Schuyler, George Samuel 1895–1977
George Samuel Schuyler 1895–1977
Journalist, novelist, and playwright George S. Schuyler wrote extensively about black life, in both contemporary Africa and in the cities of the African diaspora, but died in relative obscurity in 1977. One of the leading figures from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, he had a long association with the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the top African-American newspapers in the country. Schuyler is perhaps best remembered for his 1931 work, Black No More, thought to be the first satirical novel by a black writer in the annals of American literary history. Later in his career he became somewhat of a pariah for opposing aspects of the civil rights movement in the United States; Schuyler argued that leftist groups were exploiting minorities and fomenting racial tensions for their own political purposes.
Schuyler was born on February 25, 1895, in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, George Schuyler, was a chef at restaurant, and none in the family could recall any slaves in their ancestry, which was a source of great pride; one relative had even fought in the Revolutionary War for the American colonies. His mother, Eliza Fischer Schuyler, maintained a household that emphasized both education and a strong work ethic. She taught him to read before he began school in Syracuse, New York, where the family settled after Schuyler’s father died and Eliza remarried a porter for the New York Central Railroad. In Syracuse, Schuyler attended schools that were predominantly white, and he was sometimes harassed by other students.
Schuyler began working at an early age with a job selling newspapers on busy city streets, which gave the avid reader access to the day’s news and instilled in him a passion for journalism. At the age of 17, in 1912, he left high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Though it was still a segregated institution at the time, Schuyler believed it would provide him with a solid opportunity for advancement. During this period he began writing his first articles, which appeared in a Honolulu newspaper, and he also started a satirical newsletter at his camp. After two stints, he was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant and settled in New York City just after World War I. There Schuyler worked as a clerk with the U.S. Civil Service, but the appointment ended and he took a series of odd jobs in the city, including dishwasher,
At a Glance…
Born on February 25, 1895, in Providence, Rl; died on August 31, 1977, in New York, NY; son of George (a chef) and Eliza Jane (Fischer) Schuyler; married Josephine E. Lewis (a painter), January 6, 1928 (died, 1969); children; Philippa (deceased). Military Service: U.S. Army, first lieutenant, 1912-18.
Career: U.S. Civil Service, clerk, 1919-20; Messenger (magazine), associate editor, 1923-28; Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, columnist, chief editorial writer, and associate editor, 1924-66, special correspondent to South America and West Indies, 1948-49, to French West Africa and Dominican Republic, 1958; novelist, essayist, and playwright 1929-77; New York Evening Post, special correspondent to Liberia, 1931; National News, editor, 1932; Crisis (magazine), business manager, 1937-44; Review of the News, analysis editor, 1967-77; Manchester Union Leader, literary editor.
Memberships: Vice president, American Writers Association; American Asian Educational Exchange; American African Affairs Association; Authors Guild
stevedore, and factory worker. For a brief time, Schuyler went back to Syracuse and worked as a handyman; he also joined the Socialist Party and became education director of its Syracuse chapter.
Back in New York City by early 1923, Schuyler slept at a hotel run by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and sometimes attended the UNIA meetings. Yet he found himself in disagreement with Garvey’s exhortations that blacks should return to Africa, and began writing on the subject himself. Becoming involved with a group called the Friends of Negro Freedom, Schuyler wrote a column for its magazine, The Messenger, called “Shafts and Darts.” These writings attracted the notice of the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest black newspaper in the United States for many years. He began a column for it as well, with a more political tone, and eventually became the paper’s chief editorial writer.
