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Page 23
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Contested Identity: Schuyler vs Schuyler

By Arthur H. Dorland

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I was musing one day about child prodigies. Every once in a while you hear a report about some incredible youngster who accomplishes incredible things, and then you hear no more. What happens to them? By coincidence I ran across a magazine article about just such a child. Philippa Duke Schuyler was a half black/half white piano prodigy with an IQ of 185 interviewed by The New Yorker in 1940 when she was eight years old. Why should readers of a US veterans' publication all these years later have any interest in this story? Philippa Duke Schuyler, half black/half white piano prodigy with an IQ of 185 died in a military helicopter crash at DaNang, Vietnam in 1967.

She was born in a wealthy area of Harlem two years into the depression. George Schuyler, the father, wrote for his living and wrote exceedingly well. A Northern born black journalist, he had been sent by his paper upon menacing undercover trips into the deep South to investigate American racism, as well as into East Africa and Liberia to reveal black on black slavery, something perhaps as little known then as it is now. Philippa's mother Jody was the ''black sheep'' of a rich white Texas cattle and cotton family that could have posed for a Faulkner novel. These two very different, distinct people met and married with the acknowledged grand design of producing a biracial child whose natural and evident superiority would proclaim the one way, as they saw it, to solve America's race problem. Miscegenation—mass miscegenation—was to be the answer. An invigorated miscegenated new generation would replace the failing segregated old one. If only.

And lo, they did produce just such a child. Philippa Schuyler was a project, a product you might say, of what the parents considered scientific breeding. When the girl reached thirteen they revealed to her for the first time volumes of diary entries documenting all this. In spite of the parents' obvious and prideful love for their daughter, you can't help wondering what sort of damage this must have done. Suddenly and without preparation—she was an only child enjoying little contact with others her age—Philippa would confront an uncomfortable image staring back at her in the bathroom mirror: a lab rat at large, a ''study'', a livestock experiment. Wasn't that inevitable? How could these intelligent parents not see, not foresee?

She was also protected from the inconveniences of her racial identity. The well appointed Edgecombe Avenue apartment was an economic and cultural world away from your typical Harlem dwelling. This is where the young child learned piano by the age of three and had worked her scholarly way through Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Romans and Greeks a year later. She was shielded from black poverty.

Philippa not only played piano but composed pieces of her own. For ordinary schooling, required by law at the age of eight, the parents enrolled her in a Catholic convent school. By this time she was becoming quite a celebrity, the admired friend of important people like Mayor LaGuardia, and written up in the press. Concerts were arranged together with radio appearances. Life was tantalizing and good for the little mixed race genius. But she was growing up.

And now there were concerts all over the world, arranged for the most part by her ambitious, not to say pushy, mother. It's no secret that a parent's displaced ambition can be an intolerable burden for the child, and that was to come. By her teenage years and moving on into adulthood Philippa Schuyler was concertizing across the world and performing before movers and shakers like the Queen of Belgium, Albert Schweitzer, and leading figures in the newly decolonized countries of Africa. Some of these events were glamorous affairs, attracting sophisticated and appreciative audiences in London and Paris. Others, especially in Africa and South America, involved stays in dicey hotels under gunfire from local revolutionaries. When she played for Schweitzer at his hospital in Gabon she was furnished a flashlight and large stick to goose the snakes on the way to the privy. Not every concert performer would accept such conditions; material was congealing for future writings.

But things began to change musically and personally. The now grown up half caste artist, beautiful to behold and masterful on the keyboard, was still in comfortable demand in the concert halls of Europe and much of the rest of the world. In the United States, though, the blush was deserting the peach and bookings she got were primarily before black audiences. American racism began locking the recital hall doors. Less and less was Philippa Duke Schuyler of Harlem the precious and crowd pleasing child prodigy.

The increasingly driven—and driving—mother, Jody, who was also principal booking agent, was unable to fix this. Ignoring it altogether, which seems today a possible approach, was somehow not possible. Acceptance by the American musical world became the great unattainable goal, a grail in a distant cloud, choking off all success in the wider world. By sudden and painful steps Philippa Schuyler began to wash out her black background.

