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George S. Schuyler and Black History Month
By Nicholas Stix
Well, it's Black History Month, and I'll bet you haven't heard one thing about George S. Schuyler (1895-1977).
George S. Schuyler was, simply, the greatest black journalist this country has ever produced. (Normally, I eschew qualifiers like "greatest black," as opposed to "greatest," period, but this is journalism we're talking about. I will never, in five lifetimes of sitting in newspaper morgues, looking at microfilms of ancient newsprint, be able to read enough to determine who America's greatest journalist was.) From 1924-1966, he bestrode the black press like a colossus. Working for Robert Lee Vann's (1879-1940) Pittsburgh Courier weekly newspaper, under his own name, he penned a column, "News and Views," 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 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 The American Mercury). And under no less than eight pseudonyms, 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). And Schuyler engaged black popular historian Joel A. Rogers to write a cartoon feature on black history that was to prove one of the newspaper's most beloved sections.
Schuyler was also the greatest black satirist this country has ever seen, whose classic 1931 novel, Black No More, has twice been reprinted in the past 15 years. In the same year 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, this giant has only 723 entries on Google (several from my articles), less than even I do! And usually the only time he receives noticed during Black History Month, 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 a (gasp) … conservative!
And so, when the New York Times commissioned a reviewer to cover the 1995 biography of Schuyler's daughter, Phillippa, Composition in Black and White, the critic reduced the father to a one-sentence reference to him as a crank. Around that time, the alleged newspaper of record 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, derided Schuyler as a self-hating black, a "fragmented" man, and quoted pompous ass, Toni Morrison, along the way, on the subject of black "self-hatred."
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, the New York Times and Daily News (and Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp) celebrated long-living mediocrities, while assiduously refusing to so much as mention the person responsible for the award: George Schuyler. (The newspapers both refused, as well, to publish my letters mentioning Schuyler.)
And in 1999, the alleged 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." (If you go to the IMDB site for The Black Press, you will be erroneously told that the movie is about Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, was made in 2001 by the Nelsons and Smith.)
(But who am I to criticize the Nelsons? After all, Stanley Nelson is an official, accredited "genius," according to the MacArthur Foundation, while his sister Jill bragged about successfully agitating to get the Washington Post to misrepresent a rape charge against then-D.C. Mayor Marian Barry, in her memoir Volunteer Slavery, and who now twists young minds as a professor of journalism at the once-great City College of New York. The Nelsons are just the sort of phonies and petty propagandists that Schuyler burned with his acid tongue.)
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, but went AWOL, when a Greek immigrant shoeshine man in Philadelphia called him the "n"-word, and refused to shine his shoes, even as Schuyler wore the nation's uniform. 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.
He came to New York City, where he did menial jobs for a few years, while studying on his own. Schuyler 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 and Chandler Owen, and from there, in 1924, to the New York office of the Pittsburgh Courier, an office which Schuyler would eventually run.
Though he joined the Socialist Party, would be identified early in his career with socialism, and would experiment with some allied ideas, such as cooperatives, Schuyler would never be a true believer, and would always be an anti-communist. In the late 1930s he broke finally with socialism altogether. Schuyler's anti-communism would become more and more influential in his thinking, just as 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.
Writing for The Nation magazine in 1926, Schuyler attacked the New Negro Movement's (which would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance) claims 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 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 W.E.B. DuBois and sculptor Meta Warwick Fuller) were predominantly influenced by European thinkers and artists.
Unfortunately, his hyperbole got the better of him, when he denied the differences between the black and white cultures of the time. And yet, regarding the notion that there could be a black American "aesthetics," Schuyler was right.
The magazine's editors then showed Schuyler's broadside to poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), whose response, "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 the implicit charge of being an Uncle Tom, while dishonestly saying that "an artist must be free to choose what he does."
"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. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose."
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.
In 1931, Schuyler published Black No More, a science fiction satire heavily influenced by H.G. Wells, in which 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 exploited the black masses. To appreciate how times have changed since then, DuBois wrote a blurb praising the book!
I believe that Black No More is 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 nine "Scottsboro Boys," young black men who had been falsely accused of rape by two white prostitutes, and who were eventually cleared.
In 1936, when Italy invaded Ethiopia under Mussolini, Schuyler called for a black expeditionary force to free Ethiopia from the grip of the Fascists.
In 1936-38, Schuyler penned the serialized novels, The Black Internationale and Black Empire, under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. The novels helped double the Courier's circulation to 250,000.
(Note that the Courier was spread 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 outside of every major southern city. The newspaper gained the cooperation of union leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.)
The novels both centered on the work of ruthless, evil genius Dr. Henry Belsidus, successful abortionist to and lover 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.
In the case of the Black Internationale, Schuyler was clearly influenced by the Black Muslims (now known as the Nation of Islam), just as he surely influenced them in Black No More.
Although Schuyler always mocked black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), and referred to his pulp novels in a letter 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 remains unchanged.
Later in Schuyler's career, with the rise of the civil rights movement, many African-Americans became less tolerant of intellectual diversity, and Schuyler had no patience for such lockstep "discipline."
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 black 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 black press rejected Schuyler, the press itself, in part through its own civil rights agitations, became irrelevant, as blacks began reading white newspapers, and talented young black journalists began working for those same 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 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 – in the 2001 collection, Rac[e]ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler.
Schuyler was no less sympathetic towards Malcolm X (1926-1965). 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 black 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. 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. But one cannot expect too much from publishers, after all, whose schedules are booked full with the next works by such luminaries as Jill Nelson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cornel West.
Nicholas Stix can be reached at Add1dda@aol.com.
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