For the Courier Schuyler also wrote a number of important investigative pieces, including a 1925 series about blacks in the South some sixty years after the end of slavery. He gained some measure of infamy for a 1926 article in the Nation discrediting the idea of a distinct black culture in America, as the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance were extolling at the time. In “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Schuyler wrote that black folk art, music like the blues, was nothing more than “a caste in a certain section of the country.… They are no more expressive or characteristic of the Negro race than the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders … are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race.” The article caused a stir among the movers and shakers in Harlem, and poet Langston Hughes responded with a lengthy defense, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”
In 1928 Schuyler married a Texas heiress and artist, whose grandparents had been slave owners. His first book was Racial Intermarriage in the United States, published in 1929 by the Haldeman-Julius imprint, which issued many atheist tracts during these years. His futuristic satirical novel, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940, appeared in 1931. Its plot centered around an “E-Race-O-Lator” machine, the invention of a black scientist named Dr. Crookman. Through a science-fictional “glandular treatment” process, blacks emerged from the machine entirely Caucasian. The “E-Race-O-Lator” turns out to have two drawbacks: its customers become just a shade whiter than born Caucasians, and the children born to them are black, which brings many surprises. An array of new social dilemmas arises, and finally an anthropologist “announced that as a result of his long research among the palest citizens, he was convinced they were mentally inferior and that their children should be segregated from the others in school,” the novel declares. “Four state legislatures immediately began to consider bills calling for separate schools for pale children.”
Though the plot of Black No More centers on Max Disher, a black man who undergoes the treatment and then infiltrates a white supremacist organization, Schuyler’s pen skewered some well-known personalities of the day. One of these satirical portraits is of Sisseretta Blandish, modeled after hair-care millionaire Madame C. J. Walker. Blandish earns a fortune selling hair straighteners and bleaching creams to blacks, but then begins a line of skin-darkening products to keep step with the times. Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, head of the “National Social Equality League,” was Schuyler’s thinly disguised W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, and though such figures as these, Garvey, and other well-known African Americans of the day were thinly disguised caricatures, Schuyler’s novel earned favorable reviews from the black literary establishment for puncturing racism and its underlying roots.
His next work of fiction proved to be another first: Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia, published in 1931, is considered the first novel about Africa written by an African American. Its origins were in an assignment Schuyler took on behalf of the New York Evening Post that year to investigate the slave trade in Liberia. The West African nation had been founded in 1821 as a haven for freed American slaves, and their descendants, the Americo-Liberian elite, had recently been accused of selling indigenous Liberians to a Spanish island plantation off the coast of Nigeria. Schuyler spent two months investigating the story, and his articles and accompanying photographs appeared in the New York Evening Post and several other leading American newspapers, including the Washington Post. The international outcry eventually brought a regime change in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. The articles, noted Nickieann Fleener in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, “represented one of the first times a black journalist had served as a foreign correspondent for a major metropolitan daily; Schuyler noted the accomplishment as one of the highlights of his career.”
Drawing upon travels elsewhere in Africa, Schuyler wrote detective stories and espionage novellas that were serialized in the Pittsburgh Courier, and collected into book form only in the 1990s: both Black Empire and Ethiopian Stories featured African Americans who ventured into the continent’s political fracas and joined in the struggle for independence from European colonialism. Meanwhile, Schuyler became an increasingly outspoken foe of leftist politics in America as the decade progressed, despite his earlier, since-disavowed Socialist Party work. He believed that the Socialists, the American Communist Party, and labor organizations were attempting to exploit racial tensions for their own political agenda, even to the extent of attempting to incite a race war. His Courier column often chastised black editors for their perceived leftist leanings, and in response he was criticized as an “Uncle Tom.”
As Schuyler predicted, World War II helped set in motion the chain of events that led to the end of English, French, German, and Italian control of African lands and their indigenous peoples. Closer to home, he authored another important investigative series for the Courier about living conditions in Harlem in 1948. “The Truth About Harlem” debunked the popular mainstream perception of Harlem as overcrowded and “teeming” through Schuyler’s extensive gathering and interpretation of statistical data; he found, for example, that Harlem was actually less congested than it had been thirty years earlier, and even boasted more owner-occupied dwellings than in any other part of Manhattan.
