The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance

The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance

by Jeffrey Ferguson

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This book is the first to focus a bright light on the life and early career of George S. Schuyler, one of the most important intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. A popular journalist in black America, Schuyler wielded a sharp, double-edged wit to attack the foibles of both blacks and whites throughout the 1920s. Jeffrey B. Ferguson presents a new understanding of Schuyler as public intellectual while also offering insights into the relations between race and satire during a formative period of African-American cultural history.

Ferguson discusses Schuyler’s controversial career and reputation and examines the paradoxical ideas at the center of his message. The author also addresses Schuyler’s drift toward the political right in his later years and how this has affected his legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300133462
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jeffrey B. Ferguson is assistant professor of black studies and American studies at Amherst College.

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The Sage of Sugar Hill



Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10901-6

Chapter One

The Problem of George S. Schuyler

FOR MOST READERS THE problem of George Samuel Schuyler seems simple. Specialists in African American literature or twentieth-century American intellectual history may know a few facts about him. Otherwise, very few people are familiar with him at all. Although Schuyler did much to earn this obscurity, we might still wonder whether he deserves it. If measures of sheer public exposure and numbers of pages written in a lifetime determined the amount of scholarly attention given to a thinker, he would already be the subject of extensive study.

During Schuyler's years at the Pittsburgh Courier, from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, the newspaper grew from a small weekly circulation of thirty thousand copies to black America's most popular newspaper. In this span Schuyler's column "Views and Reviews" appeared almost every week, covering every issue of importance to black Americans. In addition, during the same period Schuyler penned all the unsigned editorials for the Courier. Because he rarely received instructions from the ownership about how to treat individual issues, it is fair to say that he was aone-man editorial policy for black America's most popular newspaper for nearly forty years. In addition to editorials Schuyler contributed innumerable feature articles, short stories, anonymous articles, and reviews to the Courier, all in a distinctive writing style that made him the country's leading black journalist for much of his career.

The Courier's circulation figures provide only the most conservative estimate of how many people read Schuyler's work. Each copy of the news- paper probably had at least two or three readers who found it lying around barber shops, restaurants, and on kitchen tables all over black America. In addition to his efforts for the Courier, Schuyler also contributed to such other black publications as the Messenger, the Crisis, Phylon, and Negro Digest. Because of this wide exposure, amplified by yearly lecture tours and occasional radio appearances, Schuyler received a hearing among blacks equal to that of any thinker of his time.

Schuyler's work also appeared often in mainstream journals. During the 1920s and 1930s he was the most frequent contributor of any race to the American Mercury. He also published articles in the Nation and Modern Quarterly. Because of this, he reached white readers with more regularity than almost any black intellectual of the period between the wars. From a literary standpoint his novel Black No More (1931) remains noteworthy as the first full-length satire written by a black American, and his journalistic writing, especially the satirical column he cowrote with Theophilus Lewis, "Shafts and Darts," presents a lasting example of literary technique employed for political ends.

In The American Language, H. L. Mencken-the thinker with whom Schuyler has most often been compared-praised him in the highest terms: "Mr. Schuyler is the most competent journalist that his race has produced in America. There are few white columnists, in fact, who can match him for information, intelligence, independence and courage." In a 1937 letter to publisher Blanche Knopf, Mencken extended his good opinion of Schuyler beyond the realm of journalism: "Schuyler is the best writer the Negroes have ever produced, and moreover, he is a highly intelligent man.... He loves to tell the truth, and the truth in this case is full of surprises.... I really believe that he could give you something extraordinary."

In a 1933 letter to the American Mercury the poet Melvin Tolson declared Schuyler not only a notable writer but a remarkable person as well. Introducing Schuyler "both as a writer and a man," Tolson described him as one of the most "civilized" personalities on the American scene: "He stimulates more differences of opinion than any other Negro writer. His column 'Views and Reviews' ... is the most discussed column in Negro America." Tolson claimed to have heard Schuyler's opinions "attacked and defended in barber-shops, Jim Crow cars, pool rooms, class rooms, churches, and drawing rooms." Further supporting his characterization of Schuyler as a sophisticated personality and outstanding provocateur, Tolson praised the columnist for inspiring criticisms running from the sublime to the ridiculous and for enjoying with particular relish the most adverse statements of his detractors. "One evening in his apartment on Sugar Hill," Tolson revealed, "he showed me a scrapbook full of them, and I had many a hearty laugh myself." Again emphasizing Schuyler's popularity, Tolson wondered what would happen if the editor could say his own funeral sermon. He speculated playfully that the event would solve the railroad depression because "Aframerica" would send "her hundreds of thousands." They would come for a multitude of reasons, Tolson imagined, but they would all enjoy themselves.

