March 15, 2004
Well, here it is the third Black History Month, and I'll bet you haven't heard one thing about George S. Schuyler (1895-1977). What's that, you say, there's only ONE Black History Month? Where have you been?
Nowadays, New Year's Day signals the beginning of Black History Month I (or is it Martin Luther King Month?), and last summer in New York, for several weeks, some Harlem institutions held celebrations that certainly made it sound like we were in BHM. And on March 8, Newsday published a typical BHM puff piece, by Associated Press reporter William Kates, on the call, by descendants of “underground railroad” heroine Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), “the Moses of her people,” for a national holiday in her honor in March.
About 12 years ago, pc director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) said that every month should be Black History Month, and we're well on our way towards realizing that dubious goal. Note, too, that while for years, racist black activists and second-rate comics have complained, “You see that they give us the shortest month!,” the celebration was founded in 1926 by black nationalist scholar-activist Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) as Negro History Week in February, to coincide with the Great Emancipator's birthday. That all that time devoted to celebration and alleged learning has led to racist myths rather than enlightenment, is typical of contemporary racial “progress.”
George S. Schuyler was, simply, the greatest black journalist this country has ever produced. From 1924-1966, he bestrode the negro press like a colossus. Working for Robert Lee Vann's (1879-1940) Pittsburgh Courier weekly newspaper, under his own name, Schuyler penned a column, “Views and Reviews,” of which H.L. Mencken remarked, “I am more and more convinced that he is the most competent editorial writer now in practice in this great free republic.” Schuyler was in turn known as “the Negro's Mencken.” Schuyler wrote the Courier's weekly unsigned, house editorial. He traveled the world, investigating stories, which he wired back to the Courier, such as his world scoop on the return of slavery to Liberia, which had been founded in 1847 by American freedmen. (He was also the first black journalist to write, as a freelancer, for leading white publications, such as the New York Evening Post (now the New York Post), Washington Post, The Nation and Mencken's American Mercury). And under no less than seven pseudonyms, in addition to occasional work under his own name, he wrote the serial pulp fiction that proved to be the Courier's most popular feature (Samuel I. Brooks, Rachel Call, Edgecombe Wright, John Kitchen, William Stockton, Verne Caldwell and D. Johnson).
Schuyler was also the greatest racial satirist this country has ever seen; his classic, 1931 novel, Black No More, has twice been reprinted in the past 15 years.
In the same year that Black No More appeared, Schuyler's novel, Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia, was published, in which he presented, in fictional form, his discovery of the very real Liberian slave trade.
As a journalist, I can't carry Schuyler's jock strap. And yet, on some days, this giant has fewer google entries than even I do! Usually, the only time he gets noticed during one of the Black History Months, is when I write about him. And when Schuyler does get mentioned by what journalist Tony Brown calls, in The Truth According to Tony Brown, the “Black Unaccountable Machine” (B.U.M.), it is to slight him, to insult him, to misrepresent him.
George Schuyler's problem was that he was (gasp) … a conservative!
In 1994, the New York Times hired Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. to do a hit piece on Schuyler in the Book Review, in which Gates, who fancies himself the second coming of W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), derided Schuyler as a self-hating black, a “fragmented” man.
And so, when the alleged newspaper of record commissioned Phyllis Rose to review Kathryn Talalay's 1995 biography of Schuyler's daughter, Philippa, Composition in Black and White, the reviewer devoted only one sentence to the father, whom she reduced to a crank. But when Philippa Schuyler died in 1967 in a helicopter crash, during a humanitarian mission in Vietnam, she was working as a journalist, following in her father’s footsteps, both professionally and politically. How, then, could Rose deride the father as a crank, while praising the daughter?
In 1998, when Long Island University gave a special George Polk Award to the Pittsburgh Courier (not the black newspaper that currently uses its name), and feted its few living former staffers, LIU, the New York Times, and the Daily News (and Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp) celebrated aged mediocrities, while assiduously refusing to so much as mention the one person responsible for the award: George Schuyler. (The newspapers both refused, as well, to publish my letters mentioning Schuyler.)
