This Other’s Body: On the Durability of American Racial Satire

Matthew K. Ritchie draws parallels between Mohsin Hamid’s “The Last White Man” and “Black No More,” George Schuyler’s satire from 1931.

This Other’s Body: On the Durability of American Racial Satire

Black No More by George Schuyler. Penguin Classics (Reprint). 208 pages.The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books. 192 pages.

THE ANONYMOUS SETTING of Mohsin Hamid’s 2022 novel The Last White Man brings with it a certain comfort. The British Pakistani author’s lack of specificity is purposeful: dropped into a nameless town in an unknown country, the reader has no cultural touchstones to grab onto, no societal baggage to carry. The blank slate leaves just one aspect to focus on, which Hamid homes in on with his first line: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” This succinct statement of fact — a rarity in the novel — establishes the binary law of the land: you’re either white or dark, no in-between.


The Last White Man arrives at a precarious time in the world’s racial landscape. The tenets and language of the “Great Replacement” theory — the conspiratorial worldview that whites are being systematically replaced in society by nonwhites — are flooding the mainstream at a frightening rate. It’s a violent, zero-sum mindset that adheres to the most rudimentary ways race can be weaponized, urging arbitrarily constructed social groups to feel as if they have to compete with each other. By cutting away nearly all context, Hamid creates space for the mechanism of racial replacement to play out in miniature, among a small set of characters: Anders; his friend and rekindled lover, Oona; his father; and Oona’s mother. The plot’s slow burn, combined with Hamid’s loose, stream-of-consciousness prose, creates ample opportunity to explore the ways that people deal with the loss of racial and societal status.


Anders’s loss of his whiteness at the book’s beginning reveals an intense insecurity tied to his social standing — which had been hanging by a thread, held up only by the color of his skin. Upon confirming that he’s been robbed of his whiteness by looking in the bathroom mirror, the omniscient narrator shares Anders’s internal response:


He was overtaken by emotion, not so much shock, or sorrow, though things were there too, but above all the face replacing his filled him with anger, or rather, more than anger, an unexpected, murderous rage. He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before, and he slammed the side of his fist into the face, cracking it slightly, and causing the whole fitting, cabinet, mirror, and all, to skew, like a painting after an earthquake has passed.


There’s nobody around him, no posturing from himself or others. Anders’s violent outburst, despite his isolation, explains the racial power structure of the town he lives in, as well as how important that position of power is to the white people who live in it. Whiteness isn’t just a descriptor — it’s everything. Once it’s gone, meekness and confusion fill the void of his self-worth; Anders shrouds himself in a hat to hide his identity, shrinks at the sight of white people, and seeks comfort in his fragile relationship with Oona.


As the book progresses, Anders and Oona come to understand that his situation is not unique. Oona’s initial reaction is disinterest; she sees her relationship with Anders as casual, and is content to write it off as a phenomenological rarity that’s simply unfortunate. But when Oona returns from a night out with Anders — motivated by his need for comfort in the midst of his crisis — she hears from her mother that people all over are changing. “Our people,” she says, those two words landing heavily. She will soon be unable to bear the idea of her white daughter being with a dark man.


Anders calls his father to share that he’s no longer white. His father, whose health is deteriorating, is angry and incredulous on the phone. But when he goes to his son’s doorstep to see for himself, he breaks down. In front of him is no longer his son: gone is the connection to his deceased wife, Anders’s mother. In their place is, simply, a dark man.


¤


Whispers about white people becoming dark start at the fringes of the town. The fantasists susceptible to online conspiracies — people like Oona’s mother — are the first to pick up on what’s going on. They’re disregarded and mocked until more reputable voices join in. As the frequency of change increases, the mood in the town worsens. The townspeople’s actions become drastic. People commit suicide; businesses are abandoned. Extremist ideas are suddenly near, or in, the mainstream. Oona’s mother’s obsession with finding out the “truth” of this happening, fueled by online and traditional information enclaves, pushes her toward a paranoid conclusion. She believes that this mass change is the execution of a plot, a master plan against white people in the country that had been building for years, maybe centuries. Oona’s mother can’t fathom her race being replaced, so she clings onto this conspiracy theory to make sense of her fractured reality. She wants to understand why it feels as if her race is under attack; she wants to find the cause — stamp it out and reverse the change, to protect her lot in life.


Though it’s certainly not a retread, elements of Hamid’s story hearken back to Black No More, George S. Schuyler’s 1931 satire on American race relations. The inciting events are mirror images: where Hamid’s white characters have their whiteness taken from them without explanation, Schuyler’s story sees Black Americans purposely become white through an elective scientific procedure. But the societal context in which these moments play out is extraordinarily similar, speaking to the persistence of white supremacy through distinct time periods and locales. Black No More’s racial change procedure is presented as the remedy to the American race problem. As the book’s Dr. Crookman explains:


“[O]ne might possibly solve the American race problem. My sociology teacher had once said that there were but three ways for the Negro to solve his problem in America,” he gestured with his long slender fingers, “To either get out, get white, or get along.” Since he wouldn’t and couldn’t get out and was getting along only indifferently, it seemed to me that the only thing for him was to get white.


