Josephine Cogdell Schuyler:
"The Fall of a Fair Confederate"
Most of America is crazy on the race question. -- Josephine Cogdell Schuyler
My purpose? To break down race prejudice that my children may not suffer as my husband and my friends in Harlem . . . and that families like the one in which I was born may cease to exist. — Josephine Cogdell Schuyler
Sad Are Beautiful Revenges. -- Josephine Cogdell Schuyler
It almost did not happen. But late on a cloudy, unseasonably warm Friday in early January 1928, a petite, graceful white Texas beauty named Josephine Cogdell slipped into the New York City marriage license bureau with her black lover, George Schuyler, Harlem's most biting satirist and a widely published journalist: a short, dark, elegant man with excellent manners, an arch wit, and a sardonic smile. They were exceptionally well dressed, dignified, and mature — both in their early thirties — but they were being treated like children, conducted from one corner of the municipal building to another by scowling officials, then rushed through the steps of their civil ceremony without explanation or congratulation. A graying justice of the peace, anxious to clear his desk and get home, read from a perfunctory script without looking up. George barely had time to peck Josephine's cheek before they were hustled outside again, where they found themselves standing on the stone steps, left alone to adjust to their new status under the muted colors of a winter sunset slanting through lower Manhattan's administrative buildings. Josephine looked up from under her new green hat, swayed, and steadied herself with a gloved hand on George's arm.
She had succumbed in a daze to the disappointing ceremony. Now she imagined that she "was being abducted by a dark prince who would take me to his castle in an exotic new land." The weight of racial intolerance was bearing down on her, demanding that she sacrifice "everything I knew" and bid an "emotional farewell" to the white world. She feared that she would never again return to what she knew or be known for who she was. It felt like dying. "I have dropped completely out of sight. No one in the white world . . . knows my whereabouts or will ever know."
Josephine was admittedly "dramatic." And she would have acknowledged being theatrical about having to "cast my lot henceforth with the Negro." But for all of her hyperbole, she was not understating the vertigo--inducing stakes of marrying George that day. The taboo against interracial intimacy, or miscegenation as it was still then called, was fundamental to maintaining myths of racial difference and purity. In 1928, blacks and whites lived in such different worlds that white women who married black men did undergo a kind of social death, often expelled from family, home, and community. As they attempted to enter a black world in which their presence was an unwelcome reminder of inequality and oppression, they often found themselves without kin, church, or familiar social networks. Many crossed over without knowing much about black cultural expectations or black history. Some knew only a few black -people. Most were ill equipped to face the hostile reaction they engendered or to fit into the new world they had chosen.
The newspapers, meanwhile, were thick with warnings to race--crossers. An assistant professor at a medical college in Virginia had recently been fired for remarking, hypothetically, that she'd prefer to "marry an intellectual and highly cultured 'Negro' than an inferior type of 'white man.' " In Poughkeepsie, New York, a black man was charged with "second degree criminal assault" for the "crime" of living with his white wife — in a state that had no laws prohibiting intermarriage. Only one state over, in Connecticut, Beatrice Taylor, a Mayflower descendant, could not find a single minister willing to marry her to her fiancé, -Clarence, "who looks white, but isn't." In Washington Heights in New York City, white Helen Croute was beaten by white neighbors who resented her marriage to a black man. Marriages that were routine in every way but race, such as that between Edith Sproul and Jerome Peterson, two young medical students at Columbia University, were described in full--page spreads. The Jack Johnson case lived on in an angry white imagination of the "growing evil" of intermarriage. And the Rhinelander case, with its painful reminders that even where interracial marriage was legal, it was still considered immoral, and that those who crossed race lines might be subject to untold and unimaginable humiliation, was still headline matter in 1928.
Intolerance of interracial intimacy was not confined only to southerners. Nor only to whites: the black press, albeit less hysterical, was hardly more supportive. With "social sensibilities [against intermarriage] . . . intensifying on both sides of the [color] line" throughout the twenties, many black editors were quick to pronounce interracial unions "unwise" and insist that their papers had "never argued for racial intermarriage." Some claimed that most blacks were not "overeager to marry into the white race" and felt, as a race, "neither eagerness nor expectation of intermarriage or amalgamation." An "uncharitable attitude" toward blacks who married whites was sometimes justified in the black press with reference to the long history of the trouble that white women had visited upon black -people. Almost as many blacks as whites had objected to the "miscegenation theme" of Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924. And more than ten years after Johnson walked away from prison, black readers were still writing letters to editors lamenting that the fighter had not married "some worthy black woman" rather than the two white wives who had brought the black community such bad press.
