Two Classic American Novels About the Madness and Beauty of Race
Posted January 9, 2018 5:30 p.m. EST
Two influential, if woefully under-read, American classics — George S. Schuyler’s “Black No More” (1931) and Nella Larsen’s “Passing” (1929) — have been reissued in handsome new editions in time for Black History Month. This is excellent news for readers, but I imagine the authors, both famously ambivalent about causes of any kind, would have greeted the news with some exasperation.
They were contemporaries with little in common. Schuyler was prolific, pugnacious and very much in the public eye; Larsen was recessive, and vanished from literary life after publishing two novels and a few stories. Schuyler’s obituary appeared in the major newspapers; Larsen was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, New York. But they were both deeply wary of allegiances, racial or otherwise.
Schuyler, in particular, was the king of contrariness. “I used to tell people that George got up in the morning, waited to see which way the world was turning, then struck out in the opposite direction,” his friend the historian John Henrik Clarke once recalled. He was a socialist turned right-wing reactionary who deplored Martin Luther King Jr., opposed the Voting Rights Act (“another typically American attempt to use the force of law to compel the public to drastically change”) and toured Africa advocating for colonialism.
“He showed neither sentimentality nor chauvinism for his own race or any other. He hated everyone,” novelist Danzy Senna writes in a new introduction to “Black No More.” “It is his resistance to pandering, to joining tribes and clubs — to courting today what we might call ‘likes’ — that feels so refreshing. It is the loneliness of Schuyler’s position that makes me trust it.”
Nella Larsen didn’t just eschew tribes — she never had one to begin with. The daughter of a Danish mother (her biological West Indian father was long out of the picture), she traveled disconsolately between Europe and America in her youth, everywhere an outsider. And while acquainted with members of the Harlem Renaissance, she scoffed at the notion that she might be “a silly uplifter of the race.”
Racial passing is the central concern of both novels. In “Black No More,” a doctor (the splendidly named Crookman) invents a procedure that permanently transforms black people into “Nordic” whites. It’s simple, safe and quick, taking three days for adults and 24 hours for infants. In a trice, 4 million black people in America become white, setting off an identity crisis for the country’s white people: Without black people to define themselves against, who are they? Southern politicians find themselves especially at a loss; their only platform had been white supremacy, one senator laments.
No one is safe from Schuyler’s biting mockery, not Southern segregationists or black liberationists. W.E.B. Du Bois is lampooned as Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard: “In limpid prose he told of the sufferings and privations of the downtrodden black workers with whose lives he was totally and thankfully unfamiliar.” Du Bois was reportedly tickled by the caricature.
Each page unleashes a fusillade of gags and comic sequences, careening from slapstick to blood bath and back again. The centerpiece involves two white supremacist politicians who discover they have black ancestry. On the run from enraged former supporters, they land in Mississippi and try to disguise themselves in blackface — only to be set upon by a white congregation that has been bemoaning how Dr. Crookman’s invention has cost it lynching opportunities. To borrow a line from Schuyler, the plot twists get “more complicated than a flapper’s past" — and about as fun.
Where Schuyler goes big and broad, Larsen is stealthy, almost laparoscopic in her aim. “Passing” is the story of two women, former childhood friends. Both are very light-skinned, and one, the beautiful Clare, chooses to pass, marrying a violently bigoted man who is unaware of her identity.
It’s a book about ambiguities of all kinds. It culminates in a tragedy that might be an accident, murder or something even more disturbing. And the charged relationship between the women is full of muffled desire: There is “something groping, and hopeless,” Larsen writes, in Clare’s longing for Irene’s company, for her blackness and rootedness in the community. And while Irene disapproves of Clare’s dangerous decision to pass, she is helpless before her “tempting mouth" and “bright hair.”
The story — and the horror — uncoil in distinctly feminine spaces, to the music of “spoons striking against frail cups” and the high, pealing sound of a woman laughing.
For their wildly differing approaches, the novels are both curious about what it means to feel, as well as be, truly free, and how freedom and safety might be at odds. (Irene imagines Clare’s philosophy: “Safe! Damn being safe!”) Like Fran Ross’ recently reissued comic novel “Oreo” (1974) and Kathleen Collins’ posthumously published stories in “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” (2016), they are derisive about fantasies of racial purity, black or white. They are unsparing on the madness of racial classification but frank, and very beautiful, on the lure of racial belonging.
Larsen’s Clare confesses to Irene: “You can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.” This echoes Schuyler; his character Max takes Crookman’s treatment, becomes a white man and enjoys all the power and wealth he ever imagined. But he yearns for “the gentle cynicism” of his people, he pines “to stay among them, to share again their troubles which they seemed always to bear with a lightness that was yet not indifference.” Standing in a crowd of black people, he listens to their laughter. It sounds like “heavenly music.”
‘Black No More’
By George S. Schuyler
Introduction by Danzy Senna
181 pages. Penguin Classics. $16.
By Nella Larsen
Introduction by Emily Bernard
128 pages. Penguin Classics. $14.