Whiteness was framed as freedom. Centuries of enslavement and colonialism, decades of lynching and other forms of racial violence, years of minstrelsy and hatred of Blackness plagued the daily existence of Black Americans. Schuyler’s main character, Max Disher (the first civilian to use Dr. Crookman’s “Black No More” treatment), craved the ease of being white in the United States: the ability to be free of Jim Crow laws, to go anywhere he pleased, to do anything that he wanted. It’s addition by subtraction for the Black characters of Schuyler’s satire. That yearning for white privilege is seen from the other side in The Last White Man, manifesting in brief moments. When Anders explains his situation to his white boss at the gym he works at, he tells him, “I would have killed myself […] if it was me.” After a changed man shoots himself, the consensus assumption is that the dark body had belonged to an intruder, killed by a white homeowner in self-defense. When gaps in the story are unknown, the town fills them in with racist biases and stereotypes, showing that the archaic ideals are deeply entrenched, even in the face of a rapidly shifting world. Occam’s razor, dulled by the biases of this society, didn’t afford the privilege of innocence to those with dark skin.


In both stories, there’s a “spirited” reaction to the idea that white people are being replaced. It’s important to recognize the historical context surrounding Black No More’s release. It arrived in the era following Reconstruction and decades of Black movement from the South into white urban areas during the Great Migration. The increased social and economic opportunity for Black people prompted a violent white backlash (“race riots” — really the deliberate destruction of Black communities, lynchings, and the erection of Confederate monuments — became common). Black No More’s white backlash comes in the form of the Knights of Nordica, a bootleg Ku Klux Klan primarily made of poor, uneducated white people who are fighting for “[t]he racial integrity of the Caucasian Race” and against the “activities of a scientific black Beelzebub in New York.” Stoked by sensationalist newspaper stories and various cult-of-personality leaders, white people fear that their place in society is being stolen from them as Black people become white. While the more organized groups focus on political movements to halt the racial change, zealots are whipped into a frenzy that can only be fueled by the killing of Black flesh.


Part Two of The Last White Man sees violence breaking out in the town as white people continue to become dark. Militants roam the streets in army fatigues, replacing the police as the rulers of law, looking to restore order and combat the darkening by any means necessary. And without any end in sight to the change, riots erupt, militants become more aggressive, and killings of dark bodies are filmed and disseminated online for the world to see. There’s an incredible consistency in the reaction of white characters from 1931 to 2022, where it feels as though Hamid has landed upon the fundamental truth of history repeating itself. The parallels, even with the vague nature of Hamid’s racialization, are there with the United States’ Negro Problem, while lessons continue to go unlearned.


¤


As The Last White Man’s town turns towards a total upending of the established racial order, Hamid’s characters are left to adjust to their new reality. Neighbors who were dark and in hiding emerge into the light:


Oona’s mother could not help but notice the dark faces on her street, more it seemed every day, maybe not wandering around, not that bold, not yet, but playing briefly on their lawns when their lawns were dusted with snow and stepping out in the early hours to shovel their walks, one even waving to Oona’s mother when she caught her eye, as though it was all perfectly natural, and nothing had changed, but it was not natural, and everything had changed, even if no one seemed able to see that but her.


It’s not as if Anders and Oona reach a grand epiphany that settles their anxieties about being in a dark relationship. The people around them barely approve: Anders’s father shows physical uneasiness in seeing a white girl kiss a dark man. Their comfort stems from their proximity to each other. Oona does not panic as her skin darkens; she welcomes it. Her time with Anders, along with her resistance to propaganda and her mother’s paranoia, helps her reconcile the fact that her whiteness was nothing special.


For Hamid, color is only granted as much power as society gives it. Maybe that’s why the book’s resolution comes as a whimper. By the end of The Last White Man, Anders and Oona are able to go out to a restaurant and a bar, see a wave of dark-skinned patrons, and believe that “they were just people and this was just a bar.” Life goes on as normal, leaving you to wonder if the racial shift was only a tool to enact emotional change in the characters. They treat whiteness as a matter of the past, something to be mentioned only in passing by those who cling to it. The Great Replacement came and went without a great battle, with almost too neat of an ending to feel like a legitimate commentary on how the hierarchy can shift.


¤


Matthew K. Ritchie is a writer from Las Vegas, and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He has written for Pitchfork, GQ, and The Chicago Reader, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Matthew K. Ritchie is a writer from Las Vegas, and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He has written for Pitchfork, GQ, and the Chicago Reader, among other publications.

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