Marriages between black men and white women, as George and Josephine well knew, were especially stigmatized. It was fashionable to cross race lines in cities such as New York and Paris if one crossed them just so: dancing at nightclubs, watching black revues on Broadway, visiting black churches, sponsoring black literature and arts, and attending interracial parties. But marrying black men, even where such marriages were legal, was not part of the accepted Harlem "vogue." Josephine noted a "difference in attitude among Aframericans [George's word] -toward the Alice and Kip Rhinelander affair and the two marriages of Jack Johnson." She knew that "love between a white woman and a black man was sensational even in the tumulte noir of the 1920s."
Josephine and George were newspaper buffs. To keep up with his competition, in fact, George sometimes read as many as a dozen papers a day. Josephine had been reading black papers since the early 1920s, when she had departed Texas for San Francisco. (In fact, they had met through The Messenger, which he edited and to which she subscribed.) Both were keenly aware that they were making themselves "outcasts." Their chief worry that day was keeping their marriage a secret from Josephine's family. "My family is incapable of ever understanding my marriage as anything but insane and disgraceful," Josephine believed.
Racial norms are maintained, for the most part, in the breach. Those who crossed race lines in the 1920s and 1930s could expect "crazy" retaliation — not only beatings, murder, or ostracism but also the loss of social identity that the court's assault on Alice Jones Rhinelander's womanhood demonstrated. The tabloids would have been thrilled to obtain a photo of the Texas heiress and the smirking black writer. As it happened, the Schuylers married on a day when the nation's attention was riveted on Charles Lindbergh's successful landing in Nicaragua. Taking advantage of that, marrying late in the day, informing no one of their plans, and deploying every subterfuge they could devise, the -couple successfully evaded the very press attention that, a few years later, when their daughter was born, they would begin to actively court.
During the Depression, George and Josephine became Harlem's most vocal proponents of intermarriage, advocating interracial intimacy as "the permanent solution," Josephine called it, to America's race problem. With Josephine's help, George became "the most recognizable name in black journalism . . . a star." Their daughter, Philippa, born in 1931, turned out to be a genius, and they proudly showed her off as an example of the benefits of "miscegenation." Josephine had very set — and unusual — views about child rearing that Philippa's musical talent helped her disseminate. Prominent publications such as Life, Time, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, as well as Ebony, The Pittsburgh Courier, and many other national black magazines, profiled the Schuyler family. Josephine and George became "the first interracial celebrity marriage in Harlem since the [marriages of] boxer Jack Johnson."
For the next two decades, the Schuylers straddled contradictions. They were a national news item — "America's Strangest Family," as one magazine put it. Amazingly enough, given the mainstream coverage, they were also kept a secret from the Texas Cogdells. Every Christmas, D. C. Cogdell sent his daughter in New York a big box of pecans harvested from the family's trees. He never imagined that in their apartment in Harlem's tony "Sugar Hill," a black son--in--law would eat the nuts while reading Opportunity and writing about the absurdities of the "pork--skins," while a "mulatta" granddaughter, in her room down the hall, ate the pecans while practicing her piano. Josephine's sisters came to see her in New York, even visited her Harlem apartment, yet remained somehow unaware of both husband and daughter. Family mail was addressed to Miss Josephine Cogdell or to her pen name, Heba -J-annath. Every year, Josephine went home to Texas alone. No one asked questions. George found the studied silence remarkable. He tested it by writing about it in Modern Quarterly, a well--known socialist journal with a mostly white, national readership. "It is incredible," he remarked, "how long a mixed -couple can be married, their marriage be well known throughout Aframerica, and yet be unknown in the white world. . . . Nothing more forcibly reveals the social chasm dividing the two races." In a world where blacks and whites led separate lives, whites could afford not to know what they could not accept. Women like Josephine could hide not only in plain sight but under klieg lights.
In addition to straddling the nation's contradictions over privacy and publicity, the Schuylers embodied all of their era's contradictory ideas about race itself. They became Harlem's most strident anti-essentialists, arguing that the "general terms 'Negro' and 'Caucasian,' 'black' and 'white' are convenient propaganda devices" and that "race is a superstitution [sic]." Yet they also constructed a marriage based on the erotic appeal of the very difference they decried. Sometimes they advocated all manner of passing and race-crossing, believing that none of us have "our own" -people, distinct from others. At other times, they talked about "we" or "us" in ways that were inescapably racialized.
