With Parson Altalk’s failure to address his parishioners’ earthly needs, such as overcoming superstition and dealing with the conjurors, Treemonisha’s neighbors need a leader, someone capable of guiding them forward. Long before introducing his failed leader, Joplin had set the scene for his true leader’s arrival. In the opera’s preface, he explained that whites had left the plantation after the Civil War, leaving it to be run by Ned, a trustworthy servant. Living in dense ignorance, symbolized by the dense forest surrounding the plantation, the freedmen were left “with no one to guide them as they struggled to adapt to unaccustomed freedom. Childless Ned and Monisha prayed for an infant who could grow up educated and able to “teach the people around them to aspire to something better and higher than superstition and conjuring.”
In the opera’s opening number, Treemonisha reprimands the conjuror Zodzetrick for having “caused superstition and many sad tears,” and viewers and listeners recognize her potential to realize Ned and Monisha’s dream. Indeed, before the opera’s opening, Treemonisha had achieved small scale teaching success. She had taught Remus to read, enabling him to chide Zodzetrick, not only by arguing that the conjuror cannot fool the level-headed Treemonisha, but that he can no longer fool Remus:
To read and write she has taught me, and I am very grateful,
Although education might initially come from whites, Joplin shows that a black with basic education could become the educator, as did Booker T. Washington and so many graduates of schools such as Hampton and Tuskegee. Speaking of Tuskegee, Samuel Chapman Armstrong had once written, "It is a proof that the Negro can raise the Negro" (Qtd. by Washington in The Story of My Live and Work, J. L. Nichols & Co., 1901, 372). Washington attributed much of this success to his people's desire to learn from their teachers as he had learned from Armstrong: "Often hungry and in rags, making sacrifices of which you little dream, the Negro youth has been determined to annihilate his mental darkness. With all the disadvantages the Negro, according to official records, has blotted out 55.5 per cent of his illiteracy since he became a free man" ("Negro Education Not a Failure," Booker T. Washington Papers. Univ. if IL Press, 1972, II: 431).
Somewhat like Treemonisha, Washington received much of his education from white teachers. Similarly, Scott Joplin’s mother is said to have received permission for Scott to play the piano in the home of her white employers, and a white music teacher, German immigrant Julius Weiss, later provided lessons (For a more detailed discussion, see Ed Berlin's King of Ragtime, 2nd ed., NY: Oxford, 4-5). While Hampton, a white-run school, and Tuskegee, a black-run school, both trained young blacks to go into primarily rural black communities to spread literacy, eradicate superstition, and serve as moral examples, Scott Joplin used his own talent to dramatize and set to music the development of a young black leader destined to perform the same roles as Hampton and Tuskegee graduates.
Although Treemonisha admonishes Zodzetrick in the opening scene, perhaps hinting that she knew the role her parents Ned and Monisha dreamed of her fulfilling, at heart she is still a child. We see her eagerly preparing for harvest festivities, wanting to pick leaves to make a head garland like those the other girls are wearing. Yet Joplin uses this scene to distinguish her from the other girls as, for the first time, Monisha reveals the story of her foundling daughter’s mysterious appearance under “a sacred tree” (See blog post “Treemonisha and the Sacred Tree,” 9/16/2017). Treemonisha may want to be like the other girls, but her magical origin hints that she was predestined to become the much needed teacher and spiritual guide.
Not fully ready for her role, despite her verbal attack on Zodzetrick, this future leader must first face hardship like so many mythological and folkloric future leaders before her. Instead of coming out the victor, however, she emerges from the experience with a changed attitude toward the adversaries intent upon doing her harm. Having been kidnapped by the conjurors and nearly subjected to “the awful sting of the wasp,” she is rescued by Remus, disguised as a fearsome scarecrow (“Wasps and Wasp Nests in Treemonisha,” 9/27/2017; “The Scarecrow in Treemonisha,” 10/3/2017) .
Treemonisha is put to a moral test as her neighbors, seeking to avenge her kidnapping, advance with raised fists and voice their intent to punch and kick the conjurors. In contrast, she demonstrates her deep sense of humanity by ordering them to stop:
You will do evil for evil,
After Treemonisha repeats her command to free the conjurors, Remus sings "Wrong Is Never Right," thus reinforcing her message:
Never treat your neighbors wrong,
After hearing Treemonisha and Remus, the octet chorus of neighbors concurs:
Wrong is never right
Not everyone is yet ready to follow Treemonisha's moral instruction. Still unconvinced, Andy argues:
We should beat these men,
As Treemonisha persists, "Do not abuse them, they will be good," Ned argues for retaliation:
When villains ramble far and near,
Only when Treemonisha entreats her adoptive father and neighbors to forgive the conjurors "for her sake," do they consent to follow her wishes. Ever Treemonisha’s devoted follower, Remus shakes hands with the conjurors and forgives them, gently urging, "Always be kind and true./Be careful what you do."