In the early 1990s historian Robert Hill discovered more than seventy stories, some of them novel length, that Schuyler produced under eight pseudonyms during the 1930s. Although many of these stories seem on the surface somewhat formulaic attempts at newspaper fiction, a closer look reveals a much deeper complexity. Not only do they represent a major contribution to the fiction appearing in black newspapers during the period, but they also alter the interpretive challenge involved in understanding the intellectual and political breadth of Schuyler's omnivorous mind.

Considering the evidence for Schuyler's importance as an intellectual figure, we might wonder why his story has not received more detailed academic attention. The answer to this question may well be reduced to a single incident when Schuyler said the wrong thing, in the wrong tone, about the wrong man, at the wrong time: "Dr. King's principal contribution to world peace has been to roam the country like some sable Typhoid Mary infecting the mentally disturbed with perversion of Christian doctrine and grabbing fat lecture fees from the shallow-pated." Schuyler wrote this one month before Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. Continuing this line of thought, he asserted that King, like most of those receiving the prize awarded yearly to "pious frauds for the purposes of political propaganda," had done nothing to promote peace. In fact, Schuyler said, King's achievements had been closer to the opposite, considering his success in spreading mayhem all over the South by packing jails "with negroes and some whites, getting them beaten, bitten and firehosed, thereby raising bail and fines to the vast enrichment of Southern law 'n' order."

Although Schuyler's editorial appeared in the ultraconservative Manchester Union Leader, readers of the Pittsburgh Courier still heard about it. Predictably, many sent letters requesting the writer's dismissal. Anger and concern about the Courier's declining readership gave Schuyler's boss, P. L. Prattis, good reasons to dismiss him, but deference to Schuyler's many years of service would delay this until 1966, when a new owner purchased what little was left of the once great newspaper. Perhaps more amazing than Schuyler's 1966 dismissal from the Courier after forty-four years was the fact that the ownership tolerated him for so long. The King incident provided only one in a series of statements made by Schuyler that seemed almost calculated to make the vast majority of black people hate him. In this respect 1964 was a big year. Six months before the infamous King editorial, Schuyler ran for Congress for the Conservative Party of New York against Adam Clayton Powell Jr. During the campaign he claimed that Harlem was suffering the ravages of welfare colonialism begun during the Roosevelt era. Not surprisingly, he lost badly.

In July of the same year riots broke out in Harlem, Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and other northeastern cities. Ignoring the pleas of Prattis and other Courier editors, Schuyler seized the moment to extend his case against civil rights leaders. In a letter to the New York Times he placed the entire blame for the rioting on King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and James Foreman. Not long after his letter appeared, Schuyler said on a radio show in Missouri that he intended to vote for Barry Goldwater, a powerful congressional enemy of civil rights, in the upcoming presidential election. Naturally, controversy ensued. Prattis wrote a letter to Schuyler emphasizing the "incalculable harm" he had done. True to form, the iconoclast had few regrets. In a letter to Eleanor Lofton, the acting publisher of the Courier, Schuyler suggested that the situation might present an opportunity for "full-fledged debate" on the merits of civil rights and on "all other controversial matters." Neither Lofton nor Prattis shared Schuyler's enthusiasm for debate. Prattis sent him a terse note: "Don't send any more editorials."

As extreme as they seemed to Schuyler's superiors, the events of 1964 did not surprise anyone who had been following his column regularly. The King editorial provided only the most notable episode in a long series of editorial stabs aimed at the Civil Rights Movement dating back to the 1950s. Although he had many reasons for making such attacks, Schuyler's most outlandish accusations centered on the suspicion of communist influence on such men as King and Farmer. Where others saw black, Schuyler saw red. Some thought that he derived a perverse pleasure from accusing as many people as possible of working for the communist menace, especially if they fought for civil rights. These accusations punctuated an anticommunist career that also included enthusiastic support of Joseph McCarthy and vitriolic denunciation of such confirmed black communist leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson in the 1950s.

