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  • George S. Schuyler's "Shafts and Darts"The Messenger Years, 1923-1924
  • Lawrence Howe (bio)

The Harlem Renaissance fostered African American identity and culture in a wide range of forms. The literature of this movement—poetry, novels, plays, and essays—established the careers of notable African American writers of the early twentieth century and influenced generations that followed. Among the Harlem literati of the day, George Schuyler, if mentioned at all, has been seen as a minor figure in this cultural watershed and remembered primarily for one essay, the frequently anthologized "The Negro Art Hokum," which was published in the Nation on June 16, 1926.

His sharp critique of the claim to a distinctive identity of "Negro" artists, a crucial tenet of the New Negro movement, prompted Langston Hughes to respond with "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which the Nation ran one week later. A handful of other works by Schuyler have been printed over the years, such as "Our Greatest Gift to America," published

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Figure 1.

George Schuyler, circa 1920. Schomburg Digital Collections, New York Public Library.

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in the 1929 Anthology of American Negro Literature, and "The Caucasian Problem," collected in Rayford Logan's What the Negro Wants (1944). More recently, Schuyler's acerbic satirical novel Black No More (1931) was reissued in 1989 by Northeastern University Press. The recirculation of this innovative satire was followed by Northeastern's 1991 publication of Schuyler's Black Empire, after its discovery by Robert Hill and Kent Rasmussen, editors at the Marcus Garvey Papers at UCLA. Black Empire had originally appeared in serial form in the Pittsburgh Courier from 1936 to 1938 under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. Over the course of forty years, the Courier published more than seventy other Schuyler texts, many of them serials that ran to twenty chapters; two of these novellas have been published as Ethiopian Stories by Northeastern University Press (1994). Schuyler's various works in the Courier appeared under seven pseudonyms, the majority as "Rachel Call," masking not only his identity but his gender as well. But it is in the longer works that we find sustained development of his shrewd satiric point of view.

Schuyler has been noted for his contrarian stances. His antithetical tendency first emerges in his writing for the Messenger, a radical Harlem monthly initiated by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, which ran from 1917 to 1928. The magazine promoted a radical labor perspective, in competition with popular African American magazines like Crisis, Opportunity, and the Crusader. Starting in this period, Schuyler's satirical targets were wide ranging. As Darryl Dickson-Carr observes, "Both the magazine and its resident satirist were instrumental in grinding into dust the reputations of such 'race leaders' as Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson, Robert Russa Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, Dean Kelly Miller of Howard University, Mississippi's race-baiting Senator Bilbo, and Cyril V. Briggs's stridently Marxist African Blood Brotherhood."1

Until recently, the Messenger's influence had been recognized in just one book-length study, No Crystal Stair: Black Life and the "Messenger," 1917–1928 (1975) by Theodore Kornweibel Jr. After a twenty-five-year delay, Schuyler's role in that publication began to garner long overdue critical attention. Sondra K. Wilson's anthology The "Messenger" Reader (2000) reprinted two [End Page 111]

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Figure 2.

Cover of the Messenger. Courtesy of Newberry Library.

Schuyler short stories and a one-act play that appeared in the pages of the magazine. In 2001, Jeffrey B. Leak edited the collection Rac(e)ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler, reissuing writing from across his career. Jeffrey Ferguson's biography The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance (2005) has provided a more complete picture of [End Page 112] the man at this early stage of his career. And most recently, Dickson-Carr's Spoofing the Modern: Satire in the Harlem Renaissance (2015) includes a chapter devoted to Schuyler's iconoclastic attitude as expressed in his writing for the Messenger.

Despite this recent attention, much of Schuyler's...