And in 1999, the PBS “documentary,” The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, written by Jill and Stanley Nelson, Lou Potter and Marcia A. Smith, and directed by Stanley Nelson, reduced Schuyler's connection to the Courier to the phrase, “conservative columnist George Schuyler.” Note that Stanley Nelson is an officially accredited “genius,” as per the MacArthur Foundation.
Given that black journalism and black studies are today dominated by privileged incompetents, political hacks, and other “geniuses” who write and teach – in one of Schuyler’s favorite words -- hokum, I suppose it is fitting that they either disparage or ignore George S. Schuyler. After all, they hold the greatest of all black Americans, Booker T. Washington, in contempt, so why should Schuyler fare any better?
George Samuel Schuyler was born in 1895 in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of a chef, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. He served six years in the U.S. Army (1912-1918), eventually attaining the rank of First Lieutenant. However, Schuyler went AWOL when a Greek immigrant shoeshine man in Philadelphia refused to shine his shoes, calling him the “n”-word, even as Schuyler wore the nation’s uniform. “I’m a son-of-a-bitch if I’ll serve this country any longer!”
Later, after Schuyler turned himself in, he was convicted by a military court, and sentenced to five years in prison, but released after serving nine months for being a model prisoner. He never talked or wrote about his time in prison. Until recently, people were ashamed of having spent time in jail, failing to see it as an opportunity to cash in.
Schuyler came to New York City, where he did menial jobs for a few years, while studying on his own. He began associating with socialists, less out of conviction than because they gave him a social circle in which he could discuss ideas. Such circles brought him to the magazine, The Messenger, which was published by A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) and Chandler Owen (1889-1967), to Randolph and Owen’s intellectual salon, the Friends of Negro Freedom, and from there, in 1924, to the New York office of the Pittsburgh Courier, an office Schuyler would eventually run.
A. Philip Randolph would in 1925 found the nation’s first successful black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1941 get FDR to integrate the defense industry and the federal bureaucracy, and in 1948, succeed in getting Pres. Truman to integrate the armed forces. In 1963, Randolph led the Poor People’s March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream” speech. According to Randolph’s biographer, Jervis Anderson, he said “Schuyler was a socialist when I met him. But he never took it seriously. He made fun of everything – including socialism. But he had an attractive writing style.”
Schuyler hobnobbed with blacks of every rank. Jeffrey Leak, the editor of a recent collection of Schuyler’s essays, Rac[e]ing to the Right, cites scholar Arthur P. Davis, who said of Schuyler, “With the possible exception of Langston Hughes, he knew more about the Negro lower and working classes than any other major writer of the twenties and thirties.”
Though Schuyler joined the Socialist Party, and would experiment with some allied ideas, such as cooperatives, he would never be a true believer, and would always be an anti-communist. In the late 1930s he finally broke with socialism altogether. As time went on, and black Americans became less and less hostile towards socialism in general, and leading communists, in particular, as attested to by the acceptance of the circle around the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., anti-communism would become more and more influential in Schuyler’s thinking.
Writing for The Nation magazine in 1926, Schuyler attacked the New Negro Movement’s (which would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance) claim that there could be such a thing as a “black” aesthetics. In “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Schuyler famously (or notoriously, if you’re an academic or a mainstream journalist) wrote, “the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon.”
Negro art “made in America” is as non-existent as the widely advertised profundity of Cal Coolidge, the “seven years of progress” of [New York] Mayor Hylan, or the reported sophistication of New Yorkers. Negro art there has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness.
Schuyler was denying that blacks and whites lived in fundamentally different cultures and would produce fundamentally different art. He pointed out that leading black American intellectuals and artists (e.g., scholar-activist W.E.B. DuBois and sculptor Meta Warwick Fuller) were predominantly influenced by European thinkers and artists.
