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Greg’s review: Composition in Black & White

March 16, 2010

I know most people are expecting me to tout the latest science fiction novel from Steven Barnes or to hawk some unknown gem from Theodore Sturgeon, but for my review, I decided to stick a little closer to home.

I have just finished reading Composition in Black & White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler (1995), a fascinating biography of a Harlem prodigy whose life ended much too quickly.

Author Kathryn Talalay, recipient of the 1988-89 Rockefeller Foundation Grant and a former 14-year faculty member of Indiana University, gives us a thorough look into the life of a bi-racial prodigy who could read and write before age three, play the piano by age four and compose songs and classical pieces by age five.

The book hits close to home for me in that Philippa was a distant relative of mine. My mother’s family has connections with the Schuylers, a fact I never knew until a few years ago.

The book pulls no punches, showing the ups and downs of Philippa’s life, as well as those of her parents George and Josephine. For all her accomplishments, Philippa was basically an experiment.

George Schuyler, 1941

George Schuyler was a pioneering black journalist who risked his life all over the Deep South and colonial Africa to report on the plight of blacks and Africans. He founded the Pittsburgh Courier and risked the wrath of the liberal African-American civil rights movement with his conservative views. An army veteran who rose to the rank of 1st lieutenant, he believed that the only way for blacks and whites in America to live together was to literally come together.

He fell in love with Josephine Cogdell, a prominent white socialite from a prestigious family in Granbury, Texas. They both believed that an interracial child would “invigorate” the races, producing extraordinary children that would breach America’s racial divide.

The book gives us a thorough background of George’s life, though it does not go quite so in-depth with Josephine. That said, Talalay weaves a complete picture of Philippa’s upbringing by showing how close (and, many times, how far) George and Josephine were with their prodigy.

Josephine & Philippa (age 15), 1946

We get to see how Josephine raised Philippa on a diet of raw meat and vegetables, how she and George constantly tested their daughter and encouraged her musical abilities and went through the awesome task of financing her training.

In this way, we get to be a fly on the wall as Philippa comes of age, trying to please her parents while surviving critical reviews and articles from black and white newspapers, visits from prominent musicians and honors from politicians like former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

Philippa Schuyler, 1959

Sadly, we also begin to feel the ugly sting of racism that she experiences when she comes of age into adulthood. Philippa “disappeared” from the American scene for much of her short adult life, traveling the world on extended tours to get away from an America that looked as her as black only (her white grandparents refused to attend her concerts, even when she was near Granbury; they sent their colored servants instead).

One of the wonders of the book is the extensive detail poured into the recounting of her travels to Africa. Talalay recounts encounters with kings and princes, with an adoring African population and even a visit to Dr. Albert Schweitzer. She also shows us how torn Philippa was between the admiration for her father’s homeland and the poverty and despair that plagued the continent.

Probably the most heartbreaking moments are when Philippa begins to feel love and has no idea how to show it or receive it.

If there is a major flaw in this book, it is the sheer amount of detail into Philippa’s tragic life. It is impossible to read this book in one sitting, no matter how intrigued one may be. It is a book that needs to be perused a chapter or two at a time.

It’s no secret that Philippa’s life was cut short. When she tired of music, she became a journalist and author. She reported from hot spots all over the world, but especially from Vietnam. She died in a helicopter crash after rescuing children from a war-imperiled Vietnamese orphanage on May 9, 1967, just 15 days after I was born.

The book even goes to great lengths about her death, recounting the crash, the Army investigation in determining that the pilot was trying to show off for Philippa and endangered the lives of all onboard (I personally had a hard time with this section because it was shown as all the more senseless).

The book does seem unrelentingly bleak at the end, showing George Schuyler as a broken man after the death of Philippa in 1967 and, almost two years to the day, in 1969, when he discovered that a depressed Josephine had hanged herself. George, who always thought Philippa and Josephine would outlive him because of the risks he took as a journalist, died alone in a New York hospital in 1977.

Talalay spares no emotions with her book. Drawing upon hundreds of written accounts, stories from those who knew the Schuylers, and previously unpublished diaries and letters from Philippa, Talalay shows us, in this first authorized biography, a haunted life, but one also full of promise and fascination.

I highly recommend this book as it has something for everyone.

****1/2

(Available on Amazon.com and Kindle)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 7:31 am

    WOW!! Gripping re-telling of the book, Greg. I swear, I was on the edge of my seat reading it. What an incredible life she lived in so short a time. I think I could live to 100 and still not accomplish as much.

    Now that I feel like crying over her loss and her family’s, I want to kick you. 😉

    All joking aside that was a great and very in-depth review. Kudos to you!

  2. March 16, 2010 1:48 pm

    Great review, Greg! I’m adding this to my to-read list. Where was Philippa’s father from, btw?

  3. March 16, 2010 2:06 pm

    Yeah, just reading your review brings out a lot of emotion. This book sounds like a good one for kids to read in high school.

  4. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    March 16, 2010 9:02 pm

    Great post Greg! I always love reading your words no matter the topic. You describe things in such a clear and emotional way! I agree with Wendy that high school students (and even college students) should read this as it sounds a very positive (though sad) story for them to learn from.

    Thanks so much guys for the little blurb in the side bar! I feel a bit famous! LOL

    • March 17, 2010 4:27 pm

      Thank you very much. I try to be as verbose as possible before I realize what I’ve done and then try to be as precise as possible. But, I loved the book and she was a distant relative.

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