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Composition in Black and White
December 2, 2008 9:04 PM   Subscribe

Philippa Schuyler's bi-racial parents believed their offspring would be superior due to "hybrid vigor" and a raw food diet. She achieved national fame as a musical child prodigy. It's a sad story.
posted by Joe Beese (17 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Joseph Mitchell's profile of the 9 year old prodigy is titled "Evening with a Gifted Child" and collected in Up in the Old Hotel.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:11 PM on December 2, 2008

That is a sad story...
posted by seagull.apollo at 9:54 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Looking at this strictly with my biology goggles on, I should point out that hybrid vigor's a real biological phenomenon, but since human race is more of a social construct (and very real in that sense) but not really a good indicator of genetic similarity, hybrid vigor isn't something you'd expect to see in children of interracial marriages. They're not hybrids, in the genetic sense, just because their parents are different races. Socially, yeah, they're very much children of two worlds and that's extremely important. But it's not genetics at work there. The problem with discussions of race in regard to biology and genetics is that people take biological models and misapply them to humans while ignoring our biological reality. It's not as if a black American man and a white American woman in the 1930s came from genetically and geographically isolated populations.

And even if you did expect that an interracial couple is less genetically similar than a same-race couple (let's say hypothetically they're from two very genetically isolated and dissimilar populations that are also racial groups), hybrid vigor is just one possible outcome of an outcrossing. You could get an outbreeding depression instead.

Looking at this otherwise, wow does it sound like her parents made her childhood awful.

There was a great Radiolab episode this past week on race.
posted by Tehanu at 9:58 PM on December 2, 2008 [8 favorites]

They're not hybrids, in the genetic sense, just because their parents are different races.

People had a lot of weird ideas in the early part of the century when it came to race. And while it's weird to talk this way, according to wikipedia there is a second meaning in biology for the word "hybrid"
The second type of hybrid consists of crosses between populations, breeds or cultivars within a single species. This second meaning is often used in plant and animal breeding. In plant and animal breeding, hybrids are commonly produced and selected because they have desirable characteristics not found or inconsistently present in the parent individuals or populations. This rearranging of the genetic material between populations or races is often called hybridization.
Not that you would want to describe human ethic groups as "breed" or "cultivars", but there is a relationship to ancestral geography and genetics in humans.
posted by delmoi at 10:18 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Actually, given the general fucked uppedness of her youth, it's far less sad then I was expecting.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:48 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

The biological basis of the inbreeding taboo, to my understanding (which may be somewhat out of date) derives from the greater likelihood of duplication of undesirable traits, usually recessive characteristics, hence increasing (doubling or squaring, I'm not sure which, but I'm pretty sure it's one of the two) the risk of a child being born with a given condition. Now that of course applies to desirable traits too, but it's a sad truth of biology that the overwhelming majority of random variations are undesirable, and the bearers of the most undesirable traits of all cannot even survive to birth, hence tend to be miscarried. So it seems to me that, philosophically speaking, the most perfect human is one who has the least of the many undesirable traits that we carry. He or she is highly intelligent not because of, say, a better brain, but rather the lack of deleterious barriers to thought and memory. He or she is fast not because of better muscles, but rather the lack of failures at each of the thousands of points at which muscle function can fail. Doesn't have flat feet. Doesn't have easily dislocated shoulders. Doesn't have a facial tic. And so on.

So if this is true, this implies that there should be more-or-less a correlation between one's variety of heritage over some portion, X generations, of one's recent ancestry, and one's genetic fitness. Granted there is the possibility of outbreeding depression as mentioned by Tehanu above. But if that were sufficient to affect survival, it would, ispo facto, be bred out. (Bad luck if you've got one now, but your descendants will eventually get rid of it.)

In summary I'm convinced that racial purists (leaving aside the politics of the issue, and admitting that the politics are the vast majority of the substance of the issue) are quite wrong, in that pure racialism amounts to inbreeding on a slower scale; but I am not at all convinced that racial mix-ists are wrong. I'm open to the idea of them being wrong, but the idea does seem basically sound to me.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:52 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The one-drop rule means that most black people in america would be "hybrids" by default and "cross-breeding" is more like "back-crossing."

but that's all kind of silly.
posted by eustatic at 11:19 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sad story? Alright, wheat germ does make for a pretty horrible childhood, but after that her epic adventure to find her place in the world is touching, not sad. And her heroic death is inspiring. She lived ten times the life of most others.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:49 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hear hear - my jaw dropped at the last line of the child prodigy link:
She died at the age of 35 in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War while attempting to rescue Catholic schoolchildren from a war zone in Hue to the shelter of a school in Da Nang.

She seemed to have been in the middle of 'the action' from birth. (Born in the Harlem Renaissance died in Vietnam)
posted by dabitch at 5:26 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fascinating post. Before reading this post, I was actually more familiar with Philippa's father, George Schuyler, who wrote the autobiography, Black and Conservative. George Schuyler was not merely a black conservative. He was the black conservative intellectual of his time, the token black guy who wrote for National Review and the John Birch Society's American Opinion magazine in the 1950s and early 1960s, in an era when the John Birch Society viewed racial integration as a communist plot and William F. Buckley was writing pro-segregation editorials that referred to Whites as the "advanced race."

