Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Harlem tradition? (Philippa [blog 6])

Continuing my series of blogs on the development of the opera Philippa, based on the life of Philippa Duke Schuyler, the Harlem-born concert pianist who died in Vietnam in 1967 rescuing schoolchildren...

As mentioned in my previous blog, I need to come to grips with quite a few background issues in writing the libretto for this work - the atmosphere in Harlem and New York as Philippa was growing up in 1930s and '40s; the wartime scene in Saigon and Hué in 1966 and '67; what it's like to be torn between identities and also what it's like to be a Catholic convert, and of course more...

Even now, the research is fascinating and influential. I have previously written that Philippa was the daughter of African-American journalist, George S. Schuyler, and wealthy white Texan, Josephine (Jody) Cogdell, who thought that if they pooled their superior genes they could create a genius who would show America a way out of the racial divide.

George S. Schuyler, photographed by Carl van Vechten 1941

I had previously considered George and Jody's 'experiment' in isolation, but in fact as I've been reading When Harlem Was in Vogue, David Levering Lewis's study, I've been thinking that George and Jody's idea was an outgrowth of the premise underlying much of the Harlem Renaissance; that African-Americans would find their way up in American society by the arts and literature, the only way open to them at the time.

Of course, parenting a child like Philippa is a big step up from Park Ave dowager Charlotte Osgood Mason sponsoring a novelist like Claude McKay or a poet like Langston Hughes, but I've been surprised in recent days to discover how many African-Americans of the 1920s aspired to better the white man in his culture (italics added).

I had a line for George in my Philippa scenario to the effect of: " needs to become unremarkable when a Negro writes a novel or composes a concerto." ['Negro?' - I'm using the language of the time]. Only yesterday I was reading about James Weldon Johnson who became executive secretary, and right hand man of W.E.B. DuBois, at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920.

James Weldon Johnson, photographed by Carl van Vechten in 1932

He'd had quite a distinguished career and was quite active in Republican Party politics in the early years of the 20th century. (Republican sympathies among African-Americans were not so unusual 40 years after the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, had gone into bat for freedom). Teddy Roosevelt made Johnson consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in the spring of 1906 and, as Levering Lewis says, "...Consul Johnson [fluent in Spanish and almost so in French] found his social acceptance in Venezuela so complete that he worried about his failure to make an impact 'as a Negro,' for Johnson was a racial chauvinist of a special kind. He wanted his complete and natural assimilation of European culture to make such an impression that whites enjoying his cosmopolitan company would inevitably draw positive generalizations about Afro-Americans."

He and George were not the only ones in Harlem to think like this. Levering Lewis says, on page 148, of his book: "This was the fundamental credo of his Talented Tenth brothers and sisters - of [Jessie] Fauset, and Charles Johnson, and [Walter] White, and others - that the assimilated, cultured Afro-Saxon was every whit the equal of his 'Nordic' counterpart. To fall away from orthodox religion, to mine the black folk tradition for its barely known riches, and to cheer the marines in the Caribbean [putting down revolutions] and the capitalists at home were not aberrations but the reasonable reflections of genuine convictions of upper middle-class status. Yet the class was part of the race, and the generality of the race was not yet, they conceded, Civic Club material. Hence, the violent tensions in psychology and logic of Johnson and his class as they protested that if they matched the best whites, given the distance travelled and the roadblocks surmounted, it was because they were, in truth, superior human material." And there's even a lineage for George's extreme conservatism (I've noted before that he was a member of the John Birch Society in later life). Johnson and Charles Johnson and Walter White "chose", says Lewis, "to ignore the economic impotence of Afro-Americans, arguing, as Charles Johnson had and Walter White did, that 'the status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions'." Pull yourself up, don't balkanise yourself, etc., etc....
By the way, among Johnson's achievements may be "first Floridian ever to compose an opera" and translation of Granados' Goyescas for The Metropolitan Opera. There also seems to be a modern-day incarnation of these sentiments in some of the information you might glean about Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush's Secretary of State. Without ascribing the same motives (she may just like the music), Secretary Rice would meet with musicians once a week at her apartment in the Watergate building and play Brahms, her favourite composer. And I have a favourite story about Rice...once when she'd had a gutful of the racism of one of her professors she said to him (I paraphrase): "Look, I play Bach and I've read War and Peace twice - in Russian. I'm better in your culture than you are." [italics added]

There are certainly nuances I didn't expect that I am going to have to get if this libretto is to have any authenticity.

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