Of all our work, that upon the heart is the most important; there can be no question as to the paramount necessity of teaching the vital precepts of the Christian faith, and of striving to awaken a genuine enthusiasm for the higher life. (Education for Life: The story of Hampton Institute, Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922, 120)
Instead of criticizing others, Washington advised his students to “encourage them in order that they may improve.” “If there is any good in a person,” he continued, “let us seek to find it; the evil will take care of itself” (Sowing and Reaping, Boston: L.C. Page & Co., 1900 ).
Treemonisha shares these beliefs. She risks angering her father and neighbors, much as she earlier angered Zodzetrick when she reprimanded him. If she wants to make a difference in her community, she has no option. Rather than fault-finding and condemnation, however, a leader needed to teach ways to improve. As Samuel Chapman Armstrong wrote in The Southern Workman, “You cannot be the friends your people need, unless you are brave enough to tell them their faults, and work, not for their thanks, but for their good” ("Letter and Editorial Reply," The Southern Workman 7:5, May 1878, 35). More than two decades later, the same message was still being voiced at Hampton:
The primary need of the Negro to-day is unselfish and competent leaders who will fearlessly and faithfully point out evil and errors and clearly indicate proper lines of action; men who will not constantly think of their own success and popularity, but will take pride in upholding the self-respect of the race. . . The race needs encouragement and stimulus, but neither flattery, nor misrepresentation. (G.N. Grisham, “The Aim of Negro Education,” The Hampton Negro Conference, Number IV, July 1900, 83)
Despite standing her ground, Treemonisha reveals she has not fully accepted the responsibility of leadership; for she, too, is looking for a leader:
We ought to have a leader
Ready to improve their lives, a chorus of her neighbors proclaims:
We want you as our leader,
Perhaps the most encouraging thing in connection with the lifting up of the Negro in this
Treemonisha holds back, fearing that even if the women would follow her, the men would not. She repeats, “There’s need of some good leader.” Only when all her neighbors, male and female, insist they will trust her as their leader does she comply:
I will lead you;
“Let us make the teachers and we will make the people,” Hampton boldly declared (The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a four-page booklet, 1889, 3). Focusing more on how the teacher will serve as role model or “object lesson” than on the school's role in that process, Washington affirmed, “In every way there will be an opportunity for that person to revolutionize the community” (Character Building, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903, 196). With Treemonisha finally accepting her leadership role, Joplin’s heroine is poised to become “a center of influence and light in showing the masses of [her] people in the Black belt of the South how to lift themselves up”—a leader who can help, unlike Parson Alltalk, make their religion “less [a matter] of superstition and emotion and more a matter of daily living” (The Future of the American Negro, 115-116; The Story of My Live and Work, 262) . When the masses "catch something of the Christlike spirit" from such a leader, Washington wrote in Sowing and Reaping, "we an have a heaven, as it were, on earth" (23).
My August 16, 2017 post (A New Look at TREEMONISHA) points out striking similarities between Booker T. Washington’s writing and Scott Joplin’s Preface to Treemonisha. Both men speak of superstition’s survival on remote plantations from which whites have moved away after the war, thus leaving ignorant blacks without anyone to guide them. Similarly, my November 14, 2017 post (“You Can’t Fool Treemonisha”: The Hampton-Tuskegee Ideology, Part 1) focuses on Joplin’s use of literacy as a remedy for superstition and on his character Remus’ mention of Treemonisha’s “level head,” again pointing out parallels between Joplin's thinking and Washington's, which had been molded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong's. All of these points raise the possibility that Joplin intended Treemonisha as his second tribute to Booker T. Washington, following the loss of his first opera, A Guest of Honor. The similarities do not end there. A close look at Hampton and Tuskegee’s shared three-part mission reveals further connections with the opera and leads to a reinterpretation of Joplin’s Parson Alltalk.
Almost immediately after the show's debut, the New York Times observed, "No spectacular invention or innovation of recent years has aroused such popular curiosity as the mermaid scene in Neptune's Daughter at the Hippodrome. The mermaids, who are only mortal actresses and by no means amphibious, first rise to view in the very midst of the tank, which is supposed to represent the briny deep."
Mystery and curiosity, the producers believed, would draw crowds:
The rehearsals, when there was any danger that the scheme might be revealed, were conducted with the utmost secrecy. Every attache of the Hippodrome who had an opportunity to discover the truth was solemnly pledged to tell nothing. The mermaids 'hoped they might die' if they told, and knew they would lose their positions in case they had the hardihood to break faith with the management. The projectors of the enterprise believed that the greatest advertisement that they could have would be the greatest mystery they could muster. For business purposes, they protected themselves with patents. For box office purposes, they determined to mystify the City of New York.
Where there is a mystery to solve, someone will solve it. Where there is a story to leak, someone will leak it.
Three days before the November 28, 1906 opening of the New York Hippodrome's Neptune's Daughter, the New York Times published a review written by a critic who had attended rehearsal. He opened with a paragraph guaranteed to entice readers to line up for tickets:
In the first blog entry of my Treemonisha series, I quoted strikingly similar passages from Joplin’s Preface to his opera and one of Booker T. Washington’s important letters, pointing out that a nearly identical passage appeared in another of Washington’s letters. Both men wrote of whites abandoning their plantations, leaving ignorant former slaves to fend for themselves with no one to guide them.