Schuyler also ventured to the Caribbean and Latin America on assignment for the Courier during the post-World War II era. He reported on racial discrimination there as well—in Venezuela, for example, blacks were not permitted to remain in the country longer than 48 hours. He began his own radio show, “The Negro World,” from a New York station in 1949, which featured international news stories and interviews with United Nations delegates. In 1950 he spoke at a conference in Berlin and defended America’s free-enterprise system as ideal for eradicating discrimination against minorities. A year later he revised the speech into “The Phantom American Negro,” another anti-Communist piece, and it again provoked a great deal of criticism when it was reprinted in several leading magazines, including Reader’s Digest. “The thesis of the piece was that the dire picture of the position of the American black painted in many quarters was false and only aided and comforted the Communist propagandists,” noted Fleener in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay.
As the 1950s progressed, Schuyler’s columns for the Courier were sometimes so inflammatory that the paper’s publishers began printing a disclaimer alongside it. By the time the Civil Rights movement in America was gaining serious momentum in the early 1960s, Schuyler was considered out of step with the times, and his career and reputation suffered. He became involved with a strident anti-Communist organization, the John Birch Society, and in 1964 ran as its candidate against Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for the Harlem minister’s U.S. House of Representatives seat. In his campaign speeches, Schuyler laid blame for riots in Harlem that year on what he termed agitators in the civil-rights leadership. He lost the race, and a controversial column he penned for the Courier that same year caused the African-American establishment to further distance itself from him: Dr. King was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize that year, and Schuyler’s column, which the Courier refused to publish, disparaged King’s achievements in the movement.
Schuyler expounded on his political views further in a 1966 memoir, Black and Conservative: The Autobiography of George S. Schuyler. He spent the last decade of his life writing for a New Hampshire newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Unlike many prominent blacks, he supported the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam, but the conflict brought tragic repercussions in his own life: his daughter Philippa was a musical prodigy from an early age, and became a renowned concert pianist. She made tours of Vietnam, playing for soldiers and covering the conflict as a journalist for the Manchester Union Leader, but perished in a helicopter crash in May of 1967 over South China Sea waters.
Schuyler’s wife died two years later, and he passed away in a New York City hospital at the age of 82 on August 31, 1977. In the early 1990s, his work began to enjoy a revival, and his fiction was reissued by Boston’s Northeastern University Press as part of its Black Literature series. Black No More was adapted for the stage and enjoyed runs in both Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., in 1998. Playwright Syl Jones changed some of the characters to reflect modern times, with a stand-in for the Reverend Al Sharpton replacing the character Schuyler had modeled on Marcus Garvey, for example. Jones asserted that Schuyler’s best-known work “was not politically correct 60 years ago and is not today,” he said in an interview with Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Rohan Preston. “But it is relevant because the same dynamics in the book are true today: a black political orthodoxy that says we shouldn’t criticize our leaders ‘and’ a white orthodoxy that wants to forget the bad things in the past.”
Racial Intermarriage in the United States, Haldeman-Julius, 1929.
Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940 (novel), Macaulay, 1931, reissued, Modern Library, 1999.
Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia, Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1931, reprinted, McGrath, 1969.
The Communist Conspiracy Against the Negroes, Catholic Information Society, 1947.
The Red Drive in the Colonies, Catholic Information Society, 1947.
Black and Conservative: The Autobiography of George S. Schuyler, Arlington House, 1966.
Black Empire (novel; part of the Northeastern Library of Black Literature series), edited by Robert A. Hill and R. Kent Rasmussen, Northeastern University Press, 1991.
Ethiopian Stories, edited and with a foreword by Robert A. Hill, Northeastern University Press, 1994.
Rac[e]ing to the Right, edited by Jeffrey B. Leak, University of Tennessee Press, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 29: American Newspaper Journalists, 1926-1950, 1984, Volume 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, 1987.
African American Review, Winter 1993, p. 679; Spring 1997, p. 182.
American Visions, February-March 1995, p. 75.
Booklist, November 15, 1994, p. 581.
Entertainment Weekly, July 23, 1999, p. 62.
Insight on the News, February 7, 2000, p. 26. National Review, August 20, 2001.
Observer (London, England), September 1, 1996, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, November 7, 1994, p. 66.
Star Tribune, (Minneapolis, MN), March 20, 1998, p. 4E.
Variety, April 20, 1998, p. 56.
“George Samuel Schuyler,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 18, 2003).
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