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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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.”

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