The Magazine

Who Was George Schuyler?

Rediscovering (and reclaiming) ‘the black H. L. Mencken.’

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By MARY GRABAR
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A classics professor tells his students not to read The Republic because “only those who watch Fox News” read Plato. Another requires students to apply Latin translation assignments to the “terroristic” war policies of George W. Bush. Another professor dissuades black students from venturing into town to attend a lecture. And one refuses to return a paper to a student disputing his grade.

Photo of Malcolm X and George Schuyler

Malcolm X, George Schuyler, 1964

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

I heard these stories from students taking refuge at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, which had been forced off the campus of Hamilton College by such professors. I was spending a month at the charming manse on the village square of Clinton, New York, as a Bakwin fellow. I shared my own stories from graduate school of being punished for pointing out an obvious misinterpretation of a double negative in a book on John Stuart Mill. (The comment on my paper sniffed that the book had been “peer-reviewed.”) My defense of Socrates in a seminar on classical rhetoric led to another professor telling me that I might even like reading the “fascist” Richard Weaver.

That afternoon, in 1993, as I checked out Ideas Have Consequences and The Ethics of Rhetoric from the library, I discovered an intellect of the highest order; yet I found no colleagues with whom to discuss Weaver’s work. There were no panels at conferences, and Weaver was not included in the textbooks from which I taught courses in various English departments. But my outspokenness had invited others in similar situations to write, and it was through this informal network that I was put in touch with the Hamilton Institute and learned about the Bakwin fellowship. Later, as I reviewed the application, I noticed that nearby Syracuse University housed the papers of George Schuyler.

His name happened to be staring at me from my bulletin board with a note to “research further.” In the out-of-print books about the Communist threat I had been reading, Schuyler was noted as a patriotic anti-Communist. He happened to be black, a fact that gave greater cause to academics to push him down the memory hole. I had not been exposed to his novels, or to his many essays about civil rights, world and national politics, and literature, either in my graduate studies of American literature or in the anthologies and textbooks I was required to teach from that regularly featured Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and victims of the “prison-industrial complex.” I carried out all the books published on Schuyler from my university’s library with one arm.

I wondered why this superb stylist was not known by my colleagues in English departments. Dubbed the “black H. L. Mencken,” George Schuyler (1895-1977) was one of the most influential and widely read black intellectuals. After noticing his columns in the Pittsburgh Courier, Mencken had invited him to contribute to the American Mercury. Even though his writing appeared in the Messenger and the Nation, Schuyler did not adhere to any official editorial orthodoxy. (Nor did he in John Birch Society publications later!) What was consistent was his skewering of “Negrophobes” and opportunist black preachers/civil rights leaders/politicians alike. His suspicion of grand, redistributive plans came early. Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) he rechristened “Negroes Robbed Again.”

On the occasion of Mencken’s death, Schuyler described in his Courier column the personal and national loss: “Upon his poignard,” he wrote on February 11, 1956, 

he impaled the frauds, demagogues, Kluxers, wowsers and hypocrites who cluttered the national scene then as now. Foe of prohibition, blue laws, evangelical obscenities, communism, color discrimination, New Dealism and similar afflictions to which America seems to be peculiarly heir, he laid about him with energy, ebullience, erudition and delightful mastery of paradox and hyperbole. Almost every editorial, column and literary criticism he wrote was an intellectual treat as heady as a snort of old bonded bourbon or a puff of pure Havana cigar. 

Beginning with his essay “Our White Folks,” Schuyler did his own “impaling” of American Mercury readers with stabs such as:

The attitude of the Northern white folks, in particular, puzzles and incenses [the black man]. .  .  . Here are folks who yawp continuously about liberty, justice, equality and democracy, and whoop with indignation every time a Senegambian is incinerated below the Potomac or the Belgians burn another village in the Congo, but toward the Negro in their midst they are quite as cruel as the Southern crackers.

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