Tragic Mulatto Girl Wonder: The paradoxical life of Philippa Duke Schuyler

Tragic Mulatto Girl Wonder: The paradoxical life of Philippa Duke Schuyler

QBR The Black Book Review
February/March 1996

Lise Funderburg

Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler
by Kathryn Talalay
Oxford University Press (317 pp.)
Hardcover 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…

…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 150-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…

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