In a dystopian 1930s America, a scientist invents a procedure to change black people into white people in appearance, thinking that he will be solving America’s racial problems. As blacks flock to his hospitals to undergo the three day treatment, however, the racial tension in America grows worse.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Harlem Renaissance-era novel when I checked it out from my library. The premise seemed really disturbing to me, as well as profound. Much of the story follows the life of Max, who goes through the treatment to become white and later changes his name to Matthew. At first, it seemed as if this was going to be a social commentary on the loss of black culture. Max was despondent about not being trusted among people who were once friends, and he missed the passion and soul of black culture. White culture was boring to him. Even though he now felt free in a way he hadn’t before, he missed parts of his old life. He wanted some things back.
But then the book changed, and became more of a satire. Still social commentary, of course, but masked in the comic. Max’s character went no deeper than the above paragraph, though the caricature that his character later became was somewhat horrifying. In fact, just about all the caricatures – because they were all caricatures, not really characters – in this book were horrifying. There were black-turned-white people who declared the supremacy of white ancestry. Preachers that used the bible to justify racial segregation and even worse acts. Henchmen not above burning down buildings to protect their real identities. Black leaders who were really just scamming their patrons for money. And so on.
Just like in Catch-22, one of my favorite satires, by the end of the book the comedic strain flattens into something deadly and disturbing. Some of the events near the end are very chilling, while others are steeped in the perfect amount of irony. It was very poignant.
I can’t say that I liked this book as much as I’ve liked other books I’ve read from that time period and on the same subjects. Some of the satire felt a little forced to me, and I would have liked some character development. That’s one of the reasons I like Catch-22 so much – even in all the farce, there are certain characters whose lives and emotions are really explored, so that you feel connected to them. The satire exists around them, so that you feel just as lost and dizzy by it as the character. Since Max/Matthew ended up being part of the satire, I never really had a chance to connect to him or anyone else. It felt like the book lacked a main character, so that there was no touchstone. That central element was missing.
It was definitely an interesting book to read, though. I have a feeling that it would work better for people more familiar with the historical and political context than I am. There was a lot of politics and history in the book, and neither are subjects I’ve ever been too good with. But despite my ignorance in this area, the book really did bring up a lot of stuff that really struck home even about today’s society, and is well worth the read.