Thursday, February 21, 2013

Crookman's Grand Scheme in George Schuyler's Black No More

Throughout my reading of Schuyler's Black No More, a satirical speculation into what would happen if black people could be made white, I could not help but notice a particular detail. Dr. Junius Crookman is an African American physician who develops a process to whiten dark skin. However, despite the fact that he has trained other doctors to perform the procedure and opened one hundred "sanitariums" throughout the United States, Dr. Crookman never elects to go through with this procedure himself. Crookman voices the opinion that the troubles of black people in American society can only be solved by means of a color change, not through cooperation or cultural assimilation, but he remains black. Every other prominent black leader in the United States, with the exception of a few "die hards" or "race patriots," becomes white with the exception of Crookman.

While this is barely mentioned throughout the entire text, Schuyler has Crookmam make a move in the final chapter that suggests more significance. Crookman, now Surgeon General of the United States, announces that artificially white people can be differentiated from naturally white people by the fact that they are actually two or three shades lighter than those born white. After all of the chaos and confusion brought about by the whitening of blacks and the realization that even the most purportedly pure whites have some black ancestry, Crookman reinstates a racial binary. The difference with this new binary is that it is unusually pale people that are marginalized instead of people with darker skin. Consequently, people who were born white (and still clinging to racial prejudice) seek methods of differentiating themselves so that they do not appear to be too white.

The result of this social shift is a new burgeoning industry of skin staining, allowing white people to darken their skin to shades of fair brown. Schuyler refers to this new mentality as being "mulatto-minded." What is fascinating about this shift is that it takes place in a socioeconomic context much different than the old racial binary. When Crookman introduces his data on levels of whiteness, the entire country has experienced an overhaul of its roads, apartment buildings and boarding houses, and sewage systems. Schuyler makes no reference to slums or lower-class neighborhoods into which the whitest-of-the-white are segregated. Through Crookman's efforts, Schuyler has managed to take a similar path to other speculative fiction authors on the issue of race. As Sheree R. Thomas establishes, authors such as Ray Bradbury and Raplh Ellison wrote stories commenting on black invisibility, but Schuyler takes it a step farther. He takes Black No More into the realm of black disappearance and pulls it further to reach a point of black preference, a social context in which having darker skin is seen as desirable or advantageous. He has made blackness visible, and he acknowledges this with Crookman's satisfied smile at the closing of the text.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Assumptions of Heteronormativity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman attempts to subvert essentialist gender binaries in Herland, a tale of three male American explorers' journey into a purely female utopia which has not seen male influence in two millenia. While the assumptions brought forth by the three men certainly clash with the reality of the Herlanders, presenting readers with a some criticism of masculinity, there are parts of Gilman's story that maintain aspects of the binaries and inequities of her time. First and foremost, Gilman fails to acknowledge the nature of sexuality in Herland before the arrival of Terry, Jeff, and Van. While she does acknowledge that some Herlanders develop a an interest in exploring sexuality, it is seen an atavistic and undesirable trait worthy of the loss of the divine privilege of motherhood. This is as far as Gilman's treatment on Herlandian sexuality goes. As Alys Eve Weinbaum establishes, there is no specification as to the nature of this sexuality; the reader has no knowledge of whether Gilman is referring to a heterosexual interest in men of the tribes outside of their country (which is ruled out because Herlanders are established to have no knowledge of these tribes), to personal exploration or masturbation, or to lesbian experimentation. Gilman makes no allusion to lesbian interests throughout the novel, not even from the perspective of the American men. The question is never raised by any of these characters, which is reflective of heteronormative assumptions help by Terry, Jeff, Van, and Gilman herself.

 As the men gain more and more access to Herland, they learn that the Herlanders see them as potential fathers, as a chance for Herland to return to a "bisexual" state. While the sexual nature of this is viewed much differently by Gilman's men as it is by the Herlanders, it reveals an interesting prejudice regarding child-rearing that is shared between the two groups: that a child stands to gain more when raised by heterosexual parents than by a parent (or parents) of one gender (or, presumably, of homosexual orientation). However, this bias is held in different ways by the American men and the Herlanders; the men believe more in the parentage of a wedded man and woman, while the Herlanders believe in community parentage augmented by the new influence of fatherhood.

Even within the realm of heterosexual relationships, there is a level of male dominance present. Terry serves as the personification of this dominance. He is seen as the most headstrong and hypermasculine of the group, persistently denying that women can organize as they have in Herland or bear/raise children without the influence of men. This comes to a head toward the end of the novel when he tries to rape his wife, Alima. Terry asserts that it is Alima's responsibility as his wife to please him and that her refusal to do so entitled him to such a drastic and violent action. The Over Mother of Herland did not agree, and demanded that Terry leave Herland and remain under strict guard until his departure. Making matters worse, Van and his wife Ellador, while holding different stances on Terry's actions, are willing to place blame on Alima. Ellador at first accuses Terry of a crime (which rape would certainly be), but then admits that she can understand his insistence because of Alima's supposed atavistic tendencies. While Weinbaum suggests that Van comes to acknowledge Terry's rape for what it is, he is actually quick to jump to Terry's defense, as though Alima had led him on. While this scenario is particularly troubling, it is not entirely surprising given the time in which Gilman wrote this story. It is important (and startling) to keep in mind that marital rape was not universally considered a crime in the United States until 1993, long after Herland was recovered, let alone published.