by Tara Betts
In 2017, I started to do a deep dive into writings by a pianist and journalist whose tragic demise led me into a fascination with her life. I was introduced to Philippa Duke Schuyler by Gabrielle David, the publisher at 2Leaf Press who spoke with me about reprinting critical editions of out of print titles by Black women. I was thinking in the mindset of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers series edited by Henry Louis Gates, but a bit more contemporary. There are many lost voices that could be more valued from the early twentieth century that have immediate context for the 21st century. Philippa Duke Schuyler, daughter of Josephine Codgell and George Schuyler, is no exception to that context. After discussing it with Gabrielle, we decided to pursue reprinting Philippa Duke Schuyler’s Adventures in Black and White (link to buy book and e-book).
It’s been 53 years after her untimely death where she drowned during a helicopter accident in Vietnam on May 7, 1967. Much of what I would like to say about her story is what I wrote in a new introduction for a reprint of this 1960 travelogue/memoir. Since then, The Green Book, a highly fictive account of Don Shirley’s travels won the 2019 Oscar for Best Picture. Shirley experienced some of the same levels of discrimination as Schuyler. I am still amazed at how few people still know that Green Books existed, even though many of them are archived and some are even digitized online.
I find myself wondering what Schuyler would have thought if she had lived into her 70s and experienced what it might have been like to have Alicia Keys make a movie about her in America. It could have been a Hidden Figures-like moment for a Black woman composer, and I say that as a resident of Chicago, where Florence B. Price, the first Black woman composer to have a symphonic work performed by a major national symphony orchestra happened in 1933 at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Neither of these women have been in films either. I am still positing these observations because Schuyler went on record many times saying that she had performed for leaders all over the world, but no American president had ever asked her to perform for them.
Although she struggled with her parents’ perceptions of her racial identity as well as what it meant to be adored as a child prodigy who was now a Black adult, and somehow less interesting, and maybe more dangerous, I wonder how that shifted her focus to going overseas and writing. She had been writing poems and compositions and playing the piano since she was a toddler, but writing books allowed her to speak on her own terms and fashion her own identity. As a result, I think she had difficulty establishing an audience that would have been more receptive to her work later. She never had albums of her work released.
If you want to learn more about Schuyler, you can find a few recordings of her compositions on YouTube. There are archives at the New York Public Library and Syracuse University, largely due to her mother’s meticulous documentation. Some of her sheet music is in the impressive Helen Walker-Hill Collection at the University of Colorado, and of course, there is the comprehensive biography Composition in Black and White by Kathryn Talalay. There are a few articles and book chapters, but for me, it was valuable to share Schuyler’s own words about traveling as a performer and exploring the larger world at a time when many women were confined by their circumstances. And I keep thinking that there is a need to tell these stories on bigger screens, in larger venues, and making them a part of the larger fabric of history.
Tara Betts is the author of two full-length poetry collections Break the Habit, which was published in October 2016 with Trio House Press, and her debut collection Arc & Hue on the Willow Books imprint of Aquarius Press. In 2010, Essence Magazine named her as one of their "40 Favorite Poets". Betts was born in Kankakee, IL and is the oldest of three siblings. Her first job was at the Kankakee Public Library. Betts received her B.A. in Communication at Loyola University, Chicago. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College in 2007. Betts worked with several non-profit organizations in Chicago, IL including Gallery 37 and Young Chicago Authors. She received her Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing at Binghamton University in 2014. To purchase Adventures in Black and White with edits and a critical introduction by Tara Betts, please CLICK HERE!
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