Iconoclastic Hellraisers: George S. Schuyler

This series, Iconoclastic Hellraisers, will be featuring a number of intellectuals and public figures who espoused unconventional, and often, controversial views. Whether you agree with them or not, it can’t be denied that these men and women ventured outside the realm of the intellectual orthodoxy, and for that, they deserve our admiration. Our first subject of interest will be journalist and author, George S. Schuyler.

George Schuyler embodied an idiosyncratic stream within the Black intelligentsia. His george-s-schuylerperspective on the Civil Rights Movement and Black culture is rarely discussed in the mainstream media or even in the narrow corridors of academia. Nevertheless, his voice deserves to be heard.

Schuyler was originally from Providence, Rhode Island and spent the majority of his childhood in Syracuse, New York. Upon reaching adulthood in 1912, Schuyler joined the US army and was stationed in Seattle, and later Hawaii. His experiences with racism within the armed forces persuaded him to go AWOL, for which he was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to prison for five years.

However, after nine months in prison, Schuyler was released on good behavior. He relocated to New York City and did a number of odd jobs to support himself. Seeking intellectual stimulation, Schuyler immersed himself in Socialist circles despite his slight disagreements with the ideological discussions. His astute writing abilities and sardonic wit earned him a position as a columnist for The Messenger, a political and literary magazine founded by A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owens.

Schuyler’s column, “Shafts and Darts: A Page of Calumny and Satire” caught the attention of Ira F. Lewis, manager for the Pittsburgh Courier. In 1924,  Lewis offered Schuyler a position at her paper, which he accepted and subsequently wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier for the entire duration of his career.

Schuyler completely disavowed Socialism by 1925, asserting that socialists were frauds who were only utilizing Blacks as tools to advance their own ambitions. In 1926, Schuyler became chief editorial writer for the Courier. In that same year, he published a very controversial essay called “The Negro-Art Hokum”, in which he lambasted the very notion of ‘Negro Art”, asserting that there was no such thing as a “negro style” in art. Furthermore, he insisted that Blacks were “merely a lampbacked Anglo-Saxon”, thanks to 300 years of Euro-American dominance, and art should be judged by merit and not by racial standards.

In 1931, Schuyler published Black No More, a tale of a scientist who constructed an experiment that turns Black people to White. In his novel, Schuyler chastises organized religion, particularly Christianity. He maintained that both the Black and White churches were led by conniving preachers who perpetuated racism and mass ignorance. In an article for H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, Schuyler wrote “In the horizon loom a growing number of iconoclasts and Atheists, young black men and women who can read, think and ask questions; and who impertinently demand to know why Negroes should revere a god that permits them to be lynched, Jim-Crowed, and disenfranchised.”

In addition to Black No More, Schuyler published another novel, Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia, which, controversially, described how freed Black slaves from America settled in Liberia, a West African nation established by the American Colonization Society, and, ironically, enslaved the native African tribes in the region. Goes to show that truth is a lot stranger than fiction.

During the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Schuyler shifted further to the Political Right. He joined the John Birch Society, a staunchly anti-communist organization, and became an avid supporter of Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against potential communists residing the country. Schuyler’s anti-leftist persuasions and strong aversion to Christian preachers catalyzed his antipathy for the Civil Rights Movement.

In addition, he was vehemently opposed to MLK’s recognition as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, stating “Dr. King’s principal 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.”

Furthermore, Schuyler justified his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by writing “a country like America, which grew out of conquest, immigration, revolution and civil war, is prone to speed social change by law, or try to do so, on the assumption that by such legerdemain it is possible to make people better by force…..it takes lots of time to change social mores, especially with regard to such hardy perennials as religion, race and nationality, to say nothing of social classes.” In other words, Schuyler echoed a common libertarian belief insisting that federal imposition is an infringement of individual liberty and the Civil Rights Act exemplifies government coercion.

schuyler-the-schuylers-at-home-in-harlem-1950sIn addition to his contrarian views, Schuyler did something no Black man in his time would dare. He married a White woman. As a staunch opponent of anti-miscegenation laws, Schuyler practiced what he preached and married an aristocratic White Texan named Josephine Lewis Cogdell, proving that he, indeed, had cojones! The couple had a daughter named Phillipa who followed her father’s footsteps and became a journalist before she was tragically killed in 1967 while on an assignment in Vietnam. Unable to bear the pain of her daughter’s death, Josephine committed suicide two years later.

After his heart-wrenching losses, Schuyler continued to write, contributing to a syndicated column for The North American Newspaper Alliance. As he became older, Schuyler gradually evaporated into obscurity. After all, people like Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks and even Malcolm X secured a place for themselves in the pages of history, leaving no room for the likes of George Schuyler. In fact, by the 1970’s, it was taboo to mention Schuyler’s name in Black circles. And so, unattended as his bedside, George Schuyler died in 1977, at the age of 82.

Writers like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell could aptly be referred to as the intellectual heirs of George Schuyler. After all, they echo similar free-market conservative views and  contrarian opinions on Black culture. I think it’s a shame that George Schuyler is never mentioned in the classroom while a halo is hoisted on the legacy of Martin Luther King.

Personally, I can’t honestly say that I agree with George Schuyler on everything. I don’t think I can identify with his unconditional faith in the free market. However, his perspective on the Civil Rights Movement opens a lot of room for a productive debate. The outcome of the Civil Rights Act, while well-intentioned, could be scrutinized and critiqued even today. Was the bill an unnecessary infringement on private businesses? Did integration exasperate racial hostility? I think we should be able to openly discuss these questions without fearing accusations of bigotry.



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