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Photographed with her mother, Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, on July 22, 1946
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Known as “the baby genius of the Harlem Renaissance,” Philippa Duke Schuyler was a child prodigy who became quite famous for her youthful accomplishments as a composer and pianist. By the time she was four years old, Schuyler was a skilled pianist; by five she was performing Mozart before audiences in concert halls. When she was six, she was touring to perform her own compositions; in 1940, at the age of eight, she performed for thousands of visitors at the New York World’s Fair. She was ten when she became the youngest member of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors. To satisfy popular interest, magazines and newspapers including the New Yorker, Time Magazine, and the New York Times, included lengthy features outlining her achievements.

Schuyler’s parents, too, were well-known figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Her father, George Schuyler, was a prominent and controversial African-American journalist. Her mother, Josephine Cogdell, a white woman, was a painter and writer. Both believed strongly in the theory of hybrid vigor and felt that children produced by interracial unions would inherit the strengths of both races and that ultimately mixed-race Americans would resolve the country’s racial tensions. Schuyler’s parents dedicated themselves to her success: Josephine Cogdell coached her daughter, pushed her to work hard, and acted as her agent; George Schuyler promoted Philippa Duke Schuyler in his newspaper columns and actively sought recognition for her successes in the white press. In an effort to keep her from becoming self-conscious, Schuyler’s parents didn’t allow her to see any of the considerable media attention she received. Nevertheless, both parents promoted Schuyler as an interracial role model and as proof of the theory of hybrid vigor.

Though Schuyler briefly fascinated the nation as a mulatto child prodigy, white America lost interest in her as she aged. As a teenager, she began to suffer the injustices and humiliation of racial prejudice. Unable to find a place for herself in the American music community, Schuyler left the country. Her extensive international performance schedule allowed her to explore the dynamics of race in a variety of cultures and settings. She struggled to find a comfortable community and to create a satisfying personal identity. Her failure to do so led to almost constant traveling for the rest of her life. Though she feared she would never feel completely accepted anywhere, she continued to seek a society she could join fully. In Adventures in Black and White, a memoir of her experiences traveling worldwide, Schuyler wrote:

  Despite the turmoils, threats, hazards, uncertainties, of this age, I love it, for I realize all human eras have been fraught with problems. I admire the people who are doing their best to shape a new world. I think there is great hope for the human race, and I feel a deep warmth of affection for all peoples, everywhere.1

As a result of her sense of alienation from her native country and in response to the neglect she suffered in the American music community, as a young woman Schuyler changed her name to Felipa Monterro and began to pass as white. She hoped her new identity would free her from being defined by her earlier career. She planned to return to the United States and pursue a new career as a concert pianist. Though this never worked out, as Felipa Monterro she established an international lecture tour, talking on topics related to her world travel.

Though she never gave up performing concerts, as an adult Schuyler also worked as a journalist. Fluent in several languages, she wrote for French, Portuguese, and Italian newspapers, as well as American papers and magazines. She authored several moderately successful books based on her experiences covering international news. It was, in fact, while she was covering the war in Vietnam for an American newspaper that she was killed in a helicopter crash. A posthumous book, Good Men Die, collected her writings about Vietnam.

1 Philippa Duke Schuyler Adventures in Black and White NY: Robert Speller and Sons 1960 p. 30

 

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