From Marxist to Black Conservative
George S. Schuyler (1895–1977) is one of the most consequential black conservative columnists in American history. His autobiography Black and Conservative, published in 1966, sketches the voyage of his life. It explores his journey from being the son of a head chef, his time in the military, to his eventual days as a conservative columnist—a drastic change from his quondam Marxism. Although the book becomes tremendously fascinating when the text centers around the development of Schuyler’s philosophical and political views, the rest of the narrative is stultifying. The details of his life are of less interest than the ideas that life produced. One can find the liveliest prose when Schuyler quotes his own political columns. Despite being a celebrated writer with great wit, his life story, as presented, simply does not translate into a compelling read.
Early in the text, Schuyler expertly highlights how the history of black survival in America is distinctly conservative. Schuyler’s conception of conservatism is commendable. He goes beyond the unoriginal, albeit true, argument that blacks have socially conservative politics and points out how, on the whole, black ingenuity and discipline in the United States is the quintessential example of conservatism in praxis. Comparing blacks favorably with Native American groups, Schuyler maintains that black Americans avoided pitfalls that other groups did not, which he attributes to the estimable group intelligence of African Americans.
Schuyler’s eupeptic analysis of black Americans is in stark contradistinction to the decidedly negative narrative pushed by many current black conservatives. Fame-oriented black conservatism—the brand of black conservatism that leads to celebrity status within the mainstream conservative movement—allows blacks to make careers off the exaggeration of black problems for the titillation of white conservative audiences. If anything, Schuyler’s analysis of American blackness demonstrates that there has been a fundamental shift in the kind of analysis that constitutes black conservative thought. For most of history, black conservatism has always been solution-oriented and pro-black. Pro-blackness cannot, however, be considered a feature of fame-oriented black conservatism, which is the most visible kind of black conservatism today.
One of the early themes in Black and Conservative is education. Schuyler enjoyed reading and learning. From a young age, he studied geography and English, which came to good use when he taught both subjects to soldiers during his tenure in the army. Although education is certainly not exclusive to those who subscribe to a conservative worldview—and Schuyler was not a conservative at the time he became fascinated with bookish learning—it is often a precursor to conservatism, inasmuch as understanding history, economics, and philosophy is necessary for a knowledgeable conservatism.
Schuyler also demonstrated a tendency to learn independently, and he studiously consumed socialist literature in his younger days. After immersing himself in Marxist writings, Schuyler found that the prominent tomes in the genre were overwhelmingly soporific. He notes that there was only one Marxist text that he read containing any kind of humor: Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy. As a result of his voracious reading, Schuyler penned several pamphlets on Marxist philosophy.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Schuyler’s analysis of Marcus Garvey’s philosophy. Schuyler argues that Garvey demonstrated an uninhibited antipathy towards whites and mixed-race people, views which were not foreign in his home country of Jamaica. Schuyler emphatically opposed Garvey’s idea that blacks should attempt to go back to Africa, and he argues that blacks should view America as a home. Between Schuyler and Garvey, one can see the patent distinction between Americentric black conservatism and Afrocentric black conservatism; American patriotism is a feature only of the former. Despite the tendency of scholars to focus on the United States when writing about black conservatism, there is nothing intrinsically American about conservative philosophy. Although Schuyler and Garvey disagreed regarding nationalism, there were more similarities in their philosophies than differences.
Upon discovering conservatism, Schuyler began writing denunciatory columns about Marxism and its black American adherents. Curiously, despite the title of this book, Schuyler is conspicuously evasive vis-à-vis both the genesis and the intricacies of his rejection of Marxism and acceptance of conservative philosophy. He also inveighs against the mob tactics of African Americans who took to the streets to agitate for civil rights. While some of Schuyler’s points are well taken, he falls into the unfortunate trap of engaging in the kind of rhetorical flamboyance that leads to sheer imbecility. One such moment is found towards the end of the book when Schuyler argues that black leaders, by protesting racism, are more culpable for the proliferation of racial strife than the Ku Klux Klan. This is arrant, unsupportable nonsense. Schuyler’s absurdist analysis is essentially the crudest form of victim-blaming.
Black conservatives, as dissenters from the black political mainstream, often must make their points evocatively and compellingly to be heard within the black community. This sometimes leads to regrettable excesses that render those points lost in needlessly ostentatious rhetorical framing. While there is certainly a point to be made about the imprudence of mere protest as a civil rights strategy, it is simply unconscionable to make any kind of moral equivalence between a terrorist group formed explicitly to extirpate black lives and those fighting such malefic and genocidal barbarism.
Schuyler’s rhetorical extravagances become more understandable when one discovers that he was a mentee of the famed polemicist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken. While there is definitely space for polemicists in cultural criticism, it is important to recall that polemicists have the tendency to sacrifice dialectical argumentation for the attention that comes from exaggerated, performative disagreement. They garner attention but can cheapen important points that are more suited to sober analysis. Polemicists, then, can only be serious thinkers to the extent that they are willing to prioritize serious thought above attention-garnering antics.
Nevertheless, Schuyler is an important black conservative whose work should be more widely known by all conservatives. His columns serve as proof that he was a very talented writer. Schuyler’s relative obscurity in the twenty-first century certainly means that people are missing out on experiencing his remarkable gift. With that said, his autobiography can be characterized in the same way that he describes many of the Marxist texts he delved into during his younger days. The book is excruciatingly dull, aside from a few moments of philosophical and literary liveliness. The dullness of the book, however, does not take away from the refulgence of Schuyler’s literary ability. His columns should be read, but his autobiography can be skipped.
Chidike Okeem is a writer. He was born in Igboland (Southeastern Nigeria) and raised in London, England. After a decade in Northern California, he now lives in Dallas, Texas.
Posted: February 19, 2017
Did you see this one?
Safer in Minnesota
James V. Schall, S.J.
Volume 47, Number 1 (Winter 2010)