Unfortunately, Schuyler’s hyperbole got the better of him, when he denied the differences between the negro and white cultures of the time. And yet, in denying that there could be a black American “aesthetics,” Schuyler was right.
The magazine’s editors then showed Schuyler’s broadside to Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who had gained early fame as a “poet” for some racial scribblings (his most famous such scribbling, the essay pawned off as a poem, “Theme for English B,” would be published in 1949). Hughes’ response to Schuyler, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” has been forced on students ever since by racially correct professors and teachers, most of whom never even read Schuyler’s essay.
Hughes makes no argument. He simply insists that every black artist be provincial, and browbeats any black who disagrees with him with ad hominem attacks, implicitly charging him with being an Uncle Tom.
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features.
After telling black artists that they must be slaves to the race, Hughes engages in shameless sophistry, saying “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.”
(Hughes’ pompous style may have influenced novelist James Baldwin, who in 1979 wrote a similarly incoherent piece of self-righteous bombast for the New York Times, “If Black English isn’t a Language, Then Tell me, What is?” In Baldwin’s essay, the novelist, who had gained fame as an “integrationist” and civil rights advocate, insisted on racial educational segregation. Just as Hughes, while insisting on black artistic segregation, failed to offer any arguments supporting a uniquely black aesthetics, Baldwin, while insisting that only blacks may teach black students, offered no arguments supporting his title’s implicit claim.)
Writing in the Courier in 1936, Schuyler gave, I think, a more sober appraisal of the issue of race and aesthetics, while again slapping down Hughes:
As the mountain labored and brought forth a mouse, so all of this hullabaloo about the Negro Renaissance in art and literature did stimulate the writing of literature of importance which will live. The amount, however, is very small, but such as it is, it is meritorious because it is literature and not Negro literature. It is judged by literary and not by racial standards, which is as it should be.
In 1929, Schuyler’s pamphlet, Racial Intermarriage in the United States, called for solving America’s race problem through miscegenation, which was then illegal in most states. (Note that Schuyler and his wife, the former Josephine Cogdell, were the nation’s most famous interracial couple. Cogdell, a lily-white, blonde, Texas heiress, and Schuyler believed in eugenics, albeit of a kind diametrically opposed to the regnant white supremacist type promoted by the likes of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. The Schuylers believed that the hybrid created by racial intermarriage would be a stronger type than a “pure” race. And their brilliant daughter, Philippa Duke Schuyler (1931-1967), “Harlem’s Mozart,” was Exhibit A in their defense.)
In 1931, Schuyler, who was America’s first and greatest black science fiction writer, published Black No More, a satire heavily influenced by H.G. Wells. In Black No More, Dr. Junius Crookman invents a machine for turning black folks white. Schuyler mocked blacks’ obsession with wanting to be white, whites’ obsession with blacks, and the way black leaders such as DuBois and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) exploited the black masses. To appreciate how times have changed since then, in his magazine, The Crisis, W.E.B. DuBois wrote a review praising the book!
The book is extremely significant in Negro American literature, and it will be – indeed it already has been – abundantly misunderstood…. But Mr. Schuyler’s satire is frank, straight forward and universal. It carries not only scathing criticism of Negro leaders, but of the mass of Negroes, and then it passes over and slaps the white people just as hard and unflinchingly straight in the face…. At any rate, read the book. You are bound to enjoy it and to follow with joyous laughter the adventures of Max Disher and Bunny, Dr. Crookman and -- we say it with all reservations -- Dr. Agamemnon Shakespeare Beard.
If only DuBois’ wannabe heir, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., had such generosity of spirit, and the ability to poke fun at his own pretensions.
I believe that Black No Moreis the source for the Nation of Islam's “Myth of Yacub,” which insists that the white race was created by an evil black scientist 6,000 years ago.
