The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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.”

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.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute • 3901 Centerville Rd. • Wilmington, Delaware 19807 •
Please direct all inquiries regarding First Principles to [email protected].