The Enigma (and Necessity) of George Schuyler

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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When we think of the Harlem Renaissance, names like Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston come readily to mind. Those with deeper knowledge might also think of James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen. Few are likely to think of George Schuyler. Despite being one of the most engaging black writers (and how he’d hate to be called a specifically “black” writer!) of the time, it didn’t take him long to sink into cultural obscurity, particularly with black audiences. His thought was too unorthodox, his style was too abrasive, and he enjoyed deploying verbal barbs against all the wrong people.

For my money, it is time to rescue Schuyler from his cultural obscurity. In the age of Ibram X. Kendi, Chris Rufo, and a resurgent if unproductive cultural conversation about race, maybe we need some heterodoxy! For those of you not familiar, let me introduce you. Buckle your seat belts.

George Schuyler was born in 1895 to a free black family in Rhode Island. After going AWOL from the military and serving a short prison sentence, Schuyler found form as a writer, first for A. Philip Randolph’s magazine The Messenger, and gradually (at the invitation of H.L. Mencken) for American Mercury. Schuyler also wrote satirical fiction an if you’ve heard of him at all, it is probably for his novel Black No More.

Much of Schuyler’s work is animated by a single idea: race is a superstition and, as with all superstitions, the dilemma is that we must let it go at the same time it gives our lives meaning. If this doesn’t sound controversial enough to have relegated Schuyler to the dustbin of history, consider some of the conclusions to which this led Schuyler. In the essay “Negro Art Hokum,” he denied, contra Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Dubois, that there was no such thing as a distinctively “negro art” in America. He infamously called black artists “lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons,” going on to note that:

If the European immigrant after two or three generations of exposure to our schools, politics, advertising, moral crusades, and restaurants becomes indistinguishable from the mass of Americans of the old stock… how much truer must it be of the sons of Ham who have been subjugated to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years?

The idea that race was a superstition also led Schuyler to find fault with the most revered black leaders of the time: Marcus Garvey for his notion of pan-African Identitarianism; Malcolm X on similar grounds; and (maybe most strangely) Martin Luther King Jr. (“the peripatetic parson”) (p. 104), for claiming to promote racial peace when all he did, said Schuyler, was perpetuate racial animus for political purposes. The only black intellectual Schuyler seemed to write approvingly of was Booker T. Washington who, by the time Schuyler wrote, was largely seen as an irrelevant accommodationist conservative.

While Schuyler started as a socialist writing for socialist magazines like The Messenger, it is not hard to see from all of this why his left-wing audience dried up. In his middle and later years, he would write and speak to dwindling conservative audiences. But Schuyler is an uneasy fit there too.

First, as Schuyler’s primary concern was convincing an unwilling world that race is a superstition, he was as merciless in skewering white as black race-consciousness and racism. Remember, he was writing at a time where the racist science of eugenics was either in full force or leaving residual effects in society. (Scholars have noted his quite sophisticated knowledge of eugenic writings and how it enabled him to offer a masterful critique of it.) An early article of Schuyler’s, “The Negro and Nordic Civilization,” masquerades as a eugenics tract where the black writer aims to prove “Nordic” superiority over the Negro, only to inadvertently proves the opposite. An example (pp. 7-8):

But I do think our greatest failure has been marked in the science of warfare. Wherever we [black people] have remained uncivilized by the Scrags and Mausers of the progressive Caucasians, we still play with spears, arrows, assegais, blowguns, and other toys used in the childhood of humanity. In short, we have not advanced beyond retail killing. When shall we too graduate to rifles, trench  mortars, tanks, poison gases, germs, airplanes and dreadnaughts? Never, I fear, without the usual assistance from the superior race. They do know the game!

A non-satirical mid-career essay called, “Do Negroes Want to be White?” sounds strikingly like a modern critical race theorist in his answer. To the degree that black people value straight hair, light skin – or adopt the counter-stance of black-pride – it is because they live in a racist society that has told them by cruel word and deed to value those things. [1] To the chagrin of his conservative audiences, Schuyler was no assimilationist. Even as he detested race pride among black people, he didn’t want black people to adopt white ways so much as to end all hints of racializing any ways of being.

