George S. Schuyler: Black Conservative, Intellectual, and Iconoclast

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A former socialist turned champion of capitalism and individual liberty, an opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal, an ardent anti-communist and supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a critic of W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, the Brown decision, and the Montgomery bus boycotts, and even a member of the John Birch Society, George S. Schuyler will never be the poster-boy for Black History Month. But his life and writings should be remembered (and not just in February), for they serve as a reminder that scholars have erroneously lumped African-Americans into a social category and that — no matter our sex, race, or class — we are all individuals capable of independent thought.

As a child and a young man, George S. Schuyler experienced the sting of racism in his hometown of Syracuse, New York and developed an aversion to all things Southern. An optimistic Schuyler joined the U.S. Army in 1912 to escape the discrimination of Syracuse, but experiences in the military increased his cynicism. In his African-American regiment, the New Yorker found that he had little in common with his Southern comrades: "They came from all areas where the mores were different from those of my area," Schuyler recalled, "and the fact that we were all colored was somewhat beside the point." He described his existence as "lonesome."

During World War I, Schuyler's wartime experiences were especially troublesome. No matter where he was stationed he was called "nigger." In Lawton, Oklahoma, a white woman wrongly (and maybe purposefully) identified him as a rapist. When a Greek immigrant in Des Moines refused to shine his shoes, Schuyler decided that he would no longer serve a nation in which he was considered a second-class citizen. Found in Chicago, he was soon imprisoned for desertion.

After his prison sentence ended in 1919 and following a series of odd jobs, Schuyler joined the Socialist Party in 1921 and started working as a journalist in 1923. In his columns for the Messenger and Pittsburgh Courier, no one escaped scrutiny and criticism: Klan members, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, and even artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His sociological study of southern communities and his criticism of Garvey and the Harlem Renaissance launched him into the national spotlight. Schuyler rightly described Garvey's Back-to-Africa movement as a scam, and he denounced many black writers for overemphasizing supposed racial characteristics. In "The Negro Art-Hokum," Schuyler wrote, "Aside from his color, . . . your American Negro is just plain American." In another column, he argued that the intricate rhythm of blues, for instance, was not popular in Africa and the Caribbean because American blacks were "products of a certain American environment: the South." In short, Schuyler did not overlook the racial discrimination that abounded in early-twentieth century America, but he emerged as one of the nation's foremost critics of African-American culture.

In the early 1930s Schuyler published two novels, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933–1940 (considered the first science fiction written by an African American) and Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia. In the former he presented race leaders as charlatans, ridiculed black and white supremacists, denounced Christian ministers for perpetuating racism, and promoted interracial love. In the latter he debunked pan-Africanism by turning past news reports dealing with domestic slavery in Liberia into a story with fictitious characters. In both he emphasized the similarities between the races.

Starting in the late 1920s, Schuyler had contributed to H. L. Mencken's American Mercury and had started arguing that capitalism, not socialism, offered freedom for African-Americans. Although Mencken was not color-blind, he decided to mentor Schuyler because the two had three things in common: respect for the middle class, a loathing for socialism, and a dislike for the South. Mencken, in particular, encouraged Schuyler to make full use of his wit. With an evolving caustic style and under Mencken's tutelage, Schuyler continued denouncing American racism while discrediting African-Americans who he believed shamed the race.

During the 1930s, Schuyler started fearing the involvement of Communists in American racial matters. Still a member of the NAACP, Schuyler wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier the following concerning the Scottsboro case: "Communists in the United States are more of a menace than a promise to Negroes. Their policy is to make political capital out of the race problem . . . . They care nothing for the individual unfortunate Negroes they appear so eager to defend." And he wrote later that "like his white brother in the U.S.A., the American Negro is a proletarian by compulsion and not by choice. His [the black man] consuming ambition is to become a bourgeois himself . . ." He even criticized the New Deal. In his Pittsburgh Courier columns he sardonically explained that the National Recovery Administration's acronym (NRA) stood for "Negroes Robbed Again," and he criticized the Social Security Act: "[It] not only takes the Aframerican for a ride," he argued, but it also perpetuated blacks' inferior status and entrenched them at "the bottom of the ladder of life."

