By Lise Funderburg
QBR The Black Book Review
COMPOSITION IN BLACK AND WHITE: The Life of Philippa Schuyler
by Kathryn Talalay
Oxford University Press (317 pp.)
hardcover: $30, ISBN 0-19-509608-8
As a child prodigy, pianist and composer, Philippa Duke Schuyler incited both awe and envy. Performing at the 1939 New York World’s Fair when she was just eight, she seemed to live a charmed life, full of whirlwind concert tours in distant lands, where she met politicians, artists and royals. But while she was known as a gifted and serious musician and, later, a journalist, she was also viewed as the quintessential tragic mulatto. (Her father was the conservative black journalist and satirical novelist George Schuyler; her mother, a rebellious white Southern belle who married across the color line.) She seemed trapped at times by her talents and the constraints of relentlessly watchful parents whose aspirations for her were often suffocating. She acquired a reputation both as a temptress whose greatest interest in life was men and sex and as a perpetually frightened child. When she died in 1967, at age 35, in a helicopter crash in Vietnam during a war-orphan airlift, she met with a final irony. For all her achievements and worldliness, she could not swim to save her life.
Her parents were clearly outside the mainstream. Even as he spent decades affiliated with the NAACP’s The Crisis and the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier, George Schuyler’s conservative politics set him apart from the standard race man: He was one of the few black members of the John Birch Society and he labeled Martin Luther King Jr. a “sable Typhoid Mary.” Philippa’s mother, Josephine Cogdell Schuyler kept the news of her marriage and later of Philippa’s birth, from all but a the most trusted of Texas relatives. During her self-imposed exile in Harlem’s Sugar Hill, she turned all available attentions to her only child, wanting Philippa’s accomplishments to serve as proof of the theories she shared with her husband about “hybrid vigor.’ And Philippa was precocious: before she was two-and-a-half, she was reading and writing.
Perhaps the best-recorded time in her a life were her earliest years, when her mother kept an excruciatingly careful account of her development. It was a chronicle of unorthodox parenting, since Josephine was keen on avant-garde theorists who stressed atypical diet (uncooked meats, for example) and restricted displays of affection.
Certainly Philippa Schuyler’s is a life to explore. Kathryn Talalay writes in her preface that this book was 12 years in the making, during which time she sorted through mounds of correspondence and traveled extensively to interview friends and acquaintances before they passed away. Talalay authoritatively reconstructs certain episodes, among them Philippa’s short-lived attempt to assume an Iberian-American identity (including the name Felipa Moterro y Schuyler) in order to shed her “negritude.” But there are so many other instances — a failed rendezvous with a former lover, for example — that are merely rough sketches and where the biographer has had to concede that “I was never able to declare this case closed.”
Talalay places Philippa’s racial identity at the center of this biography and rightfully so. Here was a woman whose parents placed tremendous expectations on her to transcend race, even as her music career was constantly limited by it. Philippa had few opportunities to make real friends among any racial group and never developed a community of support beyond her immediate family, which had its own tensions and estrangements. Her father, who adored her, was frequently away on reporting trips. As Philippa grew older, she began to see his politics and his color as embarrassments. When he ventured to spend five pages of a l50-word manuscript, The Negro in America, on his daughter, she wrote to her mother from Europe: “Get me OUT of that book. Everyone here thinks of me as a Latin, and that’s the way I want it. Anyone who had any paternal sentiments would want a child to escape suffering.” Her mother, whom the author describes as “forever Machiavellian,” collaborated on Philippa’s many acts of racial passing. As Talalay found in her research into George Schuyler’s papers, to this day the manuscript has not one, but three blank pieces of paper taped over each of the five pages concerning Philippa.
Where Talalay fails to illuminate her subject, is when she portrays Philippa’s racial psychology in such broad strokes that it loses actual, specific meaning — a common flaw in depictions of mixed-race people. “[Her] racial makeup, a kind of chiaroscuro, signified her own duality,” Talalay writes. Do we ever really understand how? Not from the simplistic analysis to which the writer occasionally falls prey. Describing Philippa in her 30s, Talalay attempts to explain one of the low emotional swings Philippa was prone to by surveying photographs taken of her at that time. “There is something elusive and disquieting about them,” Talalay writes. “Philippa appears to be staring out into the middle distance. And it is difficult to size up Philippa, as if her constant search for an identity had indeed fragmented her force vital. In some photos, Phil appears African American, in others, white; in still others she looks Hispanic. In Vietnam, a long, straight wig flowing over her ao-dai, she could easily be mistaken for Asian.”
Philippa Duke Schuyler would be a good candidate for the psychological theory du jour, the emotional intelligence test. From her relationships with her parents and with the many men who were first drawn to but ultimately repelled by her, as well as in her profound lack of friendships, she obviously did not possess social skills and psychological insight to match her intellect. Much of this may have had to do with her relationship with Josephine, the poster-mom for maternal over-involvement. Talalay does a fine job of drawing this disturbing family portrait in which race is only one component in an arsenal of psychological weaponry.
This ambitious biography of Philippa Duke Schuyler is long overdue. But what has kept other would-be biographers from undertaking the project — scant primary or secondary sources (none of the immediate family were alive when Talalay started her work) — is what detracts from Talalay’s impressive effort.
In all fairness, it’s likely that no one fully understood Philippa (including Philippa herself), but that is still the biographer’s charge. Many readers who finish this book will be left to wonder what Philippa Schuyler was actually like — what she thought of her life, of her parents, of her place within the American construct of race. As it is, her essence is only hinted at in this book. We feel her like a zephyr, intriguing and full of promise, but only a hint of the winds that really blew.