Every once in a while readings for one course really seem to speak to readings assigned in another course. This magical coincidence occurred for me this week by reading Black No More for our class and Heart of Darkness for a postcolonial class. While the context for reading Conrad was largely an economic and geopolitical discussion, the psychological breakdown of Kurtz was not far from my mind while reading Black No More. The racist outcries from white Americans to those receiving Dr. Crookman’s procedure could be seen as mirroring Kurtz’s regression to brutality in the Congo. Encountering the “other” in too intimate a way, whether it’s through the disappearance of skin color as a racial indicator or sharing a physical living space, provokes hysteria in both novels.
The purpose of this hysteria, I think, is where the similarities end. Conrad uses hysteria and madness to both question the purpose of the colonial endeavor and deny the humanity of Africans. Schuyler, on the other hand, uses hysteria to satirize the American obsession with race. Without skin color to designate class structure, Schuyler suggests that Americans would still find a way to make race matter. Hysteria in both of these novels is a symptom of the anxiety felt by those in power when their station is threatened; madness ensues when their ideology of racism or the boundaries defining it are crossed. When Marlow’s native helmsman is killed on the ship, he nearly grieves over the loss of a friend, but he stops short because to grieve over his death is to identify him as fully human. The widespread panic that causes the growth of the Knights of Nordica is a similar response in Schuyler.
The relationship between place and race also features prominently in both novels, but rather than continue to compare Heart of Darkness and Black No More, I want to focus on just the latter. The massive migration that takes place in America once all of the newly whitened African Americans leave Harlem is just one example of places that become voids after the change: “By train, boat, wagon, bicycle, automobile and foot they trekked to the promised land” (52). The empty shoddy railway cars previously reserved for black patrons and Mme. Sisseretta Blandish’s beauty parlor also become deserted. In contrast, suburbia grows along with memberships to the Knights of Nordica, which appears to provide protection from suspicion to those newer whites, at least until Dr. Buggerie’s findings become public. The places that Max/Matt gains access to as a white man don’t meet his expectations. Schuyler deliberately reveals his protagonist’s disillusionment: “He was not finding life as a white man the rosy existence he had anticipated…now he found [whites] little different from Negroes, except that they were uniformly less courteous and less interesting” (34). Schuyler’s satire of racial differences helps to reveal a scathing critique of all humanity’s scramble for power and wealth at the expense of others. His suggestion that a preoccupation with race keeps wage laborers from unionizing is masterfully realized in the episode in Paradise, South Carolina. The senseless acts of violence also utilized to maintain this power do not escape Schuyler’s criticism in the disgusting religious revival/lynching scene in Happy Hill, another place that rejects anything but whiteness. The large iron post across from the general store and post office where blacks are burned takes on the function of a temple where the town comes to worship whiteness.