First thing to go was her name. Philippa Duke Schuyler now appeared on recital notifications as Felipa Monterro y Schuyler, Spanish or Latin American concertista. Alternatively she began to conceive her unwhite heritage as Polynesian, certainly not black. A most unfortunate climax: she had been impregnated by the desirable and cultured—and very dark—foreign minister of Togo, Georges Apedo-Amah, a man who traveled the distinguished circles she knew well in Paris. Philippa was a beautiful woman and had a number of brief, unlucky affairs, this least lucky of all. Despite sincere commitment to Roman Catholicism and amid personal torment, she left the not-to-be child at a discreet and none too hygienic Mexican clinic that catered to US women with certain inconvenient medical problems. Apedo-Amah was not consulted. A despairing diary entry of the pianist, no longer quite so young and hopeful, says plenty:

"I am a beauty—but I'm half-colored so I'm not accepted anyplace. I'm always destined to be an outsider, never, never part of anything….I hate my country and no one wants me in any other. I am emotionally part of nothing and that will always be my destiny."

As income from foreign recital appearances began to wither, the disappointed pianist turned to another skill set, news writing. She had after all no shortage of first hand, up close experience in lands abroad. Besides her journalism she managed to publish over the years five books, one of these, Good Men Die, is treated below. Surprising for us is a pronounced and unshakable conservatism. Where did that come from? How many Harlem born authors glue themselves to the political right? Her black father George Schuyler, a curious favorite of the Caucasian elitissimo H. L. Mencken, gradually and more and more journaled down the right hand news column lane, drifting so far to the right that eventually no one would publish him. This at a time when not many blocks away Malcom X is rising from the ghetto's sooty New York mist. Philippa Schuyler became in consequence the primary source of income for her parents, and it would stay that way, another oppressive burden. About this same time ''Felipa Monterro'' went on a paid lecture tour for the John Birch Society.

She came to Vietnam in 1966 under the auspices of the State Department and at the personal invitation of Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. They expected her to stay a couple of days performing for wounded American soldiers, then leave. Only she had no intention to leave. Pointing out her accreditation as a journalist, Philippa used every device and deception to evade her minders, slipping into an ao dai beneath the conical rice straw hat and blending into the native population, much to the annoyance of the uncooperative US officials. The loose cannon of a journalist was behaving badly. During this trip and the next she accomplished hazardous journeys into places other journalists didn't go, especially in the northernmost reaches of the republic, Quang Tri and the DMZ. One dicey night she claims was spent in a village taken over by the VC after sundown. An individual Charlie entered her hut and sat for a while on the very bed she occupied, but did not distinguish the American stranger in the darkness. Stories like this populate Good Men Die, published posthumously in 1969. Good Men Die, a hard book to find nowadays, is nevertheless a compelling read if you can will yourself past the insistent ultra-conservative viewpoint. Philippa Schuyler had a visceral contempt for Communism, surely not unrelated to a comfortable, privileged childhood, Harlem or no. She was given little reason to question her advantages. But be advised, excitable hypertensive leftists should avoid this book in the interests of health and ideological composure. The author is not pro-war, but she is pro-winning at costs few were willing to meet even then.

It was during the second trip to Vietnam, spring 1967, that she began to develop an interest and sympathy new to her and a complete reversal: the black soldier. These dark and disparaged young men responded to her and helped in any way they could; white ones ignored her, like white audiences. Had she lived longer this might have become a theme in her work.

On May 9, 1967 Philippa Schuyler died. She was on a mercy mission evacuating Vietnam orphans from Hue to DaNang where it was hoped they would be safer. At 1810 hours that Tuesday the military evacuation chopper on its approach to DaNang somehow escaped control and plunged into the sea. Regrettably its hyper-accomplished young woman passenger had never learned to swim. The guns trained on each other in the lifelong battle against herself fell silent, it was over.

There followed international news attention, a funeral parade in New York and a packed service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Cardinal Spellman presiding. And then Philippa Duke Schuyler, together with everything she had done and been, was siphoned away into the vast, impenetrable ocean of oblivion, and there she has stayed. Nobody notices anymore.

Some months after, the stricken mother Jody hung herself in her Harlem bedroom.

This is a story of racial rejection, segregation, denial, escape. It is also a story of brilliance—brilliance defeated and overwhelmed by primal attitudes. There is compassion in the story as well. What do we learn here? A young woman was once an extraordinary and troubling figure in so many ways: the early preternatural accomplishment, a tenuous and evaporating fame, disillusion, her death in a struggling far away nation ranked by war and her own country's manic urge to prevail. And what is left? Philippa Duke Schuyler is today forgotten together with her work. The coffin is empty. The white life of the child genius lies a bleached skeleton submerged beneath the tide of time. And in terms of how we think today, did even her short inconvenient black life ever really matter?

Arthur H. Dorland, US Navy enlisted clerk 1964-1967; Naval Support Activity Saigon 1966-1967.

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