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Philippa Schuyler - "The Black Shirley Temple"

What follows is a book review written in 1995 about one of the sources I relied on when writing my book They Raised Me Up.  It deal with the amazing life of Philippa Schuyler - a brilliant but racially conflicted child prodigy who lived from 1931-1965.  She gave her first piano recital at the age of five and was referred to by Look Magazine as the "Black Shirley Temple."  Enjoy!

 

Prodigy and Prejudice - New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/10/books/prodigy-and-prejudi...

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By Phyllis Rose

Published: December 10, 1995

COMPOSITION IN BLACK AND WHITE The Life of Philippa Schuyler. By Kathryn Talalay. Illustrated. 317 pp. New York: Oxford University Press. $30.

THIS enthralling, heartbreaking book restores to attention Philippa Schuyler, child prodigy of the 1930's, pianist, composer, Harlem's Mozart, "the Shirley Temple of American Negroes." Her father was George Schuyler, a well-known black journalist. Her mother was Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, the white daughter of a Texas rancher. Insisting that her daughter was the normal product of "hybrid vigor" and good nutrition, Jody Schuyler dedicated her to the cause of integration: Philippa's brilliance would break down racial barriers in America. Instead, as Kathryn Talalay tells this important story, racial barriers and a manipulative, demanding mother broke Philippa.

Based on fascinating family papers in New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, "Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler" begins by plunging us into a 1920's world of race enthusiasm: "Nordics" go to Harlem for the night life and white girls date black men to rattle their families and prove to themselves they have interesting lives. Josephine Cogdell arrived in New York in 1927, wanting to write. She had contributed pieces to The Messenger, a left-wing black publication whose editor was George Schuyler. They met and were immediately attracted to each other.

A fanatic diarist, Jody even described their first kiss, revealing (or boasting) that she found George's lips "softer and more sensuous than white lips." Her primitivist ideas -- the flip side of racism -- glorified everything African and saw salvation in miscegenation. She encouraged herself to marry Schuyler with the thought that "the white race . . . is spiritually depleted and America must mate with the Negro to save herself."

People like Jody Schuyler, literalist ideologues who live out their ideas, make for great reading but may not make great moms. From the beginning, Philippa was under tremendous pressure to prove the success of her parents' marriage. She could read and write at the age of 2. By 3 her parents were showing off her verbal skills to journalists like young Joseph Alsop, who reported on the toddler prodigy for The New York Herald Tribune. By 3 1/2 she had started learning piano, and barely a year later she was playing Mozart in public. She started composing before she was 5.

 

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