I cannot say whether Washington’s words inspired Joplin’s opera or whether Joplin intentionally paraphrased them in his Preface, but overwhelming evidence from fiction and non-fiction sources, from Joplin’s lifetime and ours, demonstrates that Joplin was tackling two important social handicaps of the post-Civil War era—the ignorance and the superstition of the freedmen. Generations of subservience to white masters, who used illiteracy to keep their slaves dependent, left them to cope with their new freedom in whatever ways they could. Because of superstitions largely carried over from African countries that most of them had never seen and because of their related fears, no doubt compounded by years of victimization, freedmen and even their descendants were too often willing to pay conjurors what little money they had to ensure their safety from harm.
Although the past seven blog entries have focused on specific hoodoo superstitions that Joplin carefully incorporated into the opera, it’s time to further examine parallels between the opera and Booker T. Washington’s thinking. Because Washington graduated from Hampton Institute, which shaped his beliefs, I will include Hampton and its founder.
In 1880, a Little Rock newspaper reported the desecration of a recent grave, consisting of exhumation and the cutting off of three fingers for use in a hoodoo luck bag. The article opened with a prediction that such acts would soon end:
When first listening to the Houston original cast recording of Treemonisha and then again when attending the 2000 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production, I found the rescue scene particularly funny. Listeners and audience members hear Remus explain his plan for rescuing Treemonisha from the conjurors.
I’ll wear this ugly scarecrow
Back in the forest as Simon counts to three before shoving Treemonisha into the wasp nest, Remus’ approach interrupts the count. Dramatic irony creates comedy when the conjurors fail to recognize Remus, whom they could surely overpower. Seeing the “strange form” approach,“ Cephus cries out, “Look! What’s that comin’ yonder?” Panic ensues as the conjurors perhaps believe they face retribution for kidnapping Treemonisha:
Remus has successfully turned the tables on the unknowing conjurors, who prey on others’ superstitions but fall victim to their own. With this scene, we easily see Joplin accomplish two goals: showing the conjurors as charlatans and simultaneously injecting humor.
Once more, Joplin’s contemporaries may have seen more. Although today's audience may laugh at the naiveté of fearing a straw man set out to frighten birds, a closer look at scarecrows and the African figures resembling them may explain the conjurors' desperation.
Act Two of Treemonisha opens in the woods with a conclave of conjurors singing “Superstition.” Joplin’s stage directions tell us, “A wasp nest is hanging on a bush.” As Simon lists his fears, the chorus agrees: “‘Tis true, ‘tis true, /We all believe ‘tis true.” When Simon sings of shaking in fear when passing a graveyard at night, the chorus responds, “We’ll run.” Supposed to possess supernatural powers to ensure good luck and counteract any evil, the conjurers appear to have little control over their lives.
As “Superstition” ends and “Treemonisha in Peril” begins, Zodzetrick and Luddud signal their approach, bringing with them the kidnapped Treemonisha. Joplin quickly tells us that the conjurors in the woods neither expected her, nor know her:
When the conjurors decide to punish Treemonisha for opposing their luck bag sales, they needn’t look far for their means--the wasp nest hanging on the bush. However, perhaps we should wonder why the conjurors selected this meeting place. If they did not know or expect Treemonisha, they could not have planned to punish her with wasps. Why had the conjurors chosen to meet beside a wasp nest when the woods surely offered safer spots?
For us today, Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork supplies possible reasons for this seemingly reckless choice. Joplin's contemporaries may have understood more than today’s opera goer or listener.
Self-Protection or Business
The conjurors may have believed the wasp nest would help them.
According to Hyatt's hoodoo informants, wasp nests have protective powers.
When the corn huskers' joyous ring dance ends, Treemonisha wants to make a head garland like those worn by her friends for the harvest celebration. Her plan to cut leaves from the tree in front of her house prompts her mother Monisha's plea:
No! not a leaf from that tree take.
After Treemonisha and others ask to learn why that tree is “so dear,” Monisha responds with her aria “The Sacred Tree.”
Such trees appear in religious beliefs throughout the world, in primitive religions as well as the world’s major religions. In perhaps the earliest book devoted to the topic, The Sacred Tree, or The Tree in Religion and Myth (1897), Mrs. J. H. Philpot comments on this universal archetype:
After Treemonisha criticizes the conjuror Zodzetrick for preying on others' superstitions rather than doing honest labor and again after her friend Remus explains how her education will “break the spell of superstition in the neighborhood,” Zodzetrick threatens and attempts to intimidate:
You accuse me wrong for injury I’s not done,
In Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, after attempting to sell Monisha a bag of luck and being rejected by her husband Ned, the conjuror Zodzetrick starts to leave the stage. Ned exits the stage, and Monisha enters their cabin. In what a hoodoo-believer would see as a dangerous move, Ned and Monisha's eighteen-year-old adopted daughter Treemonisha politely confronts the "king of Goofer dust land":
Wait, sir, for a few moments stay,
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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