Study Questions for George Schuyler, Black No More (1931)
I hope at least some of the questions below as useful to you as a study guide and discussion-starter. Why not also listen to a contemporary Swarthmore student, Kendall Rinko, read and discuss a brief passage from this novel? You'll need to be able to play mp3 files on your computer. She did this as part of her classwork for my "U.S. Fiction, 1900-1950" class, Spring 2007. Here's the link:
General questions about satire, followed by questions and other topics on Schuyler's novel. Most of the questions contain spoilers, so I recommend consulting these after you've finished the novel.
Some general questions about satire:
Schuyler’s novel is obviously very different from Cather’s, for tragic realism is not the same genre as satire. But Black No More does deal with some shared themes, including how precarious family, community, and even national memory is in a nation with such a fast rate of change as the United States. Compare and contrast your reactions to these novels as you read them. You won’t enjoy Schuyler’s novel, though, if you refuse to accept that it’s a satire and therefore uses 2-dimensional, not 3-dimensional, characters, exaggeration more often than subtlety, etc.
As a genre, satire favors using exaggeration and outright “lies” to make us notice and laugh at what we take to be “normal.” You might say it uses fiction to intervene in and mock the fictions that pass as “real”—fictions such as the belief that not only are there distinct races, but that the races can be ranked by intelligence, moral, and cultural differences, not just by external bodily differences such as skin color or hair texture, etc. What are the targets of Schuyler’s satire, in your opinion, and how well do you think his novel accomplishes its goals?
Satire often “pushes the boundaries,” being intentionally outrageous and shocking and extreme; satire’s enemy is moderation and anything that can be too easily explained away or understood and absorbed. One of the most shocking moments in Black No More comes late in the novel, when Schuyler renders a lynching scene as farce, not tragedy—a grotesque church social that turns into a scapegoating ritual. Discuss how you responded to reading this scene. Would you defend an artists right to make such material farcical? If not, why not? If so, why?
A footnote to the previous question: you might want to do some online research about lynching in America from after the Civil War up to the present. If you Google “lynching postcards,” for instance, you’ll learn how whites who attended these events brought their children, thought of the whole scene as party and a picnic, and even sent postcards to friends! [see James Allen’s Lynching Photography in America and its online site.] For whites, lynching was often treated as a deadly serious ritual bonding whites together to reaffirm their superiority and take revenge.] And though the number of lynchings are down in the U.S., lynching psychology has hardly disappeared: in September 2007 the story of the “Jena 6” broke nationally, all begun when black school students decided to sit under a tree during recess informally “reserved” for whites—and then several nooses appeared hanging from the tree the next day….
Does Black No More satirize blacks as well as whites? Also, what role have commercial products that alter skin color, hair texture, and other features played in American popular culture?
Close reading exercise #1 (for those who enjoy this sort of thing):
Read pp. 176-78, from “AND SO ON…” to “Beauty shops began to sell face powders named Poudre Nègre, Poudre le Egyptienne and L’Afrique” (bottom of 178).
Close reading #2. Sometimes Schuyler’s satiric voice is very broad and obviously full of mockery. Other times his voice is more “deadpan” and subtle, imitating racist thinking and making fun of it more indirectly. Discuss how this “deadpan” style parodying the “logic” of racism works in this passage from p. 203:
“The people for miles around were with very few exceptions old residents and thence known to be genuine blue-blooded Caucasians as far back as any resident could remember which was at least fifty years. The people were proud of this fact… Other things of which the community might have boasted were its inordinately high illiteracy rate and its lynching record—but these things were seldom mentioned, although no one was ashamed of them. Certain things were taken for granted everywhere.”
Schuyler's novel was published in 1931, just when the Depression really began to deepen. Discuss how the novel's satire reveals how race intersects with economics in America. What role do class differences—defined by economics and conspicuous consumption and display—play in a society that's supposed to be classless or at least "open," rewarding hard work, not spectacle? ("Passing" can apply to class and status, not just race.)
Does Schuyler’s satire optimistic or pessimistic about American obsessions with signifiers of “racial” difference? In other words, does it suggest that fixations on difference will always remain (though what’s prized vs. disdained may reverse, negative to positive)? Or does Schuyler offer a way for the U.S. to escape from what Du Bois called “the problem of the color-line”? You might want to pay special attention to the last scene in the novel in considering this question.
Is Schuyler’s satire still relevant today? For instance, do you think we have contemporary versions of scapegoating rituals caused by fears that “others” are infiltrating and “passing” as “us”?
What ideas and points did you find most useful and interesting in Ishmael Reed’s introduction?
Black writers often turn to popular genres such as “science fiction” and “fantasy” for satire and also for novels depicting social sickness and possibilities for healing and social change. Some examples of contemporary writers influenced by Schuyler are the satirist Ishmael Reed (who wrote your edition’s introduction), Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler (often called black “science fiction” writers), and the Jamaican/Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson. If you enjoyed Schuyler’s novel and would like to check out the work of some contemporary heirs, I recommend these writers to you. Some other brilliant contemporary black satiric novelists: Paul Beatty (start with White Boy Shuffle, a huge favorite at Swarthmore whenever it teach it) and Charles Johnson (though he’s more than a satirist; I recommend beginning with his reworking of an ex-slave narrative and tall tale in Middle Passage, which won the National Book Award in 1990.) Also relevant for thinking about Schuyler’s satire: Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle, and other figures….