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.

Rather daring for 1927. From the beginning, when he wrote letters to the editor from his Hawaii Army barracks, to his last columns shortly before his death, Schuyler promoted the idea of racial equality, attacking all tactics of racial exploitation without regard to offense taken, or threats from editors or readers. All were subject to impalement upon his pen—including Dr. King. After numerous warnings and threats, Schuyler was forced out in 1966 from the Courier, one of the most widely read black newspapers in the nation (in large part thanks to Schuyler), for whom he had worked for over 40 years. In a 1968 essay entitled “The Reds and I,” Schuyler reminded readers that “the later fashion of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sixties’ squadrons of C.O.R.E., S.N.C.C., and the W. E. B. Du Bois Clubs” were presaged by tactics of the 1930s when Communists used blacks to provoke rioting, gain publicity, and foment anti-American propaganda. Schuyler objected to King’s antiwar position, his socialist economics, and his associations with Communist groups and suspects.

That Schuyler spent his final years justly obscured to irrelevance for treasonous stands is the attitude of the few black studies scholars who have undertaken to study Schuyler. In the one full-length treatment, a dissertation-turned-book entitled George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative (2007) by Oscar R. Williams, who teaches Africana Studies at SUNY Albany, Williams advances his thesis that Schuyler was on “a quest for mainstream acceptance” evidenced by his “conservative and reactionary opinions on African American issues.” Leaning heavily on the late Carl T. Rowan’s characterization of Schuyler as “shrewd for telling white America what it wanted to hear and for trying to portray himself as ‘the grand American patriot,’ ” Williams asserts, “Despite [such] criticism and tirades, Schuyler continued to write articles and columns dedicated to fighting communism.”

It does not seem to occur to Oscar Williams that it was the popular syndicated columnist Rowan who was speaking to a large white audience, which congratulated itself on its progressivism on race issues and regarded the threat of communism as a nonissue. And Williams, like many colleagues, strikes some low blows as well. This is the way he refers to Schuyler’s wife’s suicide after the accidental death of their only daughter at age 35: “The Schuyler family had died long before [daughter] Philippa and [wife] Josephine’s tragic demise. Schuyler’s indifferent personality and relentless pursuit of professional fame failed to give his wife and daughter the emotional harbor they needed.” Williams relies on a single secondary source for this claim, but the evidence from the archives that I’ve seen suggests otherwise.

Jeffrey B. Ferguson, in The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance (2005), also finds Schuyler’s conservatism odious. Ferguson misrepresents Barry Goldwater as “a powerful congressional enemy of civil rights” to advance the thesis that Schuyler’s support of Goldwater must be attributed to racial self-hate. To further advance the psychological diagnosis, Ferguson claims that Schuyler’s use of satire offered a means of “severing the powerful emotional circuit of suffering, revenge, and guilt at the heart of race melodrama.”

Of course, Schuyler bristled at just such “race melodrama”—especially the “mawkishness” of white liberals. Nonetheless, in the one slim collection of Schuyler’s essays, Rac[E]ing to the Right (2001), editor Jeffrey B. Leak diagnoses Schuyler’s self-marginalization in the head note to a 1967 Schuyler speech to an organization called the Christian Freedom Foundation: “His audience was undoubtedly white, Christian, and conservative. By this point Schuyler had marginalized himself from traditional black leadership through his vilification of Dr. King and other race leaders.” This inversion of subject and object offers a variant on the theme of racial “self-hate.” It’s especially glaring in light of the fact that in this particular speech Schuyler (who was married to a white woman) argued for the elimination of miscegenation laws. John A. Williams in his 1991 foreword to Schuyler’s two pseudonymous fictional works, The Black Internationale and Black Empire, finds himself “disturbed” by both Schuyler’s and James Meredith’s conservatism, which he attributes to victimization by conservatives! Similarly, in the introduction to the 1994 reprint of Ethiopian Stories, Robert A. Hill presents that work as worth revisiting because it expresses the author’s “radical stance” before he “fell into political disfavor in the African-American community during the fifties and sixties” when Schuyler had “taken up with the conservative lobby’s attack against the civil rights movement as part of its anticommunist crusade.” Following their lead, Ohio University’s Sarah M. Iler uses invective such as “far-right” and “extremist” in her 2010 master’s thesis, “The Libertarian Sage: The Conservatism of George S. Schuyler.” Not surprisingly, her adviser, Kevin Mattson, tells us on his web page that he is a fellow at the Center for American Progress and makes appearances on “NPR, Fox News (you bet!), Radio Nation .  .  . Air America .  .  . the Colbert Report”—among other programs that don’t require the qualifier “you bet!”

George Schuyler’s views were based on his beginnings, as the son of a chef and the stepson of a deliveryman and dining-car cook. Schuyler left Syracuse to join the Army at 17, worked on the docks, in a factory, and in a restaurant as a dishwasher, while living with the down-and-out in the Bowery. His views arose from his experiences, as well as from some dangerous writing assignments, such as investigating the exploitation of black levee workers in the South in 1932, and packing a gun to travel to Liberia in 1930-31 to report on the practice of slavery by descendants of blacks who had emigrated from the United States. His world travels, especially to Central and South America, gave Schuyler a broad perspective: He noted the regional prejudices among blacks in the United States as well as between the tribesmen who transported him by boat in Africa. And in spite of the prejudice that still afflicted America in his time, Schuyler maintained that very few places offered better living conditions and freedoms for African Americans.

The academic hothouse, however, insists otherwise. “During the Cold War,” writes Sarah M. Iler, “[Schuyler’s] views were characterized by his defense of individualism, embrace of the free market as the solution to racism and racial inequality, and a fear of totalitarianism that manifested in paranoid right-wing anti-communism. By the end of the 1960s, Schuyler had moved into the far-right fringe of the American political scene.” We can see the hand of Mattson guiding the pen of Iler here and directing her to preapproved sources to claim that “industrialization, labor displacement, overproduction of commodities, the rise of purchases made on credit or installment buying, inequalities in income and the distribution of wealth” led to the Great Depression. That a “fear of totalitarianism” in the 1930s might be legitimate does not seem to occur to this emerging historian; that anticommunism could be more than “paranoia” is not entertained on its historical merits either. 

Sadly, Sarah M. Iler’s scholarship is typical. How many students can buck their professors? How many students are even exposed to alternative views? I learned about Richard Weaver by accident, but since the 1990s, his name has been forgotten by even more professors. As for the civil rights movement, there are only two sides, and they are represented by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Those like George Schuyler and the millions, white and black, who may find his opinions congenial will not get a fair hearing on campus. But he deserves a place in the pantheon, and the professors of Africana Studies should not have the last word.

Mary Grabar is a writer in Atlanta.

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