The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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Harlem Renaissance Man
Clark Stooksbury - 03/01/08

One of Schuyler’s most important professional relationships was with H. L. Mencken. The Sage of Baltimore was a towering intellectual figure in the 1920s and ’30s and was a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance. Mencken and Schuyler shared an iconoclastic outlook and a disdain for the South and religion, particularly fundamentalism. Mencken published Schuyler several times in the American Mercury and advised him on writing that appeared elsewhere. He particularly encouraged Schuyler to write about a Communist proposal to create a separate black state in the 1930s, which Schuyler did for the NAACP’s publication, the Crisis.

Like his mentor and many other Old Right figures, George Schuyler opposed entering the Second World War. Williams notes that “Schuyler’s reasons for opposing African American participation in World War II were primarily rooted in his firsthand experience with racism while serving in the army during World War I.”

Schuyler’s opposition to entry in the war, along with his newspaper’s coverage of wartime racial difficulties earned him a visit from the FBI. The feds wanted the Pittsburgh Courier and other black papers to stop printing articles about racial violence, and they disapproved of Schuyler’s views of the Japanese internees, whom he declared “were put in concentration camps SOLELY because of ‘race,’ and the principle behind their jailing is exactly the same as that behind the jailing, torture and murder of the Jews under Hitler’s Jurisdiction.” The FBI, having the dirt on Schuyler’s desertion from the Army (as well as his marriage to a “Southern white woman”) achieved the desired result, and Schuyler thenceforth started doing more positive stories on the war effort.

Williams doesn’t speculate as to whether Schuyler’s experience with the federal thought police influenced his move towards the McCarthyite Right after World War II, but such an interpretation seems plausible. In any case, after Schuyler allied himself with the emerging postwar Right he paid particular attention to black Communists such as Paul Robeson, calling him an “artistic Charlie McCarthy” who “mouths Communist cliches at every opportunity.” He also criticized other African American entertainers who protested against segregation.

In his later years, Schuyler became a critic of the civil rights movement. He initially supported the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, but he later changed his mind. Like Zora Neale Hurston, he questioned the “dubious advantage of sitting in a class with white children.” He had a peculiar hostility to the Montgomery bus boycott. It’s hard to imagine someone not actively opposed to the advancement of African Americans disapproving of bus passengers withholding their economic support from a system in which they are treated as second-class citizens, but Schuyler wrote that “Montgomery Negroes could have owned the bus company without doing all that walking if they had used their heads instead of their feet and their tonsils.”

Williams considers some potential reasons for Schuyler’s turn to the right, but he appears to confuse political conservatism with snobbishness and crankiness. “In truth, there are no explanations for Schuyler’s conversion to right-wing conservatism. Yet one can look at his childhood and find possible answers. . . . His mother served as a teacher for his overall contempt of African Americans, while his grandmother inspired him to be stubborn and belligerent.”

But Schuyler’s conservatism didn’t arise from dyspepsia. Rather, it sprang from his obvious skepticism about human nature and his suspicion of all plans for reform and uplift—a skepticism he shared with his mentor, Mencken. Schuyler’s contributions to American letters were once in danger of falling down the memory hole because of his heterodox views; Ishmael Reed writes in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Black No More that he faced criticism for even interviewing Schuyler in the 1970s. Today, perhaps justice is beginning to be served, at least in a small way. Schuyler’s life and career, especially prior to the Second World War, reveals him to have been a fascinating American original.

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