Another way in which Schuyler fit uneasily with conservatives was in his endorsement of interracial intimacy. While many US states still had “anti-miscegenation” laws and while conservatives often saw such prohibitions as a way to maintain a color line, Schuyler believed in both the historical reality of miscegenation – that there simply were no “pure” races in the United States – but also that intermarriage was the best way to abet racism. If racist attitudes won’t change, we can undo race itself, rendering racism impossible or unnecessary. [2]

It is interesting then that Schuyler’s one enduring literary work – the novel Black No More – is a novelistic thought experiment in what would happen if black people were able en masse to become white. The thought experiment runs like this: say that science found an elective procedure that could phenotypically turn black people white so that the black/white divide became indistinguishable? Would this solve the race problem? With a satire as prescient as it is jarring, Schuyler’s answer is a cruel “No!” The race problem will only abate when we no longer feel the need for the idea of race, and as Schuyler sketches it, that has little chance of happening. People need their idols.

In the novel, black people en masse unsurprisingly decide to undergo this procedure, and chaos ensues. White supremacist groups worry incessantly – as do average white people – that black people are in their midst. Black uplift groups – Schuyler skewers a fictional portrayal of the NAACP – worry that if there are no more black people to uplift they lose their jobs and reasons for existing. Employers worry that they can no longer pit white and black workers against each other to avoid strong unionization. To their surprise and disgust, white women start having black babies and realize that they’ve been duped. Politicians worry that they can’t exploit “the race problem” to win elections. In short, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Everyone, even those who say they want an end to race, end up suffering for its absence.

To Schuyler, race is a double-bind. We have proven that we can’t live with it, but whether we can live without it is, at absolute best, an open question. The only two “solutions” to the race problem Schuyler ever advocated were Booker-Washington-like advancement of black capitalism and an increase in “miscegenation,” and it may not be a coincidence that neither of these involves attempting a sea change on majority attitudes about race. [3] In a late-career essay called “The Future of the American Negro,” Schuyler is at his most pessimistic – sounding almost like a contemporary critical race theorist – about the prospects for ending racism, and this must have sat uneasily with his conservative audience. He writes:

America has always had a caste system based on so-called race and despite reformist endeavors this everlasting stain will continue to color our national life as the Republic stands. Believe it or not, the dominant white caste has a vested interest, economically, sociologically, politically, and psychologically in the perpetuation of this racist voodooism (p. 117).

Why the pessimism? Perhaps because as we saw earlier, racism wasn’t the central problem for Schuyler; race was. Racism is the only thing race and belief in it is capable of. For Schuyler, we had our collective eye on the wrong target: solving racism without ending race would work only as well as curing symptoms without tackling the disease. That meant that white supremacist, black supremacist, separatist, assimilationist, and anyone who used racial terminology to denote something real about people were part of the problem. And how do you tell a nation that it has a problem when it is collectively convinced that the solution is to perpetuate the problem? There are probably many ways. For Schuyler, it was to shake one’s head and laugh, if only to keep from crying.

Notes

[1] ‘Apprehensive white America itself is responsible for the brown-skin militancy it now deplores, a solidarity transcending petty divisions and appealing to pride of race. In law and practice, it imposed the “one drop” theory according to which pseudo-science, everyone with one drop of the potent “Negro blood” is dubbed  Negro while one drop of “white blood” is too weak to make a negro a Caucasian! This is science.’ (p. 70).

[2] For his part, Schuyler was married to a white woman with whom he had a child, Philippa. As if a cosmic way to reinforce Schuyler’s contempt for eugenics, Philippa would become a renowned musical prodigy.

[3] For all the barbs Schuyler enjoyed hurling at Malcolm X and black Identitarianism, the promise of black capitalism was one area where he admitted agreement with Malcolm.

One comment

  1. Kevin,

    Thanks. And a good introduction to your discussion with Sheena Mason.

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