When World War II came, Schuyler had an ambivalent response. He lamented the bombing of Pearl Harbor but feared that African-American servicemen would still be treated as second-class citizens. So he discouraged blacks from enlisting, and for his views some labeled Schuyler "pro-Japanese." The journalist later endorsed African-American enlistment, however. (Some speculate that the FBI and other government agencies persuaded him to do so, while others contend that Schuyler understood that the remnants of American capitalism needed to be preserved.)

After World War II, Schuyler evolved into an iconoclastic conservative, or so Oscar R. Williams argues in George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative, although he never defines conservatism and leaves readers with the impression that post-war conservatism is strictly nationalism and the resistance to integration, or some combination of both. Whatever it is — and I must interject that the current president's spending habits and foreign policy and use of emergency powers has necessitated a definition of conservatism — Schuyler's loathing of communism and his criticism of the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American community intensified. Schuyler advocated racial integration (he married a white woman with whom he had an interracial daughter), but he preferred gradual social change. To him, a communist state in America would stamp out the influence of all religious, social, and educational institutions — black and white — and he feared that any association blacks had with communist leaders would anger white Americans and ruin any chance for racial reconciliation. Instead, Schuyler promoted capitalism as the solution to African-American problems and endorsed Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade. In fact, Schuyler attacked the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (members included James Burnham, Irving Kristol, John Dos Passos, and Daniel Bell) as being too soft on Communism, and he, like James Burnham in 1954, severed ties with ACCF for disparaging McCarthy's tactics.

But his criticism of the Civil Rights Movement may have been what most endeared him to some and alienated him from others. To Schuyler, the Civil Rights Movement undermined any programs among African Americans that might foster what he had advocated since the 1930s: self-help capitalism. Much like Booker T. Washington, Schuyler had encouraged blacks to start businesses not only to provide services to the African-American community but also to gain the respect and business of whites. He also criticized Civil Rights Movement leaders as charlatans as he had portrayed race leaders in Black No More (Schuyler's atheism had always fostered doubts regarding ministers' sincerity). He also believed the Civil Rights Movement fostered a dependency on the government to solve all financial and societal problems. Here is an excerpt from Schuyler's typically controversial Pittsburgh Courier column in which he harshly criticized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization in which Martin Luther King, Jr., played a vital role: "What sort of image has been presented by the organized rowdies, with their deceitful hymn-singing and praying, and indictments to civil disobedience and Hitlerian street-fighting? These tactics led to golden opportunities for Southern cops to manhandle, mistreat and jail thousands of Negroes who should have been in school, learning how to make a decent living."

For his identification with cultural and nationalistic conservatives, for his critique of the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular the Brown decision, and for his endorsement of Barry Goldwater's presidential bid, Schuyler lost his job at the Pittsburgh Courier yet grew in favor among those on the Right. Robert Welch asked him to join the John Birch Society, and Arlington House Publishers, a publishing arm of conservatism, asked him to write his biography, Black and Conservative.

Schuyler may have been an iconoclast, but he was not alone. Everyone in the middle, on the extremes, and even outside the boundaries of Left and Right would benefit from remembering black intellectuals such as George S. Schuyler — if only as a reminder that we should treat people as individuals instead of members of man-made social categories. Although Oscar R. Williams suggests that Schuyler purposefully sought to be contentious and to be included in the mainstream of the conservative intelligentsia, the assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of Albany in his recently published University of Tennessee Press publication, George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative (2007), thankfully calls for scholars to study the "complexity and diversity of American and African American intellectual history." Very few, I fear, will answer the call.

Bibliography

  1. All citations taken from Oscar R. Williams, George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007).
  2. See also Jeffrey B. Leak, ed., Rac(e)ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001).

February 27, 2007