George Samuel Schuyler (1895-1977)
Contributing Editor: Michael W. Peplow
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Satire, especially the harsher Juvenalian mode, upsets students, who see it as too negative. And when satire deals with an emotional issue such as racial prejudice, it becomes even more controversial. Some students find Schuyler's satire offensive. In addition--though it has universal overtones--"Our Greatest Gift to America" is still a 1920s period piece. Some of the issues and language pose problems for modern students.
I make sure my students have a working definition of satire and, as we read the essay, I discuss the satiric devices Schuyler employs. Once we have finished reading the essay, I ask students to discuss why Schuyler chose satire and whether his approach was effective. The more background the students have in Juvenal, Swift, Twain, Bierce, and H. L. Mencken (Schuyler's mentor and friend), the better the essay works in class.
I also make sure my students read some "straight" essays that address the racial situation in the 1920s. Articles from the NAACP's Crisis are helpful, especially those by its editor, W.E.B. Du Bois (see Daniel Walden, ed., W.E.B. Du Bois: The Crisis Writings [Greenwich: Fawcett, 1972]). The more exposure students have had to African-American and other minority literatures, the more they will appreciate Schuyler. I give students notes on the Harlem (or New Negro) Renaissance and read passages from Alain Locke's "The New Negro." I tell students about KKK activities and lynchings in the 1920s. I show them copies of The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper for which Schuyler worked, that featured essays on race pride but included advertisements for skin lighteners and hair straighteners. For the teacher who does not have access to these materials, a valuable resource tool is The Chronological History of the Negro in America.
Students sometimes say the essay is too depressing, that Schuyler exaggerates and distorts the way things really were. They feel Schuyler so denigrates blacks that he must have been disgusted with his own people and secretly desired to be white himself. Finally, students say the essay is not relevant because people just aren't prejudiced any longer. Prejudice is not a comfortable thing to admit or discuss in class. It's easier to laugh a bit nervously and go on to the next essay. But questions about present-day prejudices lead to often dramatic discussions: fraternities or athletes on campus; a racial or religious or national group (Iranians, for example); AIDS victims and welfare recipients and street people--the list goes on.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The historical issues include American racism, the Harlem Renaissance vogue, the tendency of some black publications to preach race pride and at the same time publish skin lightening and hair straightening advertisements, the tendency of some black leaders to profit from American racism, and the all too prevalent belief among whites--and blacks--that "white is right." (You might remind students of an old black saying: "If you're white, you're all right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back.")
The personal issues include Schuyler's own encounters with racism in the army and during his journalistic tours, his courtship of and eventual marriage to a white woman, and his life-long belief that America's "colorphobia" was so absurd it merited scathing ridicule.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
1. What literary conventions does Schuyler employ in his satire?
The purpose of satire is to mock or ridicule human follies or vices. Horatian satire tends to be light, often comic, the assumption being that humans are more foolish than sinful and that they are capable of reformation. Juvenalian satire--Schuyler's mode--is harsh and slashing, the assumption being that humans are so corrupted they are beyond reformation. In an early newspaper column Schuyler wrote that his dominant motive was malice and that his intent was "to slur, lampoon, damn, and occasionally praise anybody or anything in the known universe, not excepting the President of the Immortals." In his long career he rarely praised but did much damning, so much so that he was accused in a Crisis editorial in 1965 of being the incurable iconoclast who "dips his pen in his ever-handy [well] of acid."
In "Our Greatest Gift" Schuyler creates a satiric persona much as his role model Swift did in "A Modest Proposal" and Gulliver's Travels (note the reference to "Brobdingnagian"). Schuyler's persona seems to be an intelligent but "plain folks" black man, literate and unafraid to speak the truth. He despises the inner circle of black intellectuals for their willingness to capitalize on racial tension and their secret belief that "white is right." He also despises redneck whites who believe a white skin makes them special. Both groups he sets out to shock; he even uses a number of current racial slurs. By the end of the essay, the persona seems to have become so disgusted with America's "colorphobia" that he sounds like the compleat misanthrope who despairs of ever converting America to rational behavior.
Another technique Schuyler the satirist employs is irony--saying or implying the opposite of what one really believes. Throughout the essay--from the words "greatest gift" in the title, through references to "this enlightened nation" and "our incomparable civilization," to the devastating final paragraph--Schuyler is savagely ironic.
A third technique Schuyler employs is exaggeration. Whether describing black poets, race leaders, or whites, Schuyler's portraits deliberately overstate. His character sketches of three "noble rednecks"-- Isadore Shankersoff, Cyrus Leviticus Dumbbell, and Dorothy Dunce--are vintage Schuyler and anticipate his much more extended character sketches in Black No More.
2. What literary school does Schuyler belong to?
Schuyler, noted the 1965 Crisis editorial, was "a veteran dissenter and incurable iconoclast," one of that "select breed of moral crusaders and apparent social misfits who, as journalists, delighted in breaking the idols of the tribe." He is a direct descendant of Ambrose Bierce, the "caustic columnist" from San Francisco and author of "The Devil's Dictionary" and The Satanic Reader, of Brann the Iconoclast, of H. L. Mencken, the founder and editor of The American Mercury. He also worked side by side with important 1920s black iconoclasts: Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, Theophilus Lewis and Wallace Thurman, W.E.B. Du Bois and Rudolph Fisher--each of whom was capable of idol-smashing but not on the sustained level that Schuyler was. On an even larger scale, Schuyler, as noted before, was a satirist in the tradition of Juvenal, Swift, and Twain, all of whom he studied and admired.
1. Schuyler's audience was primarily black--the essay appeared in a black publication that was read by the very racial leaders Schuyler lampoons in the first part of his essay. If any whites read it at the time, they would have been those who, in typical Harlem Renaissance fashion, became obsessed with exotic and primitive blacks (see Rudolph Fisher, "The Caucasian Storms Harlem," in Huggins's Voices from the Harlem Renaissance; for a good example of white fascination with blacks, see Carl Van Vechten's melodramatic Nigger Heaven).
2. As suggested earlier, today's audience will have difficulty relating to "Our Greatest Gift." White students usually insist that the essay is dated because there are no more lynchings or overt acts of prejudice. Black students are sometimes offended by the racial epithets and the glancing attacks on black leaders. The teacher who wishes to challenge contemporary smugness can have a field day: Is white racism really dead? Do black or other leaders ever capitalize on racial tension? Is there still a "white is right" mentality in America?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
There is no one author to whom Schuyler compares well, though he uses the same satiric devices that Juvenal, Swift, and Twain employ and the same iconoclastic manner that characterized Bierce, Brann, Mencken, Fisher, Lewis, and Thurman.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Schuyler attacks two groups of people in his essay. Who are they? Is he even-handed in his double attack?
(b) What is the satire? Distinguish between Juvenalian and Horatian satire and decide which mode Schuyler preferred.
(c) What was the Harlem Renaissance?
2. (a) Have half the class (include the more creative writers) write a satire attacking a controversial issue à la Schuyler. Use a persona, employ irony, and develop two or three exaggerated character sketches. Have the rest of the class write reasoned essays on the same issue. Have the class discuss the best essays from both groups and determine which type of approach--satire or reasoned essay--is more effective, and why.
(b) Write a response to Schuyler's article assuming the persona of a white racist or a black nationalist in Schuyler's own time.
(c) First discuss in class and then write an essay on the following: A Modern Response to Schuyler's "Our Greatest Gift to America."