gotten any better even with the virtual disappearance of Black people and finding themselves now on the lowest social tier with no one to which they can feel superior, begin to unionize. As is always the case with unions, the wealthy white Southerners are not about to allow this without a fight. Disher, seeing an opportunity, becomes fabulously wealthy by working for the rich, infiltrating the budding unions and convincing the workers to abandon the union and donate more and more of their money to the Knights of Nordica under the premise that Black No More is a Communist plot to take down white society.
Schuyler’s final subplot shows just how absurd and ephemeral the concept of “race” as a basis for oppression really is. Race is supposedly determined by distinctions based on a combination of skin color and other physical features. If racism was really about skin tone or any other physical characteristic, the Black No More treatment would have eradicated race-based hatred.
However, once the treatment becomes widespread and white-centered society is no longer able to use physical features to differentiate between the worthy and the unworthy, the white ruling class immediately starts seeking new ways to find the “impostors.” Using the diverted union funds they have conned out of the workers, the Knights of Nordica hire an expert statistician to conduct a genealogy of the entire United States population in order to determine the ancestry of every single person. They are convinced that the completed study will reveal the identities of the unwelcome pretenders newly included in white society.
Schuyler could not have predicted the current popularity services like 23AndMe or Ancestry.com to discover your genetic “heritage,” a natural result of the scientific obsession with classifying things into categories and hierarchies. While studies have shown these services to produce widely variable results even for the same person or for identical twins, white people love to use them to discover what “exotic” DNA they have, or to reassure themselves of their so-called “purity.” These tests, both real and fictional, show how arbitrary racial classifications really are, because of course, having a small percentage of your DNA marked “African” by a corporation does not a Black person make, and Schuyler’s awareness of this concept is revealed by the colossal failure of the genealogical project in Black No More — but you’ll have to read the book to find out how. Race has no biological reality, but is socially constructed as a tool to divide the working class and justify horrific violence against some of its members.
Schuyler’s politics took a definite turn to the right over the course of his life, and he himself did many of the very things he satirizes in Black No More (using racism for personal profit, marrying a white woman allegedly for social gain, etc.), but the book itself is a searing indictment of how capitalists of all races use racism for personal gain.