In the early 1930s, Schuyler denounced the communists who had taken over the movement to free the “Scottsboro Boys.” The Scottsboro Boys were nine black boys and young men who in 1931 had been falsely accused of rape by two white prostitutes, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, and who were initially being sentenced to die by racist, Alabama juries. It was not until 1950, after years of trials and retrials, unjust prison sentences, and in one case, a daring jail break, that all of the Scottsboro Boys had regained their freedom. (The Scottsboro Boys were Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Andy Wright, Roy Wright, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery and Eugene Williams.)
In 1933, Schuyler’s expose of conditions in Liberia, including slavery, “Uncle Sam’s Black Step-Child,” was published by H.L. Mencken in the latter’s The American Mercury, based on Schuyler’s 1931 investigation.
The expose, which is republished in Rac[e]ing to the Right, is a cautionary tale on the folly of most aid to “developing countries,” that in 71 years has lost none of its relevance.
In 1936, Schuyler called for a black expeditionary force to free Ethiopia from the grip of the Italian Fascists, who under Mussolini had attacked the country in October, 1935, and successfully invaded and annexed it in May, 1936.
From 1936-38, Schuyler penned the serialized novellas, The Black Internationale and Black Empire, under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. The novels helped double the Courier’s circulation to 250,000. In 1991, the novellas were published in book form for the first time, by Northeastern University Press, under the title, Black Empire.
(The Courier was distributed throughout the South by a network of black Pullman car porters, who would smuggle the paper, which was the scourge of racist white sheriffs, hidden in the floors of railroad cars, and drop off a total of 100,000 issues each week in bundles on the outskirts of every major southern city. The newspaper gained the cooperation of union leader A. Philip Randolph.)
The novels both centered on the work of ruthless, evil genius Dr. Henry Belsidus, successful abortionist to and lover (and sometimes, murderer) of wealthy, white socialites, whom he uses to build his empire of criminal enterprises, legitimate businesses, black Church of Love, and secret, black expeditionary force, which he would use to win back Africa from white colonialists, and eventually to cast whites asunder in a racial Armageddon.
… all great schemes appear mad in the beginning. Christians, Communists, Fascists, and Nazis were at first called scary. Success made them sane…. My ideal and objective is very frankly to cast down the Caucasians and elevate the colored people in their places….
I use their women to aid in their destruction. As long as they succeed in carrying out my mission, I spare them. When they fail, I destroy them….
In Belsidus' Church of Love, his front man, the Rev. Samson Binks sermonizes,
Leave your so-called Christian churches. Force them to close their doors. Christianity is a religion for slaves. You are no longer slaves. You are free men. You are warriors. You are rulers…. You longer bow down to the white man…. You no longer turn the other cheek when smitten. You no longer forgive your enemies.
In the case of the Black Internationale, Schuyler was clearly influenced by the Black Muslims (now known as the Nation of Islam), just as surely as he influenced them in Black No More.
Although Schuyler (almost) always mocked black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, and referred to his pulp novels in a letter to P.L. Prattis as “hokum,” he easily moved in and out of the nationalist mindset. Recall that at the time, the terms “journalist,” “publicist,” and “propagandist” were often interchangeable, and though the latter term may have fallen into disrepute since World War II, the underlying reality of someone who can enter into the mind of his audience, in order to manipulate it, remains unchanged.
From March, 1993-July, 1939, writing under seven pseudonyms, in addition to his own name, Schuyler published 63 short stories and 19 serialized novellas in the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier. Schuyler’s favorite noms de plume were Samuel I. Brooks and Rachel Call. And so, Schuyler was not only America’s greatest black journalist and science fiction writer, but also -- for what it’s worth -- her greatest black pulp fiction writer.
Schuyler frequently crisscrossed the country, investigating stories, giving public lectures, and promoting the Courier, in black communities large and small. No journalist knew negro America as Schuyler did, a world in which he was a celebrity.
