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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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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