Although Schuyler denounced communism earlier in his career, he did not make a crusade of it until after World War II. In the late 1940s alone he devoted more than fifty articles in his Pittsburgh Courier column "Views and Reviews" to this cause. He also became a powerful promoter of American government propaganda. His most widely read essay of the period, "The Phantom American Negro," argues that the suffering black person so common in novels like Richard Wright's Native Son and in the minds of uninformed Europeans was a myth. He used a series of tendentiously selected statistics to show that not only had blacks made a tremendous amount of progress in America since the turn of the twentieth century, but they also enjoyed a higher standard of living than either their brethren in Africa or many of those who were "crying over them" in Europe. That an educated and informed black man would venture such an argument proved as important in making the article excellent propaganda as the argument itself, which downplayed the effects of racism. "The Phantom American Negro" began as an address to the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin with an almost unbelievable title: "The American Negro Question without Propaganda." Later it was inserted into the Congressional Record and reprinted in the Freeman, the Christian Science Monitor, Reader's Digest, and sixteen other publications.

No one really knows exactly why Schuyler, who claimed to be a socialist well into the 1930s, shifted during the 1940s from a leading voice on the left to one whose words would make a red-baiter like Westbrook Pegler urge whites to "read this Negro." Certainly Schuyler drifted rightward along with many former leftist intellectuals between the Great Depression and the age of "liberal consensus." The cruelties of fascism in Germany and Spain along with the moral disaster of Stalinism in Russia combined to convince such men as John Dos Passos, Max Eastman, and many others to abandon Marx only to turn to an opposing philosophy. No doubt, some of the circumstances affecting their attitudes and decisions had a similar impact on Schuyler; but his case also had its own special features. Becoming a conservative-especially an outspoken archconservative-allowed him to play his favorite game: flirting with the status of "race traitor." Schuyler's success in earning this label has markedly affected scholarly interpretations of his work. His positive critics have sought to avoid guilt by association, while his detractors have had to face the difficulty of explaining how they could find Schuyler odious but still interesting enough to write about. Most of Schuyler's positive critics have circumvented this problem by focusing almost exclusively on his literary works or on a part of his career that does not carry the same taint as the 1950s and the 1960s. His more hostile critics have inclined toward the opposite, tending to interpret his early works as part of the entire complex that brought him to what they see as the wrongheadedness of his later years.

This state of affairs exists in part because of how forcefully the Civil Rights Movement has affected the way Americans think about race. Among their many achievements-which include the passage of civil rights legislation, the inauguration of affirmative action policies, and the alteration of the consciousness of the average American about what constitutes racism-civil rights leaders as well as their interpreters have succeeded in associating The Movement with the very essence of black identity. Before the protests of the 1960s identification with disruptive political tactics formed one option among several. Afterward, however, it became something of an obligation as historians reconceived the black experience in terms of resistance and protest. The irony of Schuyler's case resides in how vehemently he resisted the resisters; how he saw in their radicalism a constraining orthodoxy covered over with mere symbols of assertion. In other words Schuyler saw in the civil rights activists fundamentally what they saw in him-and he did not like it. This is what remains so compelling about him. He provides one of the greatest examples of resistance black America has ever produced. Does it stretch irony too far to call him a representative man?

Schuyler always detested apology. Therefore, without mitigating the sheer ugliness of his 1964 editorial on King, we might recognize in it a series of targets that transcend mere personal attack. Among these targets racial orthodoxy stands out as the most obvious. Should blacks conform to a strict code of beliefs as a sign of race loyalty? Should they censure members of the group who do not conform? Schuyler also targets hero worship in his remarks on King. Should such a diverse group as black Americans line up behind a single charismatic leader? How much of the desire to do so should we attribute to the slavish need for a black messiah or, to put it in more secular terms, a benign black master exchanged for a white one? Although Schuyler questioned the political and psychological efficacy of applying a master narrative of individual heroism to black leaders, he also contradicted the tendency to glorify the folk. Do the black masses really have greater insight into matters of justice and freedom than other Americans? Should we think that they know exactly how to fight racism simply because they have suffered from it? Such tough questions challenge fundamental narratives that frame the activities of those most closely associated with positive social change on the race question. The mere willingness to bring such questions forward would have been enough to anger Schuyler's audience in 1964, but he went much farther than that.


Excerpted from The Sage of Sugar Hill by JEFFREY B. FERGUSON Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Farah Griffin

Schuyler is all too often left off lists of twentieth-century black intellectuals, yet there are few whose careers are so lengthy and fascinating. Ferguson’s study is a major contribution to our understanding of this important figure.—Farah Griffin, Columbia University

Eddie Glaude

This is a brilliant book. Jeffrey Ferguson has made an extraordinary contribution to the intellectual history of George Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance, and also to contemporary debates about the form and content of racial politics."Eddie Glaude, Princeton University

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