The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

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Harlem Renaissance Man
Clark Stooksbury - 03/01/08

Review of Oscar R. Williams, George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 224 pp. $33.

The term “black conservative” used to be thought of as an oxymoron. With a few notable exceptions, black Americans in public life were politically liberal and black voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. Today, although most African American voters continue to support the Democrats, numerous black conservative intellectuals, politicians, and pundits are active in public life. But long before Thomas Sowell—the most prominent black conservative of the last thirty years—there was George Schuyler. Like any simplifying label, the term “conservative” is inadequate to describe Schuyler, an accomplished contributor to (and critic of) the Harlem Renaissance and a journalist, novelist, and social critic from the 1920s until his death in 1977.

In 1937, H. L Mencken described Schuyler as “the best writer the Negroes have ever produced.” Schuyler’s bitingly satirical Black No More, which appeared in 1931 and is considered to be the first African-American science-fiction novel, provides ample evidence for that proposition. Black No More depicts the results of a process used to change black flesh into white and features scathing portrayals of thinly disguised figures of the era, including W. E. B. Du Bois.

Though Black No More and virtually everything else Schuyler ever wrote was for many years almost completely forgotten, there is evidence of a burgeoning, if minor, Schuyler revival. The Modern Library released an edition of Black No More in 1999. Other works by and about Schuyler have appeared in print since then. The latest is George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative, by Oscar Williams, which fills in some of the blanks of Schuyler’s life. He strikes a sour chord in the introduction, writing that in the 1960s “[r]adical right-wing and neoconservative factions mobilized into a political force, represented by Barry Goldwater and George Wallace running for the presidency in 1964 and 1968, respectively.” “Radical right-wing” is little more than a content-free smear; the description of George Wallace as a neoconservative is simply bizarre, not to mention unfair both to Wallace and the neocons. Fortunately, the tendentious tone struck in the opening paragraph doesn’t characterize the whole book.

Schuyler’s early life is murky. His birth was not recorded, and the 1900 census listed Schuyler’s mother as a childless widow and him as the adopted grandson of his grandmother. The 1910 census called the dark-skinned Schuyler a “mulatto.” Schuyler’s path to becoming a prominent journalist-novelist-critic didn’t involve the usual stop at an Ivy League school followed by a reporter/researcher positon at the New Republic; it didn’t even involve finishing high school. Instead, Schuyler dropped out of school at the age of seventeen and joined the Army. He had been impressed a few years before by black soldiers who had been “sharply dressed, strictly disciplined, and seemingly in control of their destiny.” Joining the military is an educational experience under any circumstances. One lesson that Schuyler learned was that even as he rose in the Army, he still didn’t have rank on whites. He deserted in 1918 when a Greek immigrant bootblack in Philadelphia informed him that he didn’t serve “niggers.”

Schuyler felt the call to write while still in the Army, publishing both in the base magazine and in the Honolulu Commercial Advertiser while he was stationed in Hawaii. After his time in the Army, Schuyler worked at a variety of jobs before working at the Messenger, a short-lived publication founded by A. Philip Randolph. At the Messenger and later at the Pittsburgh Courier, Schuyler wrote about a variety of topics, including everything from “white Protestant evangelists and Ku Klux Klan members to Marcus Garvey followers and fellow African American writers and intellectuals.” Schuyler was never a reliable “race man.” He seemed to delight in criticizing prominent black leaders as well as the rank-and-file. Schuyler went so far as to denounce the diet of black Mississippians in the Pittsburgh Courier. “Of course, the real trouble lies in their diet, which is atrocious. Anything that is not fried, boiled, or baked to death seems to be anathema. Consumption of salads, fresh fruit, oranges, lemons and fresh milk is low.”

Schuyler’s willingness to denounce Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and poorly fed Mississipians did not mean that he was unwilling to examine the indignities regularly visited upon blacks in the United States and Africa. He investigated the conditions of black levee workers in Mississippi and revealed his findings in a pamphlet called Mississippi River Slavery—1932, published by the NAACP. Schuyler compared conditions unfavorably to conditions he had investigated in Africa. “I have no hesitancy in declaring that the Mississippi Negro laborers are worse off in many respects than the natives in the hinterland of Liberia.”

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