In the light of the recent election, we need to read George S. Schuyler’s biting satire Black no More (1931), especially amidst the type of rhetoric that appeared during and after the November 8, 2016. Schuyler’s novel focuses on Max Disher, a black man who, through the technology of Dr. Junius Crookman, becomes white and rises to power in a white nationalist organization (Knights of Nordica) under the name of Matthew Fisher. Today, I want to focus on a brief aspect of the novel that falls in line with what Charles W. Chesnutt would do in his final two novels which did not appear until decades after his death. In Paul Marchand F.M.C. and The Quarry, Chesnutt uses the novels to show that the social construction of race is nothing but a sham and that environment plays a major role in one’s place in society.
At the turn of the twentieth century, scholars like Franz Boas began to conclude “that culture and environment–rather than racial characteristics–were the main arbiters of human difference” (Bay 187). Paul Marchand and Donald Glover both grow up in African American households even though they are “white.” At the end of each novel, Marchand and Glover choose to remain within the African American community even though they know that being “white” will provide them each with more opportunities. In this way, each highlights the fact “that culture and environment” bring about human difference.
Culture leading to human differences and class stratification becomes abundantly clear in Schuyler’s novel when we see white nationalist groups working together with African American groups to maintain control. We also see those in power race baiting poor white workers by pitting them against African Americans. For the purposes of the discussing Schuyler in relation to Chesnutt’s final novels, I want to zero in chapter eleven on Black No More.
In a heated presidential election, a former black, and former head of the National Social Equity League, Doctor Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard (now Dr. Buggerie) works on a genealogy project that will hopefully sway the election for the Democrats.The results of the project, however, have the opposite effect. The project’s results clearly show the presence of black blood in the ancestral past of three prominent leaders in the Democrats push for the White House, Arthur Givens, head of the Knights of Nordica and Arthur Snobbecraft, President of the Anglo-Saxon Association of American and Vice-Presidential candidate. When the men find out about their pasts, they have the results burned to cover up their tracks and to maintain their positions of power.
As a descendant of one of the first families of Virginia, Snobbecraft sought to reenvision American as a white, populist nation. However, while Dr. Buggerie hoped that his research “would prove that around twenty million people, mostly of the lower classes were of Negro ancestry,” the results showed something different (118). Everyone, including Snobbecraft and Givens, shows signs of mixed ancestry. As Buggerie explains the outcome of the project to Snobbecraft, the F.M.V. becomes infuriated, especially after he finds out that on his maternal side one of his ancestors was a mixed race slave whose father was the plantation owner. It turns out Givens is “only four generations removed “from a mulatto ancestor” as well (120).
Snobbecraft’s response calls to mind Agricola Fusilier’s continual denial of the mixed-race ancestry in his families past in George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880). Early in the novel, Agricola states, “h-tradition is much more authentic than history” (19). For Agricola, the continued “tradition” and legal aspects that keep men like him in power because of the color of their skin far outweighs the truth that can be found by digging into the past.
Near the end of the novel, Agricola physically displays this precept when he tries to expel his unacknowledged relative Honoré Grandissime f.m.c. from Frowenfeld’s apothecary. Grandissime enters the shop as a shadow, symbolizing the hidden nature of the past that Agricola, and Snobbecraft in Black No More, seek to bury forever. However, Grandissme’s mere presence brings that past to light, causing Agricola to confront it, which he does. His continual denial, though, ultimately leads to his death when Grandissme kills him. In a similar manner. Snobbecraft’s refusal to accept the truth leads to his symbolic lynching at the end of Schuyler’s novel.
This is a lot to unpack here, I know. However, I wanted to present a brief discussion of the ways that the race as a social construct appear in some of the literature during the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. Each of these novels needs to be read in correlation with the discussions surrounding race at the turn of the century and in regards to the ongoing debates of labor and class during the period. Through reading each of these texts together, a broader view of the ongoing discussions, in various parts of the nation, will arise.
I want to add more here, but I will refrain because I have written extensively about this topic in regards to Chesnutt and Cable in “‘The unjust spirit of caste’ in Charles W. Chesnutt’s and George Washington Cable’s New Orleans Novels” an article that will appear soon in a edited collection. Schuyler’s novel should be added to this conversation as well even though it does not take place in New Orleans. What other texts should we consider with this topic? Has anyone done a course based on texts like these that show environment as the factor of human difference? If so, what texts did you use? How was the class? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Bay, Mia. The White Images in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People,
1830-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Cable, George Washington. The Grandissimes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Schuyler, George S. Black No More. Mineola: Dover, 2011.