What I also find interesting is that Philippa's father wrote an essay in the 1920s called The Negro Art Hokum, basically deriding the idea of creating any self-consciously "black" art movement, which would presumably include the Harlem Renaissance as well. Perhaps Mr. Schuyler groomed his daughter as a classical music prodigy, as a way of urging black people to accept the conventional artistic and musical canon as Art instead of rejecting it as art made by and for white people. I can only imagine what the black nationalists in the Black Arts Movement must have thought about George Schuyler. Would they have viewed him as a self-hating black man who sacrificed his tragic mulatto daughter to false god of the white man's classical music? One of the articles stated that Philippa Schuyler wrote a letter to black nationalist Stokely Carmichael before she died in that plane crash in Vietnam. Does anybody what came of that?
posted by jonp72 at 7:18 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oops... I meant, "Does anybody know what came of that?"
posted by jonp72 at 7:19 AM on December 3, 2008

Raised on wheat germ, unpasteurized milk, cod liver oil, mother's milk, fruit and daily doses of Vitamin C

I'm assuming that that's past the usual weaning age. Jeez, why didn't they just raise her in a high-gravity chamber?
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:22 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, amazing post. Thank you for this Joe Beese.

I think this story was only on the surface to do with black and white, raw food or child prodigy.

Reading those links about Philippa Schuyler I understand that she had a malignant Borderline Personality Disordered (BPD) momster and a pathologically Narcissist (NPD) father, which is a classic combination for that kind of couple, that they enmesh with each other.

In light of her parents emotional illness, it makes total sense that they wanted some sort of bionic-genius child, who they would pimp to garner global attention, could pedestalize-while beating, a steady stream of mixed messages, depriving their child of a social life so that child would not know how to connect with loving others but put in front of audiences to perform, a daughter who would never feel comfortable in her own identity, took another name, never married or found a stable loving relationship, never had children, never had a home of her own.

It's also typical of such a couple that their child would die young. This is what I label the unconscious homicidal ideation of narcissists, which causes unconscious suicidal ideation in their children and spouses, who typically are risk junkies, have death scripts, die in horrible accidents or get life-threatening sicknesses.

When her BPD momster could no longer get her attention fixes by proxy through her Manchurian Candidate/MKULTRA brainwashed style puppet, she hung herself.

In the end Philippa sided with the ultra-conservatives paranoid John Birchers like her dad had done. So sad her NPD father stepped into that hatred and she followed him there. It seems like she even lost her connection to music.

Her parents committed some awful slow torture. In spite of her tragic programming, Philippa was fighting the impulses it seemed at the end, trying to find her way.

May she rest in peace.
posted by nickyskye at 7:34 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Another victim of the utterly assheaded idea that there is any biological reality to "race" in human beings.
posted by rusty at 9:12 AM on December 3, 2008

rusty Another victim of the utterly assheaded idea that there is any biological reality to "race" in human beings.

Individual --> family --> race. Race is familial resemblance on the wider scale. If you and twenty of your near-cousins were dropped on a remote island and left alone for forty generations, and the same was done with me and twenty of mine, when they finally saw one another they would each perceive a different race of human. Mine would probably be light-haired, tall and thin, with high cheekbones and gaunt features, and a tendency to overbite teeth (in the absence of orthodontistry) - yours would look different, possibly as different as, say, Mediterreaneans and Scandinavians.

There is a biological reality to race, and it's sophistry (well-meaning sophistry, but still sophistry) to say otherwise. Every single thing we think of as race: skin color being the most obvious, but also facial shapes, arm/shoulder/leg/back bone length ratios, etc etc - these are all biological realities. (There is an extremely good artist's summary of racial variation here.) What there isn't, is any inherent political meaning beyond the implications of familial resemblance, and the instincts that evokes. No race of human is better than another, overall. We can point to individual vulnerabilities or resistances to particular conditions and diseases, for sure, but that's reaction to the presence or absence of those things in the environment.

We can also point to cultural practices, but cultural practices have at most a tenuous relationship to the physiology of the race that has that culture and performs the practices: one of the really outstanding examples of that is the wide alcohol vulnerability variation between Australians of mostly European ancestry and those of mostly indigenous Aboriginal ancestry. For Australian governments to ignore that biological difference/cultural difference/environmental difference would be outright stupidity. The other really outstanding example that immediately springs to mind is skin cancer rates, for which those two (well, that one and these other) groups have pretty much the reverse vulnerability/resistance profiles.

Which leads to the "discriminatory" concept of (intelligent) affirmative action; measures taken to address actual inequities between races. As an Australian, I'd prefer white kids received more social pressure to put on sun lotion when playing or working outdoors - the reason why is clear, explicable, and valid. I'd also prefer Aboriginal kids received more social pressure to drink responsibly, to limit alcohol consumption, more funding be allocated towards alcohol addiction rehabilitation programs specifically for Aboriginal people, and so on. Again, the reason why is clear, explicable, and valid.

Of course Aboriginals get skin cancer and Europeans get drinking problems. One of the more embarrassing aspects of the stupid "cystic fibrosis is a white male disease" scandal, that escaped the student union responsible for the scandal in the first place, is that a greater tendency is not predictive.

To replace a wrong idea (human races are morally different) with an alternative wrong idea (human races are not at all biologically different) is unsound. Human races are somewhat biologically different. Occasionally, that "somewhat" is important.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:23 PM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Whoops - tendency is predictive, it's what the word means. It's not prescriptive.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:33 PM on December 3, 2008

Physical anthropologists: "There is no necessary concordance between biological characteristics and culturally defined groups. On every continent, there are diverse populations that differ in language, economy, and culture. There is no national, religious, linguistic or cultural group or economic class that constitutes a race."
posted by Tehanu at 3:14 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

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