Later in Schuyler’s career, with the rise of the civil rights movement, American Negroes (as they were known in elite – media and political -- discourse and by the upper classes, black and white, until well into the 1970s; during the same period, the word “colored” was perfectly proper and typically used by most blacks and whites) became less tolerant of intellectual diversity; Schuyler had no patience for such lockstep “discipline.” Or rather, America’s negro elite became less tolerant, and passed their intolerance on down the line.
In 1964, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Schuyler wrote, in “King: No Help to Peace,”
Neither directly nor indirectly has Dr. King made any contribution to world (or even domestic) peace. Methinks the Lenin Prize would have been more appropriate, since it is no mean feat for one so young to acquire 60 communist front citations…. Dr. King's principle contribution to world peace has been to roam the country like some sable Typhoid Mary, infecting the mentally disturbed with perversions of Christian doctrine, and grabbing fat lecture fees from the shallow-pated.
In what was surely the beginning of the end for Schuyler at the Courier, and thus in the Negro press, the Courier refused to publish the editorial; instead, white publisher William Loeb ran it in the conservative Manchester Union-Leader newspaper. Note, however, that just as the negro press rejected Schuyler, the black press itself, in part through its own civil rights agitations, became irrelevant, as blacks began reading white-owned newspapers, and talented and not-so-talented young black journalists began working for white organizations.
After King’s 1968 assassination, Schuyler wrote, “The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tragically emphasizes again the fact that non-violence always ends violently.”
Schuyler submitted the preceding essay, “Dr. King: Non-Violence Always Ends Violently,” to the North American Newspaper Alliance, which would not publish it. In his last years, Schuyler increasingly had difficulty selling his work, and when he did sell it, it was often to conservative white publications, particularly those published -- American Opinion and the Review of the News -- by the John Birch Society. Hence, did he go from being read almost exclusively by blacks to a virtually lily-white readership. The essay is, however, published – as are most of the essays I’ve quoted in this article, along with a wealth of biographical information – in the 2001 collection, Rac[e]ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler.
Schuyler felt even less sympathy for Malcolm X (1926-1965), than he did for Martin Luther King Jr. In 1973, in his last published piece, “Malcolm X: Better to Memorialize Benedict Arnold,” Schuyler was his old, acerbic self:
It is not hard to imagine the ultimate fate of a society in which a pixilated criminal like Malcolm X is almost universally praised, and has hospitals, schools, and highways named in his memory!… We might as well call out the schoolchildren to celebrate the birthday of Benedict Arnold. Or to raise a monument to Alger Hiss. We would do well to remember that all societies are destroyed from within — through weakness, immorality, crime, debauchery, and failing mentality.
Schuyler’s career at the Courier ended in 1966, with the purchase of the newspaper by John H. Sengstacke, the biggest owner of negro newspapers, who also owned the Chicago Defender. That year, Schuyler published his autobiography, Black and Conservative.
In recent years, several of George S. Schuyler’s works have been republished or published for the first time in book form: Ethiopian Stories, Black Empire, Black No More, Rac[e]ing to the Right. Hopefully, Black and Conservative will be reprinted, and some of Schuyler’s thousands of newspaper columns and editorials will be published in book form, and/or perhaps posted to an Internet library of Schuyleriana. At least one unpublished Schuyler biography has been written in dissertation form, and a history professor contacted me a year or so ago, asking about a Schuyler essay I’d promised my readers (but had failed to produce), as a possible source for a Schuyler-biography he is writing.
We live in a time in which pygmies are celebrated as giants, and giants are either blacked out of history or their stories revised beyond recognition. But if we are to honestly understand black history, and thus, American history, we must understand the life and work of George S. Schuyler. And so, we must toss out the dogmas we have been taught, and continue to be taught about American history. And we must understand Schuyler - he was that important.
Postscript: Named one of the
Best Essays of 2004
by The Brothers Judd.