Today, when we are surrounded by interracial images, it may be hard to grasp how brave George and Josephine were in their time. The lines they crossed did not begin to break down until recently. The first interracial kiss, for example, did not take place on television until the late 1960s. In the 1920s and 1930s, these were not lines that most -people were willing to cross in the open. But Josephine and George founded their marriage on their shared willingness to brave censure, violence, and isolation for what they thought was right. As they often put it, they spent their lives trying to "break down race prejudice" so that the challenges they faced would fade in future generations.
To that task they brought their own myriad contradictions about race. Throughout their lives, the two principals of Harlem's "interracial celebrity marriage" oscillated among all of the available positions on the race debates of their day (debates that remain central in ours): Is "race blindness" a goal or another form of racism? Can one attack racial essentialism and still celebrate race difference? What, if anything, do we owe our "own" race? Can we switch races, opting for an identity based on affiliation rather than blood? Sometimes the oscillation brought them closer together. Sometimes it drove a wedge between them. In that, too, they mirrored the texture of political and emotional ties in Harlem. Those were the questions creating mixed reactions to blond, blue-eyed NAACP leader Walter White's decision to declare himself black and use his light skin to go undercover among lynchers. These questions created the divided view that Zora Neale Hurston was both too race--proud and too white--focused. They generated controversy about white Annie Nathan Meyer's Black Souls, held up as a model for black theater. They fueled an uproar over white writer Carl Van Vechten's 1926 novel Nigger Heaven.
Carl Van Vechten was one of the Schuylers' best friends and a walking set of contradictions all by himself. He paid a telling tribute to his friend Josephine. In addition to being Harlem's most famous "honorary Negro," Van Vechten was also an incurable pack rat and kept every scrap of paper that ever came his way (much to the horror of his wife, Fania, who had to move his teetering piles in order to sit down anywhere in their huge Central Park West apartment). Van Vechten loved letters. He wrote thousands of them, was unusually well connected, and was one of the best correspondents of the century. His correspondence registry reads like a Who's Who of the epoch: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Muriel Draper, Theodore Dreiser, Waldo Frank, Lillian Gish, Fannie Hurst, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, Ethel Waters, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, W. E. B. Du Bois, Dorothy Peterson, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, Countée Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and others. When it came time to turn that vast archive of letters over to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University as the core of the collection Van Vechten created and named for his friend James Weldon Johnson, he faced a difficult decision: should he retain or discard the filing system that he had used at home and that had been so important to him for decades? In Van Vechten's careful system, every letter he kept (which means every letter he ever received) was meticulously categorized under either "Letters from Blacks" or "Letters from Whites." This system was not merely a clerical convenience; over the years it became one of the nation's best resources for determining the race of less--known members of modern America's literary and artistic circles. Van Vechten built his reputation as an "honorary Negro" partly on his ability to detect anyone's race. He prided himself on being the one who could always "tell the sheep from the goats," as Nella Larsen put it in a famous caricature of him. His racial radar, as we would now say, proved his bicultural bona fides. There is only one exception in this vast racial schema: all of Jo-sephine's letters he placed under "B: Letters from Blacks."
Why? In part it was an inside joke between fellow race-crossers. In just the same playful spirit, Josephine sometimes referred to them all — Carl, Fania, George, and herself (all white, except for George) — as "Us Darkies."
But Van Vechten's sly miscategorization was also his homage to Josephine's effort. He put his friend where she did her best to fit in, detractors and naysayers be damned. This tribute recognized that once she had married George and given birth to Philippa, she did not "belong" anywhere and ceased, in an important sense, to be white. As a married bisexual and "honorary Negro" hated by many whites, Van Vechten had a keen sense of the costs, and the joys, of not fitting in. As he knew well, freedom from constraints is a taxing kind of freedom. It is different from the freedom that comes from privilege and standing: freedom to — to represent oneself, express oneself, pursue happiness, and so on, all the freedoms we pursue within our socially recognized identities rather than by escaping them. We do not have to look far, Van Vechten was keenly aware, to find unhappy stories of those who free themselves from social categories only to find that they have nowhere to go.
On January 6, 1928, as she stood on the steps of the municipal building, all of those challenges and questions were still in her future. -Josephine's objective that darkening Friday winter afternoon was simpler. She was trying not to faint.
Miss Anne In Harlem by Carla Kaplan Copyright (c) 2013 by Carla Kaplan. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.